Despite Transatlantic Political and Economic Turmoil, NATO Endures

The U.S.-European military alliance remains popular on both sides of the ocean

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NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington gestures to other NATO leaders to take their positions for a group photograph at headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Nov. 21, 1985 / AP

The German Marshall Fund has just released its annual Transatlantic Trends report, which measures U.S. and European public opinion on transatlantic issues and trends. The big headline is that a bare majority of Americans, 51 percent, now think the countries of Asia are more important to their national interests than the countries of the European Union, which only 38 percent of respondents called more important. But this change, likely driven by Asia's economic rise and Europe's economic decline, isn't the only major piece of news: NATO is still seen as essential by 62 percent of both EU and U.S. respondents, demonstrating that the transatlantic military bond is still, despite a rough decade, firmly entrenched in American and European views of the world.

The strong public support for NATO is interesting precisely because it has been so steady, remaining at essentially the same levels for years now, despite the tremendous challenges it has faced: the U.S.-European tensions of the George W. Bush Bush years, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, and the global economic crisis.

In 2002, the first year of the survey, 69 percent of Europeans and 56 percent of Americans agreed that NATO is essential for their country's security. The two converged at 62 percent in 2004 (the next time it was polled) and have barely fluctuated in the annual surveys since.

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During the same period, the same survey has shown wild movement in responses to seemingly related questions about the U.S.-Europe relationship.

EU approval of the U.S. president has been as high as 83 percent (2009) and as low as 18 percent (2006). Bush peaked at 38 percent (2002) and Obama has fallen to 75 percent with the latest survey.

Similarly -- and in rough parallel -- Europeans have fluctuated in their conviction that "U.S. leadership in world affairs is desirable." It peaked at 64 percent (2002), dropped to the mid-30s after the Iraq squabble, and rebounded to the mid-50s during the Obama years. But, through it all, the NATO numbers stayed steady.

Perhaps most surprisingly, sour attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic about the two wars in which the Alliance has been engaged, Afghanistan and Libya, hasn't translated into diminished confidence in NATO.

Since the question was first asked in 2009, less than one third of Europeans have expressed optimism about stabilizing Afghanistan. In the U.S., optimism has steadily declined from 56, to 51, to 41 percent. In the latest survey, 66 percent of both Americans and Europeans support reducing or withdrawing troops from that conflict. Views on the ongoing Libya intervention vary wildly across the nations surveyed, ranging from 69 percent approval in Sweden to 23 percent in Turkey.

As mentioned above, a majority of Americans said the countries of Asia (51 percent) are more important to their national interests than the countries of the European Union (38 percent). Meanwhile, a majority of EU respondents (52 percent) thought that the United States was more important to their national interests than the countries of Asia (37 percent).

Still, 62 percent of both Americans and Europeans say that NATO is essential despite overwhelming skepticism about the mission that has occupied it for the past decade and tepid support for its most recent escapade. And the support remains essentially constant even if the approval rating of the American president swings within a range almost as wide at that 62 percent.

So why the continued support and optimism for the military alliance? There is some is residual good will over NATO's role in bringing Western Europe together after the ravages of World War II and, arguably, deterring World War III from breaking out during the Cold War. But two decades have gone by since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- surely there must be something more at play. Despite it all, NATO names still conjures up something in the minds of Americans and Europeans other than the unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Libya or the ever-present transatlantic policy disputes.

For over six decades, NATO -- the transatlantic military alliance -- has been the one constant throughout ever-shifting interests, affections, and priorities. For Europeans, it's a guarantee that the world's dominant military power will treat an attack against them as an attack against us. For Americans, it's a tangible partnership with those whose values we share. That the U.S. and Europe are so military close is something we just assume -- and that's a good thing.

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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