Does the American Public Agree with Donald Trump’s Views of NATO?

March 24, 2016

Richard C. Eichenberg, Tufts University

Twitter: @IkeEichenberg

America’s most notorious presidential candidate recently expressed critical views of the US commitment to NATO in a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post.  These views have no doubt increased European uncertainty about the steadiness of the US commitment, especially as they come on the heels of several years of European disquiet with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” its approach to the conflict in Syria, and President Obama’s critical comments about “free riders” in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg (nicely reviewed and analyzed by Simone de Galbert  here).

Are Americans still committed to Europe’s security?  Based on many years of polling, there are two answers: the first is “Yes,”  but the second is “it depends on whether you ask Democrats or Republicans.”

The first chart below shows answers to a variety of questions that elicited positive and negative assessments of the NATO Alliance in national polls since 1974.  Since 1974, an average of 62% of Americans have expressed a positive view of NATO (they want to keep or increase the commitment to NATO or believe that NATO is essential to American security).  The positive assessments do fluctuate, but not by much, which suggests that the commitment is rooted in a solid affinity of interests and common identity with Europe. The three most recent polls are slightly lower, but not lower than some readings in the past, and in any case we might easily surmise that they have risen once again after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels (the survey on NATO’s essentiality was not conducted in 2015 or 2016).












A second question shown in the graphic below reveals a sharp divide between Democrats and Republicans on the security partnership. From 2004 to 2014, the German Marshall Fund of the US asked a question about the US-European security partnership.  The question reads: “Do you think that the partnership in security and diplomatic affairs between the United States and the European Union should become closer, should remain about the  same, or should the United States take a more independent approach from European Union?”  Below, I show the percentage of Democrats who prefer a more independent approach from Europe: it averages 21% since 2004 (obviously, remaining Democrat respondents prefer a close or closer partnership).  Among Republicans, however, an average of 44% prefers a more independent approach, and the average since 2009 has been 47%.  Put bluntly, the solid consensus of Democrats is for a close or closer partnership with Europe, while Republicans are divided. (The same divided pattern is evident in party views of NATO’s essentiality –Republicans are less likely to find it essential—but a modest majority of Republicans and a large majority of Democrats find  NATO essential).







None of these figures explain why Republicans are less committed to Europe, and without a historical party breakdown, it is difficult to tell if the trend toward independence is recent or longstanding.  What the data do tell us is that Trump’s criticisms will find some resonance among Republicans.  Put differently, his views are unlikely to damage his electoral prospects. On the Democratic side, the figures suggest that support for continuing partnership with Europe is a view that is likely to find more resonance than a critical one.

For reference:

Most of the surveys above are taken from the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends series. Party breakdown does not include Independents who may lean toward Democrats or Republicans.