A new study released by the Pew Research Center finds that many European publics, and Germans in particular, are highly conflicted over whether to defend a NATO ally against a potential future attack by Russia. The study has heightened concerns in Washington D.C. and other NATO capitals on the public support for NATO amongst the European public, and raises questions regarding a common transatlantic response to the war in Ukraine, reassurance of Eastern European allies, and future relations with Russia. In order to gain insight into the way the study was perceived in Washington’s policy circles, we interviewed Julianne Smith, former Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden (2012-2013) and Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
hbs: NATO is no exception to the rule that U.S. Americans tend to be skeptical of multilateral institutions. How do you explain that only 49% of Americans hold a favorable view of NATO, while at the same time a majority of 56% would support the use of U.S. military force to defend a NATO ally involved in a serious conflict with Russia?
Julianne Smith: Americans have had a longstanding stake in the NATO alliance and have supported it, despite the fact that it’s a multi-lateral institution. What’s changed in recent years is the American public’s faith in NATO’s ability to deliver. By that I mean there is increasing skepticism whether European allies are making the necessary investments for NATO to be able to adequately respond to today’s security challenges.
So the results of the study are not surprising to me. I am also not surprised by the fact that Americans remain firm in their commitment to defend another NATO ally. If we found ourselves in a situation where a NATO ally was threatened, I don’t think there’s any question that there would be a surge of US public support to defend that ally militarily. And that type of support runs through both parties – Democrats and Republicans – as well as Congress, on both coasts of this country, in the heartland… I think the U.S. commitment is rock solid.
hbs: The study shows that the divide between U.S. and German public opinion is particularly stark, including on NATO enlargement, sanctions against Russia, and arms transfers to Ukraine. How do you reconcile this divide with the fact that Germany- after the UK- is often cited as the closest U.S.-ally in Europe?
Well first of all I want to mention that the agenda that we share with our friends in Germany expands well beyond NATO and defense issues. So we may have our disagreements over things like the use of force in Ukraine or arming the Ukrainians or even NATO enlargement, but there’s a wealth of issues where we do see eye to eye, we continue to share common values, and we more or less look at the world through a similar lens.
One should also note that this is a survey of public opinion, and at times we find that while our publics are divided on a particular issue, our leaders are united. So I know there are different views in the United States and Germany on the type of support we should provide to Ukraine, but I think Chancellor Merkel and President Obama more or less share the same view on the way forward.
hbs: While 58% of German respondents oppose any German military intervention should a NATO ally get involved in a serious conflict with Russia, 68% believe the U.S. would use military force in such a case. How is this expectation gap perceived in Washington?
Americans find this particular result very troubling, because it confirms a long standing belief that, while many Europeans are not willing to defend another NATO ally or at least have some reservations about doing so, the assumption is that, no matter what, the United States will come to a NATO ally’s aid. And that puts an unfair and unnecessary burden on the United States and gives the Europeans a pass, when they should in fact take more responsibility for their own security.
hbs: Some commentators have suggested that U.S. policymakers are less risk-averse than Germans because Europe would pay a much higher price if it was dragged into a war with Russia. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
I think the United States and Europe come at the conflict and tension with Russia from different starting points. That said, I don’t think there is that big of a gap between what President Obama wants to do vis-à-vis Russia and what Chancellor Merkel wants to do vis-à-vis Russia. They both acknowledge that we need to pursue punitive measures against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, but simultaneously they both recognize that Europe and the United States need to maintain a relationship with Russia on an array of other issues, for example in negotiating the Iran deal.
hbs: Public opinion is not always decisive in shaping NATO policy. How serious of a challenge do the widely different views on NATO in some of its most important member states pose to forming a cohesive NATO policy on Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Russia?
Well, it’s correct that public opinion doesn’t always shape NATO policy, nor does it always shape the policy of individual member states within NATO. But it can have a devastating effect. The poll notes, for example, significant skepticism in Germany and Italy about the value of extending NATO membership to Ukraine. There’s no question that European leaders will be paying close attention to these views by their own publics, and that they could ultimately shape the outcome of the future of NATO enlargement debates.
So I am worried about public opinion vis-à-vis the NATO alliance. My hope is that European leaders will make more of an effort to explain why NATO is important and why it cannot function without solidarity between its members. I also hope that, in some cases, European leaders will be willing to go against the views of their own public and show real leadership when it is needed. But I am not entirely sure that will actually be the case.
hbs: Public figures and policy-makers in the U.S. and Europe do not get tired of confirming their commitment to NATO’s Article V. In light of the PEW study findings, how solid do you think this commitment really is? Should the Baltic States as the most vulnerable NATO members be worried?
The results of this study are certainly troubling in the way in which they provide some insight on our thinking on Article V. I worry about Article V for two reasons. One, I worry about it because I do not see the investment that needs to be made on the other side of the Atlantic that would ensure that NATO could respond to an Article V attack. And two, I worry about the public opinion views of the Article V commitment and how firm that is across the alliance. So if I were sitting in NATO headquarters, or in Tallinn or Riga, I would find these results deeply troubling and would try and focus the next summit in Warsaw on garnering both more public and leadership support for Article V’s mission.
The interview was conducted on June 11th, 2015
 62 % of Americans, but only 23 %of Germans are in favor of granting Ukraine NATO membership. Nearly every third German (29 %), but only every tenth American wants to roll back sanctions against Russia. And while 46 % of Americans are in favor of NATO arming Ukraine, only 19 % of German respondents agreed.