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More than 8 in 10 Americans support NATO, study finds

Speaking to Congress April 3, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed NATO's importance. Here are key moments. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Reuters)

NATO is a popular punching bag for President Trump. Days before coming into office, he called it “obsolete.” As president, he’s railed against European spending on defense and noted time and again that many NATO allies don’t meet the target of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Other U.S. politicians — in Congress, for example — have rushed to make sure NATO allies know that the United States remains committed to the alliance. But as NATO approaches its 70th birthday Thursday, it’s worth asking — are Americans still behind NATO or have they been swayed by Trump’s arguments?

According to a new study by the Program for Public Consultation of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and released by the nonpartisan organization Voice of the People, the American people remain committed to NATO, too.

Respondents were put in the position of policymakers and presented with arguments for and against remaining in NATO. Just over 8 in 10, or 83 percent, of the roughly 2,400 respondents said that the United States should remain in NATO.

“The idea is that you’re putting the respondent in the shoes of the policymaker so they’ve really heard the essential side of the issue,” said Steven Kull, director of the survey.

And support bridged the proverbial aisle, with 90 percent of Democratic respondents and 77 percent of Republicans saying the United States should remain in NATO. (Since at least 2009, according to the Pew Research Center, Democrats have taken a more favorable view of NATO.)

“Given that there is substantial discussion questioning whether NATO membership is necessary, and given that Russia has become relatively weak and that it’s been some years since the Cold War, I thought it was striking that support for NATO membership is as robust as it is,” said Kull, noting that, even in “very red districts,” 78 percent of respondents thought the United States should remain in NATO (and that millennials, many who do not remember the Cold War, overwhelmingly supported that option, with 77 percent opting to remain).

But it isn’t just that Democrats and Republicans alike think the United States should remain in NATO. Respondents were presented with three choices — press Europeans to spend more on defense and threaten to disengage if they do not; urge Europeans to spend more but do not threaten to disengage; or remain part of NATO but bring military investments in line with what Europeans spend.

The most popular option was actually to bring U.S. military investments in line with the investments Europeans are making.

“It wasn’t a conclusion we should necessarily spend less — it’s more to bring U.S. military investments in line with the European level,” Kull clarified, the thinking being that, “ ‘Well if the Europeans are comfortable at the level that they’re at, maybe we should adjust ours.’ ”

But the significant thing to Kull was that most people did not favor threatening NATO allies. For both Democratic and Republican respondents, threatening to disengage was the least popular option, with only 4 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Republicans saying that they found it to be the most convincing.

It’s “one more indicator of how robust support is for the alliance,” Kull said. “That the threat to withdraw was so widely rejected.” A little something for NATO to celebrate, perhaps, on its 70th birthday.