On April 3, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will address a joint session of Congress. This year marks NATO’s 70th anniversary, and the invitation to the Secretary General was extended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It came as Donald Trump continued to criticize the value of the NATO alliance and European nations’ commitments to it. Where does US public opinion stand today, and how have attitudes changed over time?
George Gallup began asking questions about post-war alliances in the early 1940s. In 1943, 61% told Gallup that the US and Great Britain should make a permanent military alliance “that is, agree to come to each other’s defense immediately if the other is attacked at any future time,” while a quarter were opposed. People were more skeptical about a mutual defense alliance with Russia—39% were in favor 37% opposed.
In 1948, a year before NATO’s founding, a solid majority of Americans favored a permanent military alliance of the United States and all the Western European countries participating in the Marshall Plan. In early 1949, among those who had heard about the North Atlantic Security Pact “which calls for a promise of mutual aid from all members of the alliance if any single member nation is attacked,” 76% were in favor. In a question asked that May, 67% said the US should ratify the treaty. As the alliance became more established in the public mind, pollsters asked about it only occasionally.
Gallup began asking a new question about NATO when the Soviet Union was near collapse in 1989. That year, 75% said the alliance should be maintained. This year, 77% gave that response. At the same time, however, Americans are not eager to increase our commitment and most want to keep to maintain the status quo. Very few think we should leave. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has used this formulation more than a dozen times since 1974, and although the preface to the question has changed over time to reflect current discussions, the results have been stable. In 1974, 4% wanted to increase our commitment, 50% keep it the same, 13% decrease it, and 7% withdraw entirely. In their most recent question from 2018, those responses were 18% increase commitment, 57% keep it the same, 16% decrease it, and 6% leave.
Hardly any questions have been asked in recent years about whether Americans believe we have carried too substantial a burden in international affairs generally or specifically in the NATO alliance. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found Americans split evenly, 47% to 47%, about whether the US should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate more on problems at home or whether it was best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs. In another 2017 Pew question, 48% said NATO did too little to solve global problems, while 31% said it did the right amount, and 5% too much. The pollsters have mostly ignored Trump’s criticisms of NATO and focused instead on Trump himself and his comments about NATO, rarely getting to the issues he has identified as problems. It is important to know how the American public reacts to him, of course, but it is also important to know about underlying attitudes toward the US support of our international commitments. Here the pollsters have fallen short.
Given Americans’ support for the NATO alliance over 70 years, Americans will likely want to continue to maintain a strong relationship with NATO. Still, it would be useful to know how concerned Americans are about the nature and depth of our many and varied international commitments.
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