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Americans Hesitant to Use Nuclear Weapons to Defend Allies

Running Numbers by Emily Sullivan
Reuters
an armed missile launch

While Americans may support a retaliatory strike if the United States is attacked, Council polls reveal they oppose using nuclear forces to defend allies.

In his opening remarks at the long-awaited alliance summit in Madrid, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that a key outcome of the meeting would be a new Strategic Concept. This strategy document will act as a “blueprint for NATO in a more dangerous and unpredictable world,” and will initiate a “fundamental shift” in the way the alliance thinks about deterrence and defense. 

The new Strategic Concept heralds US strategic nuclear forces as the “supreme guarantee of the security of the alliance, but the American public seems less certain about their country taking on that role. Recent polling from the Council reveals that, at least at the public level, Americans are hesitant at best to commit to using nuclear weapons to defend NATO allies. 

Americans Unwilling to Use Nuclear Weapons on Allies’ Behalf 

In a March 2528 Council poll, respondents were asked whether they would support the use of nuclear weapons in various situations. As part of the question, they were informed that the United States has promised to defend allies with nuclear weapons as part of its commitment to NATO. Even with this reminder, only 44 percent say they would support the use of nuclear weapons by the United States if a NATO ally is the victim of a nuclear attack, and support is even lower (31%) if the initial attack on the ally is chemical or biological in nature.  

So does this mean that the United States is a country of anti-nuclear doves? Not exactly. More than seven in 10 Americans would support a retaliatory nuclear attack if their own country was hit with a nuclear weapon (72%), and a bare majority would even support the use of nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack on the United States (54%). 

"a bar chart shows US views on nuclear weapon use"

A separate Council survey conducted March 31April 4 tested how Americans views on nuclear defense of allies apply to the current conflict with Russia and yielded similar findings. If Russia expands the current war in Ukraine by attacking a NATO ally like Poland or Germany, a total of 37 percent of Americans would support the United States using nuclear weapons against Russia (15% without conditions, 23% only if Russia used nuclear weapons first). The remaining 60 percent who would not support the use of nuclear weapons in defense of NATO allies is comprised of those who would never support US use of nuclear weapons (33%) and those who would only support their use in defense of the United States itself (27%). 

Partisan Agreement on the Big Picture 

Americans across the partisan spectrum appear to agree on the use of nuclear weapons, with a few minor differences. In the above scenario in which Russia attacks an ally like Germany or Poland, about six in 10 Republicans (55%) and Democrats (59%), and seven in 10 Independents (65%), would oppose the use of nuclear weapons. However, within that group, Democrats (37%) and Independents (37%) are more likely to oppose the use of nuclear weapons altogether. On the other hand, a plurality of Republicans say that while they would not use nuclear weapons to defend these allies, they would support their use to defend the United States (32%). Among those who support the use of nuclear weapons in the proposed scenario, which is four in 10 Republicans and Democrats and three in 10 Independents, Democrats and Independents are more likely to condition the use of nuclear weapons on Russia having used them first, whereas Republicans seem more divided as to whether the nature of Russia’s strike matters when considering nuclear retaliation (see figure). 

American hesitance to use nuclear weapons as a response to any and every attack is, of course, understandable. Americans consistently identify the use of nuclear weapons, particularly in an exchange between the United States and Russia, as a top security threat, and see preventing nuclear proliferation as a very important foreign policy goal. Escalation would also be a catastrophic risk of any use of nuclear weapons. However, the current tension remains: NATO’s security posture relies heavily on American strategic nuclear forces, but their deterrent power is muddled if the US public remains firmly and vocally opposed to the possibility of using them to defend allies. 

About the Author
Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.