European politicians are right to think about what the worrying demonstration of incompetence in Afghanistan means for the North Atlantic Alliance Organization (NATO), Henry Olsen wrote in a commentary for the Washington Post. However, the political consultant and commentator from the Ethics & Public Policy Center think tank believes that public sentiment in European countries poses a greater threat to NATO’s image.
NATO countries are democracies, so their leaders must take public sentiment into account at all times, Olsen explains. According to him, politicians cannot ignore the deep-rooted opinions of voters in the long run or go against them.
As a result, opinion polls in European countries from 2020 should be of concern to American and European politicians, says the consultant. He recalls that Europeans’ sentiments regarding the United States’ key interests are mixed or ambiguous at best when it comes to their countries’ military engagement in armed conflict.
“The good news is that European opinion on NATO and the United States remains largely positive,” the commentator said.
Olsen cited a Pew Research Center survey from June this year which also included members of minorities in all countries except Greece. The survey found that Europeans perceived the United States positively for at least 55 percent of the population of each country.
However, a deeper investigation revealed a problem, Olsen pointed out. He emphasizes that the main feature of any military alliance is the willingness of members to come to the aid of an ally under attack and that this united position — the principle of collective defense — makes such alliances credible. If some members do not join in defending their allies, the whole concept falls apart. And many European politicians fear that US departure from Afghanistan will call into question Washington’s ability to meet its commitments, the consultant explains.
Regardless of whether this fear is justified, the fact remains that the majority of the population in most European countries already refuses to allow their military to help NATO allies, warns Olsen. He adds that this startling finding was revealed by a Pew Research Center survey in February 2020, which asked respondents from 16 member countries whether their armed forces should be involved in defending one of NATO’s allies in the event of a major conflict with Russia.
Only in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Lithuania did most respondents answer in the affirmative. Olsen added that in all other countries, the answers were evenhanded, or featured a majority who rejected aiding their allies. For example, 60 percent of Germans were against involvement in a war with Russia.
“We could speculate why NATO is still perceived (by Europeans) favorably in the light of this response, but another response from the 2020 survey gives certainty,” the consultant continues.
He points out that the majority of Europeans, or at least half the population of all countries surveyed, believe that in the event of an attack from Russia on a member of the alliance, the United States would help.
For example, more than 70 percent of Italians, Spaniards, and Britons believe this, but citizens of other European countries are also convinced that NATO, rather than a collective alliance where everyone supports everyone, is an instrument providing protection by the United States. According to him, this may explain why only 10 of the 30 member states currently fulfill the commitment to spend two percent of their annual GDP on defense.
China or Russia?
Olsen finds the conclusion worrying but also mentions another survey that sends another poor signal. As the United States increasingly sees China as an existential threat, it is moving its military forces to the Pacific to face China’s rise. It wants to persuade its allies not to become economically dependent on Chinese customers and companies. The United States believes that this will increasingly require NATO countries to become more involved in this de facto anti-China alliance. And this comes at a time when NATO itself has to face Russia.
But Europeans do not want such a scenario, and a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations in January 2021 found that 60 percent of the European states prefer their country’s neutrality in a possible conflict between China and the United States. Olsen also mentions another finding of the survey, stating that according to 59 percent of Europeans, China will become stronger than the United States in a decade – only 19 percent of respondents believe in continued US dominance.
The opinion that Europe should not merely rely on the US and strive for its own defenses is held by 67 percent of Europeans, says Olsen. According to him, these trends show that European voters would not support the United States in the conflict that American politicians across the spectrum consider the most important.
“None of this is carved in stone. European politicians can try to convince voters of the continued value of a strong, global, Western alliance,” Olsen writes.
However, he expects that if they fail to do so, they are likely to see the fluctuating moods of the electorate, invest insufficiently in defense, and avoid the strong anti-China statements that American politicians want.
In that case, however, future US presidents would probably come to the unfortunate view that more substantial military engagement in Europe no longer serves the interests of the United States, warns Olsen. According to him, the worst nightmares of Europeans would come true, not because of Washington’s lack of interest but because of its own inclinations.
Title image: The flags are taken down at the Nato summit in Lisbon, Portugal which ended late Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)