April 13, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

NATO an Easy Target for Trump


Georgia's Minister of Defence Tinatin Khidasheli (L) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) address a NATO-Georgia Commission defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As the Republican primary wears on, Donald Trump has made a habit of accusing US allies of free riding on American coat tails when it comes to their national security. These allies should pay more, he says, or perhaps the US commitment simply needs to be scaled back. NATO is one of his most prominent targets, although he has also singled out Japan and South Korea. His arguments are not particularly new, and they are not particularly hard to understand. They have also been widely dismissed. But with NATO back in the news, now is a good time to take a look at how the US public views the alliance.

Polling on NATO goes back a long way. In fact, there was polling about NATO before there was even a NATO. In a 1948 Gallup poll—NATO was founded in 1949—65 percent supported a military alliance between the “United States and all the Western European countries participating in the Marshall Plan.” But almost 65 years later, perhaps because NATO is now largely taken for granted, the public is rarely even asked.

Pew appears to ask about the favorability of NATO every other year, and the results in the United States since 2009 have been stable, if somewhat worrying. While 53 percent held NATO in a favorable view in 2009, 49 percent stated the same in 2015. That is hardly a ringing endorsement from the American public. Perhaps Americans, like Mr. Trump, fail to see the utility of the organization. But this should not be taken to mean that Americans want to pull out of NATO—a move threatened by Mr. Trump if costs are not reallocated.

In the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, 66 percent of American preferred to keep the same commitment to NATO versus only 12 percent who wanted that commitment to decrease. (Twelve percent also wanted to see the commitment increased.) While the question did not specify what that commitment entailed—money, troop levels, etc.—it is clear that the American public is comfortable with the US relationship to NATO. In fact, support for the current commitment has grown since 1974 when the question was first asked. At that time, 50 percent wanted to keep the US commitment to NATO unchanged.

These numbers largely conform with a 2013 survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund. In its Transatlantic Trends, 55 percent of Americans stated that NATO was “still essential” while 50 percent of Europeans stated the same. However, the belief in NATO as still essential on both sides of the Atlantic was not because of its burden sharing or its role in deterring military threats. Instead, as the GMF report states, “its importance stemmed from its character as a community of democracies.”

If that latter point remains correct, the public and Mr. Trump hold divergent views on the role of NATO. The public’s view may stem from an overall lack of understanding based on years of NATO simply not being part of the security conversation. If that is indeed the case, criticism of NATO could very well be warranted. But that should not mean that the United States will simply pull out of the alliance. Instead, the organization as a whole should begin to look at reforms and new ways to explain its relevance to a new audience.

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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