A recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project observes that a lack of support for increased defense spending suggests that Europe is “reluctant to support the use of hard power.”
“Only in Poland (52%), which spends 2.2% of its GDP on the military, and the Netherlands (49%), which spends 1.2%, does roughly half the public support increasing outlays on national defense. Despite commitments by their governments to boost military spending, around half the public in France (52%) and Spain (52%) want to keep defense spending the same as it is today, as does a plurality in Germany and Greece (both 47%). A third of the public in Spain (33%) and about a quarter in Italy (23%) favors cutting military outlays.”
I believe that these percentages substantially underestimate Europeans’ support for defense spending. Most scholars of defense spending focus not on a single percentage favoring increases or decreases, but rather on the balance of opinion between these two categories (the signal work is by Christopher Wlezien). After all, for elected leaders, the important political question is whether constituents want more or less defense. Further, most scholars tend to ignore the response category that says spending should “remain the same” or that it is “about right.” Some citizens may feel this way, but many choose this neutral option because their opinion is not intensely felt one way or the other. In other words, “keep the same” is not as politically relevant as the percentage of citizens who actually want an increase or a decrease. Further, most politicians will want to know if and how opinion is changing.
I address both of these issues in this post. First, I recalculated support for defense spending in the Pew survey using a simple formula for the balance of opinion that wants an increase or a decrease in the defense. This measure –net support– divides the percentage who want an increase by the total percentage who favor an increase or a decrease (% favor increase / %favor increase+% favor decrease). Put simply, this measure summarizes support for increasing defense spending as a percentage of the total who want a change in spending. Second, using surveys conducted by the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends project, I compare this year’s findings from the Pew Survey to earlier years.
The results for four countries are shown in the graphic below. Clearly, this measure of support for defense spending is higher in the three European countries than it has been since 2002 (in France and Germany considerably so). Were I simply to show the percentage who favor an increase, the trend would be exactly the same. Paradoxically, support for defense spending is lowest in the US in 2016.
The same increase in support for defense since 2002 is evident in the other countries sampled by Pew, but showing them all would take considerable space. Instead, in the graph below, I summarize net support for increased defense spending in 2016 compared to the average net support from 2002 through 2012. The increase in support over the last fourteen years is considerable in all but Spain. Before 2016, support for increased spending was a majority in only two countries, the UK and Poland. In 2016, it is a majority in all but Spain. In France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, the increase over the recent average is particularly large.
To summarize: I have argued that net support for defense spending is a preferable measure of citizen preference because it summarizes the balance of opinion between those who want increases and those who want cuts, which I argue is a more politically relevant measure. Second, by comparing the recent Pew question on support for defense spending to past surveys, we see that citizens are more receptive to increases in defense than at any time in the last fourteen years. Whether this means that Europeans are reluctant to embrace “hard power” is a different question, but for the moment lack of support for defense spending is not a source of that reluctance.
Full disclosure: I served as an academic adviser to the GMFUS Transatlantic Trends project from 2004-2014; the views expressed here are my own.