Revue de l'OTAN

No. 1 - Jan. 1997
Vol. 45 - pp. 9-11

The American public,
Congress and NATO enlargement

Steven Kull,
Director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes

Steven Kull
As NATO prepares for the process of enlargement, the importance of public and parliamentary support in the current member countries, particularly in the United States, should not be underestimated. The following two articles address the salient questions of whether the American public will support extending security guarantees to new members and whether the US Congress will muster the two-thirds Senate majority required to ratify the addition of new members. Both articles are derived from a study of US public and Congressional attitudes on NATO expansion by the Project on Attitudes Towards the Transatlantic Community. The Project is a joint study of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland (which is studying US public attitudes) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (which is studying US congressional attitudes). PIPA's Steven Kull and Carnegie's Jeremy Rosner are co-directors of the Project.

Part I
Is there sufficient public support?

How does the American public feel about the prospect of bringing in new members of NATO, including the extension of security guarantees that this entails? Though there is presently little public attention to this question, the issue could gain a higher public profile during the process of ratifying a new treaty commitment, and in the future, should it require significant commitments of US troops or money. To answer this question, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) organized a series of focus groups and conducted a nation-wide poll of 1,214 Americans from 14-20 September (margin of error: 4 per cent).

The poll found that a substantial majority of Americans supports NATO expansion and that this support is fairly resilient in the face of the kinds of challenges that are likely to arise in the ratification process.

Even support for contributing US troops to defend new members is surprisingly strong. At the same time, awareness of the issue is quite low and few Americans feel a sense of urgency about NATO expansion. A strong majority favours pacing it in a way that accommodates Russian concerns.

Interestingly, the public's motives for wanting to expand NATO are not derived from a concern about the potential Russian threat as much as from a desire to remove the divisions of the Cold War. The majority would like to see NATO expand beyond its function as a political/military alliance and become a more inclusive and diverse security system that could, some day, even include Russia.

Support for NATO expansion

When respondents were asked directly whether they favour or oppose "expanding NATO to include some Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic," 62 per cent said they favoured doing so (27 per cent strongly), while 29 per cent were opposed (14 per cent strongly). There were no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.

This is approximately the same level of support that was found in a January 1994 ABC/ Washington Post poll in which 64 per cent agreed that "Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should be allowed to join NATO." In contrast, an October 1994 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found only 42 per cent support and a very high 26 per cent saying 'don't know'. However, the way in which the question is phrased is critical. In this instance, the question described only the US as having responsibility to defend new members - something to which Americans, in other polls, have been shown to be highly sensitive.

In the PIPA poll, when asked about admitting specific countries, respondents were told to keep "in mind that the US together with other NATO members must defend any NATO country that comes under attack", resulting in a majority favouring admitting eight out of ten countries.

Respondents also heard a battery of arguments both in favour and in opposition to NATO expansion and were asked to evaluate each one. (These arguments were developed in conjunction with a number of congressional staffers who represented the range of opinion on the issue.) After hearing the arguments, support remained just as strong as before. Further, the majority found eight of the ten 'pro' arguments convincing but only three of the 'con' arguments so, indicating that support for NATO enlargement is likely to be fairly resilient.

There were, however, two other questions that did reveal some softening of support. When informed that the financial cost of NATO expansion would require increasing the defence budget by approximately US$ 1 billion per year, only a plurality of 46 per cent said that admitting new members would be "worth the cost". Also, when asked whether they would favour admitting new members assuming that this would mean "possibly even using nuclear arms" to defend them, only a plurality of 44 per cent said they would favour doing so. These findings, however, need to be viewed in light of the fact that the US public resists increasing the defence budget per se and that it has historically resisted the idea of using nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.

Interestingly, despite the fairly robust level of support for NATO enlargement, awareness of the issue is low. Asked how much they have heard about the issue only 7 per cent said "a great deal" and 22 per cent said "some"; on the other hand, 33 per cent said "not very much" and 38 per cent said "nothing at all". (Support for NATO expansion was significantly higher for those who had greater awareness).

There is also very little sense of urgency for NATO expansion. Only 18 per cent felt that it is important for it to occur quickly.

Using US troops to defend new members

Naturally a key question is whether Americans would really be willing to send US troops to defend a new NATO member from attack. To explore this question, half of the respondents were asked whether they would or would not support sending US troops to help defend Poland if it came under attack. A strikingly high number of 68 per cent said that they would, even if the attacker were Russia. Twenty-five per cent said they would not.

When the other half sample was asked the question in a different way, a higher degree of uncertainty was revealed, though the respondents still favoured making preparations to defend Poland in this scenario. Respondents were given, in addition to the options of saying that they would or would not be willing to commit US troops to defend Poland, the option of saying they were unsure whether they would be ready to do so in the actual event of attack, but that they favour making preparations to do so because this will help deter aggression. In this case, a plurality of 45 per cent opted for this more equivocal position, while 37 per cent simply said they would be ready to send troops, and only 13 per cent said that they would not.

Emphasis on inclusiveness

When presented the choice between a pair of arguments, 65 per cent embraced the one that said "the West should not move too quickly on expanding NATO because Russia feels threatened by NATO expansion and the West's relations with Russia could worsen as a result", while just 25 per cent opted for including Eastern European countries "soon to address the security vacuum in Europe".

However a majority (61 per cent) opposed the idea of making "promises to not move NATO troops or nuclear weapons into Eastern Europe". The argument that this would "be letting Russia dictate NATO policy and would tie NATO's hands to some degree" prevailed over the argument that doing so would "reassure Russia that NATO is not a threat".

Asked to choose between two arguments in favour of NATO expansion, only 22 per cent selected the one that said "NATO should be expanded to make NATO larger and more powerful so that it can more effectively deal with the possibility of a threat from Russia in the future". Sixty-eight per cent chose, instead, the argument that "NATO should be expanded to remove the outdated divisions of the Cold War and help bring Europe together".

Among the ten arguments in favour of NATO expansion, the most popular argument, rated as convincing by 77 per cent, was that, "It is better to include Eastern European countries rather than to exclude them because peace is more likely if we all communicate and work together". The most popular argument against NATO expansion, rated convincing by 62 per cent, was also based on the theme of inclusiveness. It said that "Instead of expanding NATO, something new should be developed that includes Russia rather than treating Russia as an enemy".

Arguments in favour of NATO expansion that stressed the Russian threat and the geopolitical competition with Russia were the most unpopular. Only 35 per cent found convincing the argument that "Russia is very weak and this creates an opportunity for NATO to expand into Eastern Europe and consolidate our victory in the Cold War". Strong majorities also rejected arguments that Russia is inherently aggressive or that US interests will necessarily conflict with those of Russia.

In the focus groups many participants made emphatic and sweeping statements about the need to transform NATO so as to move beyond being a traditional military alliance oriented to the Russian threat. In the poll, there was substantial support for diversifying the functions of NATO to include dealing with threats of terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and aggression, and instability outside of Europe; and to a slightly lesser extent, intervening in conflicts between NATO members and doing peacekeeping in the areas surrounding NATO.

Perhaps the most dramatic indication of the desire to expand NATO's function beyond being a traditional military alliance is the strong support for including Russia in NATO - something that would make NATO more like a collective security system. The idea of including Russia came up spontaneously in the focus groups consistent with the general theme of inclusiveness. In the poll, while a majority hesitated from doing so immediately given the current instability there, once Russia has proven that it is a stable democracy, 65 per cent favoured including it in NATO.

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