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Poll: Europeans from NATO countries embrace US defense

However, the respondents in this major German Marshall Fund survey think Washington influence is on the wane, while China's is growing.

Analysis | Europe

The publics in most NATO member countries foresee a sharp decline in the influence exerted by the United States in global affairs over the next five years and have little or no appetite for confrontation with China over Taiwan, according to Transatlantic Trends 2022, a detailed report on a new poll released Friday by the German Marshall Fund.

The poll, which interviewed respondents in 14 NATO countries, including the United States, also found stronger support for both NATO and the European Union as key protectors of their respective nations’ national security compared to previous years.

The survey, which included more than 21,000 respondents altogether, was conducted between late June and early July. This is about mid-way between the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February and the present, and thus doesn’t account for the latest developments in that conflict, such as Ukraine’s recent counter-offensives in the northeastern part of the country or Friday's annexation announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

But it is clear from the results that, at least as of last summer, concern about Moscow’s ambitions was running high, particularly among publics geographically closest to Russia (with the exception of Turkey), and support for NATO was running rather strong too, according to the survey.

Similarly, asked to rank the “most important security challenges,” pluralities of respondents in most of the 14 countries rated Russia, along with “war between countries” and climate change, as the greatest threats, with both immigration and pandemics, which respondents last year rated as the number one challenge, now seen as lesser priorities.

The survey found some relatively wide differences of opinion on a number of key issues between and, in some cases, within the publics of the 14 countries, which included Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and Turkey. For example, younger respondents tended to be more skeptical of both U.S. influence and its beneficial effects on the world order than older respondents.

Among the major findings, the survey found that, while an average of 64 percent of all respondents called the United States the world’s most influential actor today, an average of only 37 percent said it would retain that position just five years from now. China is likely to be the biggest gainer, with an average of 25 percent of respondents believing it will rise to exert the greatest influence by 2027, an increase from 13 percent today. Respondents in France and Italy, in particular, believe that Beijing will have overtaken Washington’s influence by a significant margin by that year. 

An average of 57 percent of respondents described U.S. influence on global affairs as either “very” or “generally positive,” with Poland, Lithuania, and Portugal expressing the most positive views. Two thirds of Turkish respondents, on the other hand, described U.S. influence as either “very” or “generally negative.”

On the other hand, the EU’s influence on global affairs, while not near as great (an average of 17 percent) as Washington’s, was considered more positive at 65 percent. By contrast, an average of only 27 percent of respondents said they viewed China’s influence as positive, while 57 percent said they saw it as negative, although there were significant differences between and within the countries. Perceptions of Russia were even worse: an average of 15 percent positive and 73 percent negative.

Likely due in major part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the survey found increased support for NATO in this year’s survey. While an average of two thirds of respondents last year said that the Atlantic Alliance played either a “very” or “somewhat important role in the security of their country,” that percentage rose to 78 percent this year. The desire for U.S. involvement in Europe’s defense also increased, with an average of 72 percent saying they wanted Washington to be either “somewhat” or “very involved” in Europe’s defense, an increase of 12 percentage points over 2021, with the greatest increase coming from Swedish respondents.

Remarkably, a slightly higher average of 81 percent of respondents (not including U.S. or Canadian respondents) said they saw the EU as “important” for the national security of their country, including two thirds of British respondents despite their country’s exit from the group just two years ago.

Similarly, pluralities and majorities of respondents across the European countries covered by the survey said they prefer to manage their countries’ relations with Russia and China through the EU rather than through cooperation with the United States or through an independent bilateral approach (although Turkey was once again the exception).

And the vast majority of respondents in most countries have become increasingly negative about Russia, the survey found much greater ambiguity about perceptions of China, particularly whether Beijing should be regarded as a “partner,” a “competitor,” or a “rival.” Two thirds of U.S. respondents put China in the “competitor” or “rival” category, but that was far significantly more than the average of 47 percent of all 14 countries -- a suggestion that the U.S. public is considerably more hawkish toward Beijing than its counterparts in the rest of NATO.

An average of 29 percent of respondents said they “don’t know” how to characterize their country’s relations with China. At the same time, the survey found that pluralities of respondents favored a tougher approach toward Beijing on a range of issues, from human rights to technology transfer to climate change.

But when asked what action their country should take if China invades Taiwan, strong majorities in all countries were split between either “work(ing) only diplomatically to end the conflict” (an average of 35 percent) or “join other countries in imposing sanctions on China” (an average of 32 percent). 

As to other options, there was very little support (between six percent in Turkey and 24 percent in Romania, an outlier) for “tak(ing) no action,” much less support (between one percent and eight percent) for “send(ing) arms to Taiwan,” and even less support (one percent to seven percent) for “send(ing) troops to Taiwan,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has suggested he may be inclined to do. For both of the latter two options, the highest level of support (eight and seven percent, respectively) was voiced by U.S. respondents.

NATO soldiers in Rukla, Lithuania, June 2015. (Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock)
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