Transatlantic survey reveals NATO has still to convince public that Alliance is essential for their security

By Nigel Chamberlain, NATO Watch.

The German Marshall Fund has recently released its eleventh Transatlantic Trends survey.  It charts US and European public opinion on a range of transatlantic issues, including foreign policy challenges, support for NATO, the economy, and the rise of other world powers.

NATO FlagsCraig Kennedy, President, German Marshall Fund says in his Forward: “The decade reflected by our polls has been a tumultuous one for both Europe and the United States, one that has been marred by a marked divide between the two sides of the Atlantic about the US intervention in Iraq, the alliance’s role in Afghanistan, and the global economic crisis. Nothing has been more emblematic of the transatlantic relationship than how Europeans related to the two US presidents of this time. … Russia has been added to the Transatlantic Trends survey this year … it makes a fascinating addition.”

Of most interest to NATO Watch were the findings on Transatlantic Relations, Global Views and Security Policy.

Transatlantic Relations and Global Views:

44% of Europeans felt relations with the United States are good, but views across Europe varied widely with only 35% in the UK agreeing.  46% of US citizens felt that relations with Europe were good, 10 points down from 2010.

52% of EU citizens said it was desirable that the United States exert strong leadership in world affairs, similar to last year, with 82% of American citizens agreeing with the statement.  63% of Americans said it was desirable for the EU to exercise strong leadership with 70% of Europeans agreeing.

While questions about common transatlantic values and common interests returned similar results of between 63% and 67% in Europe and the US, the UK respondents were significantly lower for both questions at 57% and 54%.

61% of EU respondents said that the United States was more important for their countries’ national interests than Asia, a rise of 9% over last year’s figures.  55% of Americans felt that Europe was more important than Asia to their country, a 15 point rise over last year’s figures.

Transatlantic Security Policy:

33% of EU citizens felt that Europe and the US should become closer, a six point drop on last year’s findings while 30% of US respondents agreed, a 30-point drop since that question was first asked in 2004.  34% of Americans and 39% of Europeans felt that they should take a more independent approach within the transatlantic partnership in security and diplomatic affairs.  NATO was seen as ‘still essential’ by 58% of EU respondents.  However, the number of Americans who agreed dropped by six points from last year to 56%.  At 71% approval, the UK respondents were among the highest in Europe.

When asked about defence spending, 39% of European respondents wanted it decreased, 46% wanted to keep it at current levels, and only 11% wanted it increased.  The UK had the lowest numbers on either side of the Atlantic in favour of reducing defence spending at just 16%.  32% in the US wanted to decrease defence spending, while 45% wanted to maintain current levels and 20% wanted to increase it.

Commenting on the UK results, the GMF report said: “Despite their economic difficulties, 51% of those polled in the UK said they would approve of keeping military spending at current levels and 64%, the highest rate of agreement in Europe, that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice.  Only 37% of Britons otherwise opposed to military intervention as a means to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons said they would support military action if all other means had failed (nine points below the European average of 46%).  On the question of whether recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had been right and contributed to stability in those countries, Britons were as skeptical as the European average.  Nor was there any appetite for intervention in Syria (59% said the UK should stay out completely).  Despite the fact that their government had led the 2011 Libya intervention together with France, only half (50%) of the Britons polled felt that the intervention in Libya had been the right thing to do.”

49% of Americans supported the intervention in Iraq while in the EU, approval dropped to 38%.  53% of Americans supported the intervention in Afghanistan with a 50% approval rating in the EU.

68% of respondents in the US and 75% of respondents in the EU agreed that troop levels in Afghanistan should be reduced while 53% of Europeans and 44% of Americans say troops should be withdrawn altogether.  In each of the top European NATO members supplying troops in Afghanistan, the majority of respondents preferred complete withdrawal: Germany (51%), the UK (52%), Italy (55%), France (61%) and Poland (62%).

The number of Americans who preferred increasing troop levels in Afghanistan shrank from 30% in 2009 to 5% this year, and the proportion wanting immediate withdrawal rose nine points in a year, from 35% in 2011.

56% of Americans said they were pessimistic about the prospects for a successful outcome in Afghanistan and 38% were optimistic, an almost exact reversal of the findings two years ago.  70% of Europeans were pessimistic.

49% of Americans and 48% of Europeans agreed that the intervention in Libya had been the right thing to do.  55% of Europeans and 47% of Americans remained pessimistic about stabilizing Libya.

Majorities on both sides of the Atlantic preferred using economic sanctions or incentives — as opposed to military options — to stop Iran’s nuclear programme.  Only 7% of people in the EU preferred military action over all other options, and 34% preferred offering economic incentives to Tehran to abandon the programme.

Given an either-or choice between accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or using military force to prevent it, 46% of Europeans said they would support military action, against 57% in the US.  In the UK 49% of people said they would prefer to accept a nuclear-armed Iran rather than go to war.

When those who said they would support military action against Iran were asked whether they also supported their own country’s involvement, or the use of their country’s ground troops, support for military intervention dropped.

62% of Americans and 67% of Europeans agreed that members of the international community are responsible for protecting civilians in other countries from violence, including violence committed by their own government (the principle of “responsibility to protect”).  However, as far as the specific case of Syria was concerned, 59% in the EU and 55% in the United States said their countries should not intervene in the Syria conflict.


This has not been an easy report to read or comprehend.  It is not clear that there were as many significant findings as the authors appear to be suggesting and, in some cases, the interpretation of those findings appears to be misleading.  It is not at all clear whether the terms ‘Europeans’, ‘EU citizens’ and ‘NATO Member States’ are being used interchangeably and the term ‘Pluralities’ is unfocused and, therefore, unhelpful.

The figures seem to suggest that the perception is that relations between the US and the UK have weakened, particularly on the British side, and that thoughts about common US/UK values and interests were being questioned more over the years.

There appears to be dwindling belief that NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan has been worth the cost in economic and human terms and an increased desire to ‘bring the troops home’.

There appears to be a clear indication that Europeans and Americans should be working towards more transatlantic independence, not closer working relations and saying that a 58% European approval rating for NATO is “a solid majority” may be seen as something of an exaggeration.  General Secretary Rasmussen would, I feel sure, be happier with an across-the-board approval rating of 71%, the figure produced for UK respondents alone.  A six point drop in US approval in one year to 56% should be ringing small alarm bells at NATO HQ in Brussels.  Instead, NATO chose an upbeat assessment in its own news release.

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Reproduced with permission from NATO Watch.