Public Attitudes Toward Security
on the Eve of NATO's 50th Anniversary

[An opinion research report of the U.S. Information Agency, available from USIS, Office of Research and Media Reaction, 301 4th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20547.]

Executive Summary

With the demise of the Soviet Union, European perceptions of security threats have expanded beyond Cold War defense concerns to encompass a broad range of transnational issues. While threats such as terrorism, ethnic conflict, nuclear proliferation and organized crime may not be new, they were largely overshadowed in the past by the superpowers' military and ideological struggles. As institutions, governments and policymakers work to better understand and prepare for these broader security challenges, what do publics think? USIA opinion research over the past ten years has shown that west European publics are neither backing away from international engagement nor drifting apart from one another - or the U.S. - as allies. This analysis will illustrate points where publics diverge in their security views, but it will also portray publics across Europe and in Canada who sense that they can rely on one another and who continue to favor a multilateral approach to security threats.

European publics view NATO as just one pillar of their security architecture. Public confidence in NATO overlaps with confidence in several other international institutions, including the EU, the UN and the OSCE, suggesting that public opinion regards these organizations as complementary.

  • Public views are not firmly set regarding which organization should be primarily responsible for a number of tasks such as combating international terrorism or organized crime. This suggests that publics are open to adapting NATO and some other international organizations to the new conditions of European security.

  • In general, Europeans prefer multilateral approaches when dealing with security challenges. Publics in Europe and Canada support their country's participation in the multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and public support for intervention in Iraq and Kosovo increases when it is cast as a multinational effort.

Publics on both sides of the Atlantic favor a balanced relationship between the U.S. and Europe. Maintaining public support for multilateral security missions in the future may require security institutions to address public desire for balanced decision-making and cost-sharing.

  • Across Europe and in Canada, publics hold a generally positive view of American leadership, despite believing that the U.S. has too much influence over their own country's affairs.

  • While Europeans believe that their countries contribute their fair share to maintaining peace in Europe, Americans tend to think that Europeans are not pulling their weight. Survey results indicate that publics may be willing to accept a greater share of defense costs if they are allocated across all member countries.

The new security environment has not diminished the importance of NATO for Europeans and Americans, but it has led some to question what role NATO should play in the post-Cold War world.

  • Europeans and Canadians continue to support their NATO membership. However, increased uncertainty about NATO's place in the new security environment may have weakened the belief that NATO is needed. More now than in previous years say they are unsure whether NATO is still needed in the absence of a Soviet threat.

Many west Europeans envision an important security role for the European Union. These publics support close cooperation between NATO and the EU. Closer integration may also increase calls for a greater European role in security matters.

  • Europeans tend to support closer integration and coordination on economic, political and security matters under the auspices of the EU.

  • In most west European countries surveyed, more believe that the EU rather than NATO should make the most important decisions about European security matters in the future.
  • The Franco-British proposal to give the EU a more active role in defense policy would seem to resonate with Europeans, many of whom call for the creation of a European defense force. Yet, most Europeans who support a common defense force would prefer that it work with NATO rather than replace it.

Increasingly complex security relationships will present new challenges for NATO, affecting both its institutional operations and its efforts to engage public support.

  • Varied levels of public support suggest that NATO faces the challenges of maintaining high support for the affiance in its founding member states, solidifying more limited support in relatively recent entrants such as Turkey, Greece and Spain, and consolidating public support in the new NATO member states - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

  • Public support for the Partnership for Peace in those central and east European countries which were not invited to join NATO in the first round suggests that continued forms of engagement may help to preserve positive views of the alliance in these countries.

  • While Russians take a skeptical view of NATO's activities, publics across Europe do not want to isolate Russia. Many Europeans are even open in principle to Russia's eventual NATO membership, though few perceive Russia's current policies as working in the same direction as those of Europe.