The crises in Syria and Ukraine have exposed troubling shortfalls in NATO’s capabilities. Even as conflict moves closer to the borders of the European Union, the alliance has few options as to how to respond. Moreover, NATO is confronted with these new challenges at a time when it is already hard-pressed to convince publics in member states to maintain defense spending, as overall national budgets are pared back to reduce deficits. To better address the gaps in its capabilities, NATO must convince publics in its member states to reprioritize European defense, and it must explain more effectively that the trenches of a European defense must sometimes be dug outside Europe itself.
For large majorities in these publics, NATO’s shortfalls do not represent a problem at all. In the view of many, the alliance is playing its proper role by operating exclusively within the borders of Europe. This year’s Transatlantic Trends, a survey of public opinion in the United States, Russia, Turkey, and 10 EU member states, found widespread support for NATO’s role in the territorial defense of Europe, but very little interest in operations outside of those boundaries. Seventy-three percent of respondents in Europe and 59 percent in the United States supported the territorial defense of Europe. However, only a slim plurality in the United States (49 percent) was in favor of NATO “conducting military operations outside of America and Europe” – and a majority in Europe (51 percent) was opposed to it.
This ambivalence extends to plans to arm and train the armed forces of other countries to help them better defend themselves. Fifty-three percent in the United States supported this sort of mission, while in Europe 52 percent were opposed. The mention of Ukraine specifically had almost no impact on people’s opinions : 55 percent of Americans said NATO should arm and train countries like Ukraine, while 53 percent of Europeans said it should not.
However, this does not reflect confusion, or a refusal to take sides on the Ukraine conflict. Fifty-eight percent of Europeans and 57 percent of Americans said that the European Union and United States should “continue to provide economic and political support to Ukraine, even if there is a risk of increasing conflict with Russia.” This represents clear transatlantic agreement on the role the transatlantic alliance should assume in Europe’s eastern neighborhood.
One hurdle NATO must clear if it wants to play a greater role, however, is persistent resistance to increased defense spending. In the 2013 survey, neither Americans nor Europeans demonstrated any appetite for increased defense outlays : 46 percent in Europe wanted to maintain current levels of spending, while 38 percent supported decreases. In the United States, 46 percent wanted to maintain current levels of spending, while 26 percent supported decreases.
But public aversion against larger defense budgets is only half of the problem. The other is the need for more effective cooperation to better utilize the resources that NATO already possesses. To better utilize its strengths, NATO needs a defined – and coherent – mission. And to formulate that, it needs to better clarify to Europeans how operations outside of the continent are crucial to their long-term security.
One of the obstacles with which NATO must contend is the sentiment in Europe that the European Union itself no longer faces any serious military threats. The 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey found that a majority of Europeans believed that NATO is still essential to their country’s security (58 percent, unchanged from the previous year). But when that majority was asked why NATO remained essential, only 15 percent said that it was because major military threats still endanger their country’s security. A much larger group – 56 percent of the original majority that believed NATO to be essential – believed it to be important because it is “an alliance of democracies which should act together.” This suggests that they see the organization as a community of values, and one whose political purpose is at least as important as its military role.
NATO will have to learn how to make its member states’ publics understand that operations outside of the United States and Europe (including the arming and training of militaries in other countries) are often the first line of Europe’s territorial defense. Support for the kind of missions that NATO needs to take on – and the sort of organizational restructuring that these missions require – hinges on public awareness that there is an existential connection between the security of Europe’s eastern and southern periphery and that of the EU.