The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The crisis in Afghanistan is shaking NATO. Its foundation was already weakening in Europe.

A German and a U.S. sailor on the deck of a NATO ship in Eemshaven, the Netherlands, on Aug. 24. (Kees Van De Veen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

European leaders are correct to wonder what the frightening incompetence on display in Afghanistan means for the NATO alliance. But they should also be nervous that the public opinion in their own countries is making the alliance unsustainable.

Our NATO allies are democracies, and thus their leaders must always take public opinion into account. They cannot long ignore or run counter to their voters’ deeply held views.

That’s why polls from 2020 and earlier this year of European public opinion should concern both U.S. and European leaders. The polls show that European public opinion is mixed concerning core U.S. interests and ambivalent at best about involving their own nations’ militaries in armed conflict.

The good news is that European opinion about NATO and the United States remains mostly positive. A June 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that 61 percent of Europeans had a favorable opinion of NATO, including majorities in every country except Greece. Europeans also held positive opinions of the United States, with more than 55 percent of every country’s populace expressing a favorable view.

The problem comes when pollsters dig a bit deeper. The central feature of any military alliance is that all members come to the aid of one another in case of attack. That unified stance — collective defense in strategic parlance — is what makes the alliance credible. If one or more parties won’t defend other members, the whole enterprise falls apart. Indeed, that is what many European leaders fear as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about its ability to live up to its commitments.

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Whether that fear is justified or not, the fact is that majorities in most European nations already oppose the use of their troops to aid a NATO ally. That startling finding comes from a February 2020 Pew Research poll. The survey asked respondents from 16 NATO nations whether that nation should use military force to defend a NATO ally in a serious military conflict with Russia. Majorities of only five nations — the United States, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Lithuania — answered yes. Pluralities or majorities in every other nation surveyed opposed coming to the ally’s assistance, with opposition rising to 60 percent among Germans.

One might wonder why NATO is viewed favorably given this response, but another question from the 2020 poll provides clarity. The same people were also asked whether they thought the United States would use military force to aid a NATO ally under attack by Russia. Majorities or pluralities in every European nation surveyed said it would, with percentages rising above 70 percent in Italy, Spain and Britain. Many Europeans clearly believe that NATO is a device to ensure U.S. protection for them rather than a collective alliance whereby all support all. This underlying belief might be a reason only 10 of NATO’s 30 members currently meet the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense each year.

This finding alone is troubling, but another poll points to other worrisome signs. The United States increasingly views China as an existential threat. This is why it is shifting military resources to the Pacific theater to combat China’s rise and working to persuade U.S. allies to resist Chinese efforts to make those nations’ economies dependent upon Chinese consumers and companies. This means that NATO allies will increasingly be asked to shoulder some of the burden in a de facto anti-Chinese alliance at the same time as NATO itself deploys against Russia.

Europeans do not want to do that. A January 2021 poll from the European Council on Foreign Relations found 60 percent of Europeans want their nation to remain neutral in any conflict between China and the United States. The poll also found that 59 percent of those surveyed believe that China will be more powerful than the United States in a decade; only 19 percent vouched for continued U.S. supremacy. Finally, 67 percent said that Europe could not always rely on the United States and had to look after its own defense. Each of these trends points to electorates that won’t back the United States in the conflict that U.S. leaders of both parties see as most important.

None of this is written in stone. European leaders could try to persuade their voters of the enduring value of a strong, global, Western alliance. Barring that, however, European leaders will likely continue to follow their voters, underinvesting in defense and avoiding the strong anti-China stances U.S. leaders want. If that happens, presidents from both parties will likely regretfully conclude that substantial European military involvement no longer serves American interests. Europe’s worst nightmare would thus become true more because of its own inclinations than because of American fecklessness.

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