As anti-globalism rises, can NATO still count on public support?

European and North American popular opinion is pro-NATO, despite some officials' misgivings about the 67-year-old alliance.  

Susan Walsh/AP
US President Barack Obama, pictured here at a Maryland air force base, will visit Poland on Friday. Public support for NATO is stronger among Americans than in much of Europe.

In theory, the summit of NATO leaders this Friday in Poland is a display of strength and unity between Europe and North America.

But with anti-globalist feeling at a high point in Europe and similar sentiments at work in the United States, a growing number of officials and media figures express doubts about how assuredly the bloc can fulfill what it originally set out to do in 1949: ensure that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

When they talk about the threat of such an attack, imagined or not, they’re probably referring to Russia.

On Thursday, a New York Times op-ed noted that a 25,000-troop, 20-country military exercise carried out in Poland last week by NATO forces, a show of strength leading up to Friday’s summit, drew protests from Germany’s foreign minister, who denounced it as “saber-rattling.” Other countries in the bloc, including France, appear to have expressed misgivings as well.

Those wedges in the alliance, the op-ed argued, could mean a lack of consensus on what to do if Russia were to try the same “hybrid warfare” tactics that it used in Ukraine – such as sending covert armed forces – against a NATO member country like Poland.

A Pew Research Center survey of publics in NATO member countries tells a sunnier story about the bloc, in some respects.

Generally, Europeans appear to hold NATO in esteem. In every country except Greece and Spain, those who said they had a favorable view of it outweighed those who didn’t, often by wide margins.

In the United States, NATO is quite popular, too. Two Americans express favorability toward it for every one that doesn’t, and 77 percent of the American public says the alliance is “good for the US”. And 35 percent of Americans said they were in favor of an increase in defense spending toward NATO – the highest percentage since just after 9/11.

“Basically, Americans feel like we get a lot out of it,” says Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

But in the United States and Europe alike, the public is considerably less keen on following through with the military commitment at the heart of the alliance. A slim majority of Italians and French – and perhaps most crucially, a wide majority of Germans – say they are opposed to NATO countries using force to defend other members in the event of a conflict with Russia.

“I think these numbers are very relevant today,” says Mr. Stokes. “Not so much at the height of the Cold War, because it would have been an elite decision. But now, with hybrid warfare, nothing would be clear cut, so there will be second guessers.”

Of the bloc’s major players, Americans were the most enthusiastic about backing other member countries. That seems to reflect a more pronounced fear of Russia among its public.

In May, 42 percent of Americans told the Pew Center they believed that tensions with Russia posed a “major threat” to the United States – a percentage higher than in anywhere across the bloc but Poland.

“Probably, you can derive from that one of the things they see as being a benefit of NATO,” says Stokes.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Bruce Stokes, the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. 

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