What Europe Thinks ...

January 06, 2021

What Europe Thinks … About Security and Defense

Opinions polls show that Europeans want their continent to become more of an independent power. In most countries, however, they still look to the Americans to do the fighting.

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A graph showing support for US security involvement in Europe in France, Germany, the United States

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The European security and defense realm and European public opinion have a difficult relationship. While in most other policy areas the public interest generally prevails, this is not the case for security and defense questions in many European countries. In fact, one could almost consider it a success of defense policy that the topic is not in the news much and thus the subject of debate, as this means that there are no immediate security concerns.

This is short-sighted, of course, because there is always some security concern. As the writer Robert Heinlein noted so poignantly: “Peace is a condition in which no civilian pays any attention to military casualties which do not achieve page-one, lead-story prominence—unless that civilian is a close relative of one of the casualties. But if there ever was a time in history when ‘peace’ meant that there was no fighting going on, I have been unable to find out about it.”

Still, in most European countries, security and defense questions tend to not be at the center of public debate. Arguably, this decreases the value of public opinion polls; if security and defense questions are rarely discussed, the public is less likely to be well informed, which means that their views are more likely to be unfounded and incoherent.

So, polls on security and defense—as all public opinion polls—should be taken with a grain of salt, also because it has been shown that the way a question is framed can impact the result quite significantly. For example, when Germans were asked the following question: “Currently the US nuclear umbrella plays a crucial role for German security. Should Germany a) continue to rely on the US, b) seek nuclear protection from France and the United Kingdom, c) develop its own nuclear weapons, or d) forego nuclear protection?,” a minority of 31 percent of Germans chose the last option and rejected nuclear weapons completely, while 69 percent wanted some continuation of a nuclear umbrella (22 percent were in favor of a continued US nuclear umbrella, 40 percent wanted a nuclear protection from France and the UK, and 7 percent were in favor of a German nuclear weapon, according to the Körber Stiftung's 2019 The Berlin Pulse.

When, however, the question regarding the continuation of “nuclear sharing” was asked without the above reference to its importance for German security, a clear majority of 66 percent of Germans said that Germany should forego nuclear deterrence completely, according to the Munich Security Conference’s recent “Germany 2020” special edition. (Among those who supported nuclear deterrence, the preference for a European over a US solution was however similar.)  

Should Public Opinion Be Ignored?

Given all this, shouldn’t one then simply stop taking public opinion polls on security and defense matters seriously? Of course not. Because here is the crux of the matter: despite all of the above, opinion polls matter—and have to in a democracy. The role of politicians in a democracy is to represent the will of the people, and to lead the debates. Plus, one shouldn’t forget that politicians are members of the general public, too, which means that polls are likely to reflect their views as well.

And, despite examples like the nuclear question above, one can observe some consistency in polling data on European views on security-related questions such as on the role of the US in Europe’s security or the importance of NATO, which is worth taking note of.

Looking at those issues, the following picture emerges: More Europeans than not want the US engaged in European security, though the margin is a small one and the answer varies by country. There is, however, a growing support for Europe becoming stronger on defense, and for Europeans to cooperate more on defense and security policy. Still, when asked about situations in which their countries would need to act militarily, all prefer the US to take on the leading role, if not to be the sole actor. On a human level, this may be understandable—who wouldn’t prefer others to do the work, given the choice. Politically, however, this poses problems for both the transatlantic relationship, and for the creation of stronger European capabilities.

The 2020 Transatlantic Trends opinion poll by the German Marshall Fund found that 59 percent of Germans want the US “greatly involved” or “somewhat involved” in the defense and security if Europe, while the same was true for only 45 percent of French. The German result is confirmed by another poll, the 2020 edition of The Berlin Pulse, which found that 54 percent of Germans were in support of partnering with the US on protecting European security. At the same time, Germans, as well as other Europeans, want Europe to strengthen its capabilities: 51 percent of Germans agreed with the statement that “Germany and Europe should become more independent from the United States.” This is not just a German result. In the Netherlands, according to a poll conducted by Clingendael, 53 percent said they want their country to cooperate militarily with their neighbors. Equally, Eurobarometer finds a high level of support for European cooperation on defense and security policy, with all EU countries polling at over 60 percent on that question.

Linked to the question of European capabilities and US support is Europeans’ views of NATO. And although there are substantial differences between different countries, the large majority of European NATO countries have a favorable view of the alliance. Poland has the highest number with 82 percent favorable views, but countries of various sizes and from various parts of Europe such as the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, and Lithuania all have very high favorable views, too. The only states (among the 16 NATO states polled) in which the unfavorable views outweigh the favorable views are Greece and Turkey, two countries that find themselves in a long-running territorial dispute.

However, polls also reveal that when given the choice, Europeans would prefer to leave the hard decisions—and actions—to the US. For example, Pew asked about a hypothetical scenario in which Russia militarily attacked a neighboring country and NATO ally (i.e. a European NATO member). In every single European country polled, a higher share of the population said they assumed the US would defend that country, rather than wanting to see their own country act. In some countries—most notably the Eastern Europeans, but also the Netherlands—the difference is small, as these countries’ populations would be willing to commit troops. In others, such as Italy and Greece, the difference is more substantial, with only 25 percent of Italians wanting to commit their own forces, and 75 percent saying that the US would do so.

Taken together, the polls reveal that making Europe a stronger power in the defense realm is not an easy task, as European populations may support the goal in theory, but in practice remain largely reliant on the US. It is now up to politicians to create a coherent vision for Europe’s defense and Europe’s relationship with the US that takes into account public opinions.

Ulrike Franke is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London.