Transatlantic Trends: Public Opinion and NATO
Aside from the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, events dominating the transatlantic security agenda in 2011 were fairly gloomy. Amid growing charges of corruption and decreasing confidence in Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the lack of progress in Afghanistan and the rising cost of the war dominated the headlines in the United States. Meanwhile, the last speech outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave in Brussels bluntly criticized NATO and its members for shortages in military spending and political will, warning of “a dim if not dismal future” for an alliance at risk of becoming irrelevant. While a transatlantic opinion gap still exists on certain security topics, Transatlantic Trends revealed notable shifts that brought public opinion in the U.S. and Europe on some key security policies closer than before. These shifts resulted in a convergence of EU-U.S. opinion on the best way forward on several issues, in particular concerning Afghanistan. However, despite some shifting attitudes, support for other security activities and institutions remained relatively stable over the past year.
WANING U.S. OPTIMISM IN AFGHANISTAN
As NATO’s largest out-of-area mission, international opinion on the success of the transatlantic effort in Afghanistan remains important. For the first time, a majority of Americans (56%) were pessimistic about the prospects of stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. Only 41% were optimistic — marking an important reversal from 2009 when 56% were optimistic and only 39% were pessimistic.
A majority of the EU public has been unenthusiastic about the situation in Afghanistan since the survey first asked this question in 2009. In 2011, the EU public was slightly more optimistic (28%) than in 2010 (23%), but was still less optimistic than in 2009 (32%).
As optimism and willingness to commit more troops to Afghanistan continued to wane in the United States and Europe, the transatlantic divide on how to deal with Afghanistan appears to be shrinking. For the first time, the majority of U.S. and EU respondents (66% each) agree that troop levels should be reduced or troops should be withdrawn altogether.
The number of Americans who backed increasing troop levels in Afghanistan shrank from 25% in 2010 to only 6% in 2011 and those who wanted to keep troop levels the same decreased from 33% in 2010 to 25% this year. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who wanted to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan grew nine percentage points to 31% and those who wanted to withdraw all troops grew 16 points to 35%.
European attitudes about troop presence in Afghanistan did not change much. The plurality of respondents (44%) thought that their government should withdraw all troops, 22% thought troop levels should be reduced, 29% thought troop levels should remain the same, and very few (3%) thought their government should commit more troops.
Individual countries in Europe mostly reflected these EU averages, with a solid majority in each country preferring to reduce or withdraw troops. Germany (51%), with the third largest contingent in Afghanistan, and Poland (56%), with the seventh largest number of troops in Afghanistan, were the only two countries where a majority, rather than just a plurality, preferred to withdraw all troops. The fact that pluralities in France (44%), the U.K. (43%), and Italy (39%) would prefer to withdraw all troops means that this opinion is shared by a plurality or majority in six of the seven countries contributing the most troops to Afghanistan.
On the other end of the spectrum was Sweden, where 48% preferred to maintain troop levels and 6% wanted to increase them.
NATO OPERATIONS OUTSIDE OF EUROPE
The 2010 Transatlantic Trends survey found that, despite the public growing tired of the war in Afghanistan, majorities or pluralities in all countries surveyed still supported NATO being prepared to act outside of Europe. In fact, large majorities in the EU (62%) and the United States (77%) — the highest of any country surveyed — said that NATO should be prepared to act outside of Europe to defend members from threats to their security. The countries where only a plurality — rather than a majority — supported this were Turkey (48%), Bulgaria (45%), and Romania (42%). When asked whether NATO should limit its mission to defending members attacked in Europe, only one-in-three EU respondents (32%) and one-in-five Americans (21%) agreed. Germany (41%), the U.K. (38%), and Romania (37%) were the most supportive of limiting NATO’s mission to act within Europe’s borders.
VIEWS ON NATO REMARKABLY STABLE
Despite growing pessimism about NATO troop presence in Afghanistan and Secretary Gates’ gloomy picture of the future of NATO in his speech in Brussels, the institution was still seen as essential by solid majorities in all countries surveyed except for Turkey. The fact that the survey also came on the heels of a highly publicized and controversial intervention in Libya only makes it more noteworthy that the transatlantic institution is still seen as essential by 62% of EU and 62% of U.S. respondents.
Among the EU NATO members, those who said NATO was essential for their country’s security ranged from a high of 73% in the Netherlands to a low of 51% in Poland. As in past years, Turkey was the NATO member with the lowest support for NATO, with only 37% saying that NATO is essential.
When asked whether their government should increase spending, maintain current levels or reduce spending, most respondents chose either to maintain or reduce spending in general. In fact, in 9 of the 14 countries surveyed, a plurality of respondents wanted to reduce government spending. However, when asked about defense spending in particular, in 10 of the 14 countries, a plurality wanted to maintain current levels of military outlays.
On average, 50% of those in the EU countries surveyed wanted to decrease government spending, 29% wanted to keep current levels, and 16% wanted to increase spending. But when asked about defense spending, 34% wanted to decrease spending, 46% wanted to keep current levels, and 17% wanted to increase.
A fairly similar pattern was true in the United States. Sixty-one percent of Americans wanted to decrease government spending, 19% wanted to maintain current levels, and 17% wanted to increase spending. But when it came to defense spending, only 34% wanted to decrease, 45% wanted to maintain levels, and 19% wanted to increase defense spending.
SWEDES DIVIDED ON WHETHER NATO IS IMPORTANT FOR SECURITY
Sweden has long been known for the country’s policy of military nonalignment. As the only non-NATO member in the survey, people in Sweden were asked if cooperating closely with NATO is important for their country’s security. Despite the nation’s history of being a “virtual” ally, there was no broad consensus on the issue. The Swedes were evenly split, with 47% saying it was important and 48% saying it was not important to cooperate closely with NATO.
EU APPROVAL DIVIDED ON LIBYA
On March 19, NATO began airstrikes in Libya with the intention of preventing Gaddafi’s military from killing large numbers of civilians in an attempt to suppress the rebellion. The survey, conducted two months after the incursion, showed a solid majority (59%) of Americans approved of the military action in Libya by international forces — and this support was equally shared among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.
While EU respondents were, on average, evenly divided about the intervention, with 48% approving and 47% disapproving, there were great differences in public opinion among countries (see chart 28). The United States (59%), France (58%), and the U.K. (53%), all of which spearheaded the military intervention from the beginning, showed majority levels of public support for the effort. Sweden (69%) and the Netherlands (65%), countries that began to contribute militarily after NATO took control of the operation, were the most likely to approve of international forces intervening in Libya. Turkey, despite participating militarily in Libya, had the lowest level of approval for the international intervention, with only 23% approving and 64% disapproving. Of all the nations surveyed, only Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and Portugal did not directly contribute militarily to the Libyan intervention apart from their general membership in NATO, and, with the exception of Portugal (57%), support in these nations was low: Germany (37%), Poland (35%), and Slovakia (30%).
Despite relatively high U.S. approval of the international intervention in Libya, U.S. respondents were divided on the outcome, with 46% reporting they were optimistic about stabilizing the situation in Libya and 48% saying they were pessimistic. EU respondents (39%) were even less optimistic. In fact, Sweden (59%) was the only country surveyed where a clear majority of the public was optimistic about stabilizing Libya.
While EU and U.S. respondents showed different levels of support for the international military intervention in Libya, respondents on both sides of the Atlantic held relatively similar views about how best to support the Libyan mission. Roughly three-in-four respondents in the United States (77%) and the EU (74%) backed intervening to protect civilians, including solid majorities in every nation. Majorities in the United States (66%), EU (68%), and Turkey (54%) also supported the removal of Colonel Gaddafi. Finally, majorities of Americans (59%) and Europeans (54%) also supported sending military advisors to assist the rebels who oppose Gaddafi.
However, when respondents were asked about sending their own country’s ground troops to assist the rebels, support dropped to 31% in the United States and 32% in the EU. The only countries where a majority supported this option were the Netherlands (57%) and France (56%). Slovakia (14%), Bulgaria (15%), Romania (16%), Germany (18%), and Poland (21%) were the least supportive of this option. Both EU and U.S. respondents were much more likely to approve the intervention in Libya by international forces than they were to support sending their own countries’ troops to assist the rebels. While 59% of U.S. respondents approved of the intervention by international forces, only 31% supported sending U.S. ground troops to Libya. At the same time, 48% of EU respondents approved of the international intervention, but only 32% supported sending troops from their own countries to assist the rebels who oppose Gaddafi.
EU AND United States PREFER ECONOMIC TACTICS TO PRESSURE IRAN
Despite the same level of concern in the United States and the EU, there were differing opinions about how best to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. A plurality of those in the EU (32%) preferred offering economic incentives, while a plurality of Americans (33%) preferred imposing economic sanctions, although the majority of EU and U.S. respondents chose one of these two options and were often fairly divided over which one was preferable. The percentage of Americans who preferred supporting the Iranian opposition dropped from 25% in 2010 to 13% in 2011 — matching EU levels of support (15%) for the same option.
There was also little support in the EU countries polled (6%) or the United States (8%) for simply accepting that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons while other options were on the table. A quarter of Turks, a plurality, said that accepting a nuclear Iran (25%) was the best option. Very few people in the EU (6%), the United States (13%), and Turkey (4%) preferred military action over other options.
However, while very few American and EU respondents favored military action as their choice among many policy options, changing the context of the situation led to much different results. The respondents who chose a nonmilitary option for dealing with Iran were then asked to imagine that all nonmilitary options had been exhausted. They were then given the choice between accepting a nuclear Iran and taking military action. In this scenario, a plurality of Europeans (47%) and a majority of Americans (54%) favored the use of force. Turkey (50%), Germany (50%), the U.K. (46%), and Poland (41%) were the only countries where a majority or plurality of respondents would accept a nuclear Iran over military action under these circumstances.
Transatlantic Trends is a comprehensive annual survey of American and European public opinion and is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo, with additional support from the Fundação Luso-Americana, the Fundación BBVA, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Tipping Point Foundation. For more on Methodology and the complete data set, please visit www.transatlantictrends.org