September 2, 2014 | By Ivo H. Daalder

American Public Opinion on NATO

NATO Leaders meet in Wales this week for what will be the most important Summit meeting since the end of the Cold War. Russian actions in Ukraine pose a fundamental challenge to European security—and thus a challenge to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. What do Americans think about NATO, the threats to security, and the steps the US might take to uphold its defense commitments on the other side of the Atlantic? In the new 2014 Chicago Council Survey, the American public offers broad support for the U.S. commitment to NATO, views Russia increasingly unfavorably, and worries about Russia’s territorial ambitions. At the same time, support for sending troops to defend NATO countries continues to be relatively weak.

Here’s what Americans had to say about these issues from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey conducted May 6-29.

Americans support for NATO is at highest level in 40 years

Since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974, majorities have consistently favored maintaining or increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO. Today, such support stands at 78 percent, the highest level in 40 years. As in previous polls, most of this support comes from Americans believing that the U.S. commitment to NATO should remain as it as it is now (66%); an additional 12 percent favor increasing the commitment. Only 7 percent want to withdraw entirely from NATO, and another 12 percent want to decrease U.S commitment.

Opinion of Russia hits post-Cold War low

The strong support of NATO may reflect increased wariness about Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Ukraine. American views toward Russia have now dropped to the lowest level since the Cold War. On a scale of 0 to 100, Americans rate Russia a 36 on average in 2014. This is just above the ratings Americans gave to the Soviet Union during the Chicago Council’s Cold War-era surveys of 1978-1986 and is the lowest rating ever given to Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, only a minority of Americans (38%) sees Russia’s territorial ambitions as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States, though another 50 percent of Americans see it is an important threat. Perhaps as a result, only three in ten support using U.S. troops to come to Ukraine’s defense if Russia invades the rest of that country (30%), though that is an increase of ten points compared to when the question was asked in 1994.

Only a minority would support using US troops to defend NATO’s Baltic members

When asked about the possibility of Russia invading the Baltic countries, only 44 percent of Americans support using U.S. forces to protect “NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.” While low, especially given the commitment to collective defense of the NATO Treaty, current support for using US troops to defend NATO allies is much higher than in the late 1990s. Then, just three in ten Americans (28%) supported using US troops if Russia invaded Poland, which was about to join the Alliance as a new member. Moreover, while higher than in the case of the Baltic states today, in 1994 only a bare majority of Americans (54%) supported using US troops to defend “western Europe” from a Russian invasion.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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