Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 2 - Apr. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 1-8


Erika v.C. Bruce,
Director of NATO' s Office of Information and Press

For the past several years, NATO's Office of Information and Press has organized a public opinion seminar as a means of keeping in touch with the perceptions and attitudes which people have toward NATO and its role in European-Atlantic security. It is one of the important ways through which the International Secretariat and national delegations can adjust and adapt their information programmes to the needs and interests of the Alliance. It is a simple response to the principle that the health of the organization depends onthe strength of the support and understanding it receives from the publics of its member nations. In the rapidly changing political environment of the 1990s, these seminars are perhaps more important than ever before.

This year's seminar, held in Brussels on 10 February, introduced a new approach to its review of public opinion. For the first time, the Office of Information and Press invited specialists from Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to join experts from the United States, France and the Netherlands in analysing trends in Alliance countries and in those of the new cooperation partners. As a further step toward broadening its focus, the seminar was structured around three themes: the public perception of risks to international security; NATO's image in East and West; and public attitudes to the risks caused by nuclear weapons.

Analyses by the participants revealed many shared views, but also sharp contrasts relating to regional and ethnic issues. The most striking of the common themes was the ending of the euphoria that, in both Western and Eastern Europe, had accompanied the spectacular developments of recent years. The end of the Cold War and all of the changes that flowed from it had engendered hopes of a peaceful, prosperous future in which security problems would be a thing of the past. Yet many of the speakers highlighted a more sober, even pessimistic mood.

Pervasive malaise

In comparing public opinion in the United States and Europe, Prof. Simon Serfaty, Executive Director, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Washington D.C., observed that Americans were turning inward, as they sensed that they had exchanged the potential military vulnerability of the Cold War years for the real political and economic vulnerability of the new, multipolar and unpredictable world. They no longer felt any military threat from the USSR and could therefore turn their attention - and peace dividends - to their country_s economic and social challenges. And yet the public, impressed with their President's and theirgovernment's decisive role in the Gulf War, saw no parallel leadership nor any national consensus taking shape to confront these challenges. As in so many countries, the public impatiently expressed their lack of confidence in the government's ability to design effective responses to the obvious weaknesses in an economy incapable of shaking off a prolonged recession.

As symptoms of this pervasive malaise, Prof. Serfaty quoted polling figures that showed that seven out of 10 Americans believed their country was off track and with only 20 per cent believing that the economy could be properly managed. Nor did public opinion think that a ready solution was at hand: 27 per cent, for instance, considered that their vote in a presidential election would make no difference. For many Americans, it was their country's foreign commitments and military exertions necessary to win the Cold War that explained America's current economic problems. American public opinion would henceforth demand that priority be given to domestic problems rather than to the achievement of a New World Order.

A similar sense of malaise was also found in Europe, but for other reasons. Prof. Serfaty contrasted enthusiasm for European political union with the sense of alienation many Europeans felt vis-à-vis their own government and their country's economic and social prospects. As many as 36 per cent of the British, 30 per cent of the French and 24 per cent of Italians would like to settle in another country, if they had the chance. In many EC countries, people were uninterested in politics and were considerably less optimistic about their nation's future, regardless of their own personal well-being.

This diffuse malaise regarding domestic affairs was also reflected in external threat perceptions. A poll conducted in May 1991 in the five largest EC countries revealed a sharp decline in the sense of threat but a very broad spectrum of potentially threatening countries. Even though the then Soviet Union was hardly viewed as a threat, a prevailing mood of uncertainty persuaded many that NATO was still needed as insurance against future risks. Prof. Serfaty was convinced that the high level of support for NATO would be even higher now that the conflict in Yugoslavia and the ethnic unrest in the former Soviet republics had impressed themselves as real political dangers on the public mind.

The gravity of these historical ethnic problems was brought home by Prof. Aimar Altosaar, a social psychologist from Estonia. In his analysis, he observed that public opinion was deeply divided into two distinct groups according to ethnic origin in his country. One group, overwhelmingly Estonian, looked towards the West and fiercely supported Estonian independence from all Russian influence. It wished to draw close to the Western democracies, to the European Community and to NATO. Dr Altosaar cited a poll carried out in November 1991, which showed that one third of the Estonian population supported alliance with NATO, while only 19 per cent opposed the idea. Almost half of the population wished Estonia to apply for EC membership in the near future.

The other group was made up primarily of ethnic Russians who had settled in Estonia. They looked to the East, seeing Russia as the "good and careful mother" of all the former Soviet republics. The representatives of this group still believed the West was imperialistic and a threat to world peace.

In addition to these ethnic divisions, regional and historical factors were also decisive in forming Estonian public opinion. Prof. Altosaar reported that his people looked overwhelmingly to Northern Europe rather than Central Europe in determining their national security and national interests. Their immediate problems - such as food shortages and lack of established democratic institutions - made Estonians highly nationalistic, giving them a somewhat unrealistic approach to international issues. Thus even if Estonia werestill enjoying the euphoria of independence, Prof. Altosaar believed, like Prof. Serfaty, that the popular mood would soon be more sober, particularly if the political and economic situation in neighbouring Russia worsened and the current positive perception of Russian leaders turned sour.

Dangers of nuclear proliferation

The speakers also stressed how the threat of nuclear war, which had had a stabilizing effect on East-West relations during the Cold War, has been replaced by the dangerous fragmentation of governmental and military authority in the former Soviet Union, with the possibility of new nuclear powers emerging. Both Dr. Philip Everts of Leiden University in the Netherlands and Prof. Tatyana Zaslavskaya of the Soviet Centre for Public Opinion and Market Research in Moscow, highlighted nuclear proliferation as the greatest threat to security today both in Europe and worldwide.

Prof. Zaslavskaya reported on a poll that her Centre had conducted in January 1992 in three "nuclear" republics - Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Only 12 per cent of respondents believed the ties among the states in the CIS would become stronger. Twenty-one per cent overall thought the Commonwealth would disintegrate, and in Ukraine the figure was as high as 55 per cent. As many as 30 per cent overall believed the risk of the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict between the republics was "rather high", with more such pessimists in Russia and Ukraine than in Kazakhstan. Thirty-nine per cent were concerned about inadequate storage of nuclear weapons, and 37 per cent took the prospect of accidental use very seriously, particularly given the divisions within the armed forces. A majority believed that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had increased the danger of nuclear war. Accordingly, over two-thirds of the respondents in Russia advocated the concentration of all nuclear weapons in their homeland, but public opinion in Ukraine and Kazakhstan was opposed to this idea. This confirmed the existence of enormous political, national and socio-psychological contradictions in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Public opinion in Russia and Ukraine came together, however, in judging that there was a high probability of nuclear weapons being sold abroad (44 per cent). A related danger was that of Soviet nuclear scientists and technicians being tempted to work abroad for the highest bidder, thereby contributing to horizontal proliferation.

This question was also taken up by Dr. Everts. Given the situation in the former Soviet Union described by Professor Zaslavskaya, and following evidence of Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions, he was certain that the "you never know but just in case" argument would continue to justify retention of nuclear weapons by Alliance countries. It would also rally greater public support for investment in strategic defence. Nevertheless, he believed that the end of the Cold War had largely delegitimized nuclear weapons in Western Europe. Public opinion was indeed now ready for massive nuclear disarmament. This mood would support "minimum deterrence" even if the concept was ill-defined, and the rapid phasing out of land based theatre nuclear forces. It would equally push the United Kingdom and France to reconsider their own modernization plans.

Dr Everts believed there would be considerable public support for credible and effective non-proliferation policies, especially to help the CIS with the dismantling of nuclear weapons and measures to prevent technology transfer, a braindrain of Soviet scientists and the strengthening of command and control systems. He warned the seminar that nuclear issues still needed to be handled with great sensitivity by Alliance governments and that the peace movements had not disappeared with the Cold War. If Alliance governments declined to reduce their own levels of nuclear weapons or persisted with modernization plans, the peace movements could easily be revived.

No quick fix solutions

The prevailing mood, described by the speakers, was one of living in a period of transition in which the balance of power, or even of the terror of the Cold War, had not yet been replaced by a new balance of forces. The Soviet threat of the past had been clearly perceived as massive. Yet it was also one-dimensional, being essentially military in nature, and thus could be effectively contained. At the same time, it had a certain abstract quality, affecting very little the daily lives of citizens in NATO countries. On the other hand, the economic and social costs of Soviet domination of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics had been high and the seminar was told how profoundly important their freedom and independence - which the West takes for granted - are to them.

The uncertainties of Europe today, aggravated by the continuing recession, appeared all the more foreboding once public opinion perceived that governments did not have quick fix solutions to current economic and social problems. Thus even if these problems were of a non-military kind, they could still be looked upon as security threats, possibly acquiring over time a military dimension. This was particularly the case with immigration which, in many Western European countries, had reached the proportions of a new threat, both as a scapegoat to explain shortcomings and also as further evidence of the inadequacy of the traditional political parties to respond to the consequent social and political challenges and potential instability. Prof. Serfaty produced polling results which revealed that anti-immigrant sentiment was rising in virtually every European country. Four-fifths of Germans in the former Federal Republic, two-thirds of Britons and also of the French objected to new immigrants. In France, Italy, Britain, Germany and Spain those advocating more controls massively outnumbered those favouring the status quo.

The fear of immigrants was improving the political fortunes of right wing parties across Europe, and this was a fear that was not about to subside. According to a study carried out by a Munich research institute and quoted at the seminar, one out of every four citizens of the former Soviet Union would like to settle in Germany. From the south, the threat was viewed as even more sizeable, and the rise of Islamic sentiment in Algeria had made it more immediate. It was estimated that over the next 10 years, there would be a yearly labour surplus of around four million youths across the Arab world, with about 60 per cent of them concentrated in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan. During the same period, the European Community's population would be essentially stagnant. After that, it was expected to show active growth, while the population in the North African countries would continue to rise dramatically.

Apart from identifying the major trends in public opinion, another objective of the seminar was to see how perceptions of NATO were changing as the popular mood became more apprehensive not of a new Cold War, but of the uncertainties which had surfaced in its aftermath. In his introductory address to the seminar, Secretary General Manfred Woerner stressed NATO's enduring value not only as an agent of political change in Europe but also as the continent's only functioning security organization able to guarantee the security of its members against all present or potential risks. In his overall political appraisal, the Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ambassador Gebhardt von Moltke, described the Alliance's much broader and more political concept of security in the post-Cold War world. In particular, he emphasized the Alliance's vision of a framework of interlocking institutions in which NATO, the EC, WEU and the CSCE would cooperate even more intensely to handle security problems that no single organization was capable of solving alone.

Crucial stabilizing role

The dual function of NATO - on the one hand an effective insurance and protection against risks, while on the other, a projector of political stability outward into Central and Eastern Europe - has been made effective, and also relevant to the new situation in Europe, as a result of the Alliance's process of transformation. The seminar's findings showed conclusively that public opinion both understood and appreciated the crucial stabilizing role of NATO in Europe's long period of transition. Views that the Alliance's mission had ended with the Cold War or that European security could be safely entrusted to other organizations, were virtually non-existent. Prof. Serfaty reported that if asked to choose between the Atlantic Alliance and a Europeanized alliance, large majorities in all major EC countries chose the former.

Public opinion within and outside the Alliance supported a continued American military presence in Europe by a wide margin. According to a poll conducted in May 1991, only in Spain did a narrow majority agree that the United States should no longer participate in the defence of Europe. In all four other EC countries polled, the idea that the US should leave NATO or that US forces should withdraw from Europe was dismissed by a 2 to 1 majority or better.

This continuing popular endorsement of NATO did, however, contain some nuances,as highlighted by Mr. Pascal Venesson of the Centre d'Etudes sur la vie politique franiaise, Paris, in his presentation. Mr. Venesson agreed that overall levels of support for NATO had remained remarkably consistent between 1980 and 1991, despite sweeping political and military changes in Europe. Indeed, according to Eurobarometer statistics, (1) the number of those who considered NATO essential in 1991 had actually risen by a slight margin. Seventy four per cent of Danes, 68 per cent of Germans and 72 per cent of the British, for instance, held this view. Interestingly, over the past decade, French public opinion had become more favourable to NATO. Nonetheless, Mr Venesson believed that these high levels of support for the Alliance were the result of short term factors, such as the impact of the Gulf War, and that support was eroding slowly over the long term. This was caused by the disappearance of the classic threat and the public's perception that other organisations were playing a more important role in upholding security and stability.

In particular, support for NATO varied significantly from one country to the next, and was much lower in the Southern region than elsewhere in the Alliance. This led Mr. Venesson to speak of a NATO of the North and a NATO of the South. However, despite this gap, he did note a narrowing of the difference. For instance in 1988, it was 55 per cent between Spain and the United Kingdom; by 1991 only 32 per cent between Denmark and Spain. Another qualifying factor was the greater support for the Alliance among men than among women (63 per cent compared to 58 per cent). It was also clear that NATO was more popular among centre-right voters, especially those who were prosperous and middle-aged than among centre-left voters, particularly those who were young.

With respect to the popular perception of a European security and defence identity, Mr'Venesson concluded that the North/South divide in the Alliance was again in evidence, with the Danes, Germans and British tending to favour NATO, while the Greeks, Italians, French and Spanish looked more to a European identity. In the light of the Gulf experience, public opinion in many EC countries accorded a high priority to greater European integration and cooperation in security and defence questions. Yet this support in principle did not always imply support for the practical implications. For instance, public opinion was lukewarm, particularly in Germany, Denmark and Spain, regarding an EC intervention force. Polls showed that political and monetary integration were viewed with greater enthusiasm than military integration, while defence was still seen by many as a reponsibility for each individual country rather than for any international organization. Thus in the defence field, the nation state appeared to be holding up better than in the political and economic fields.

Much to learn from public opinion analyses

In general, public support for NATO therefore remains firm in Western Europe, even if there are certain nuances relating to geography, gender, political affiliation, nationalism and the magnetism of the European idea that make this support less than unshakeable. In Central and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the Alliance is seen less as an insurance against uncertainty and long term risks and more as an immediate source of protection and security. This was brought out graphically by Mr. Mihcly Beke, a journalist from Hungary who underlined the much greater sense of insecurity felt by Eastern compared to Western Europeans. There was fear that internal ethnic strife could lead to international conflicts in which some countries were at an acute military disadvantage. Less than ever before in this fragmented security environment, could Central and Eastern Europe be considered as a bloc.

Hungary was attempting to improve its security through cooperation with its neighbours but these regional efforts could not succeed without Western involvement, thus the aspiration for neutrality after years of Soviet domination was now increasingly seen as incompatible with the enjoyment of security. Mr. Beke, like Prof. Altosaar, stressed the desire of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to draw even closer to NATO, a mood that both governments and the broad mass of public opinion shared. Mr. Beke pointed out that while Hungarians appreciated the recent qualitative enhancement of the cooperation between NATO and the Central and Eastern European countries, they also believed the Alliance could and should do even more to help them with their security concerns.

The Alliance's recently formed North Atlantic Cooperation Council could be of great importance in projecting stability across the new Commonwealth of Independent States. As in Western Europe and the United States, the CSCE, despite its recent institutionalization and its growing importance among diplomats, seemed to mean very little to public opinion in Central and Eastern Europe. Thus the people in this region, while looking to NATO for more concrete support, accepted that they had to be patient and that, with no other alternative, the links between NATO and the Central and Eastern European countries would develop over time.

As in previous years, this seminar showed that the Alliance could still learn a great deal from public opinion analyses. One crucial lesson, in particular, was that controversies regarding specific policies rarely affected the underlying bedrock of support for Alliance membership. Public opinion is always the decisive factor in defining political choices in any democracy. Yet, as the Secretary General stressed in his introductory remarks, it is not an immutable factor that only constrains politicians but is one which can also be imaginatively used by them. The favourable disposition in both Western and Central and Eastern Europe to the Alliance's dual role as guarantor and stabilizer is as much the result of NATO's own conscious efforts to transform itself as it is of pessimism regarding the future. It confirms NATO's unpre-cedented freedom to assume additional political responsibilities and develop institutional links to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and with other European organizations. Yet the analysis of public opinion also usefully serves to identify the new security questions that NATO must address if it is to retain its high level of public support over the long term and take on any new tasks.


(1) Eurobarometer Public Opinion in the European Community. European Commission, Directorate-General Information, Communication and Culture, Rue de la Loi 200, B-1049 Brussels, Belgium.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1992.