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President Obama with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. NATO

NATO summit: Despite high public support for defense spending in Europe, discord over burden sharing emerges

The NATO summit in Warsaw that wrapped up on July 9 demonstrated once again that the defense spending effort of European allies remains a contentious issue in the alliance.

On the eve of the summit, news reports indicated that American officials had prepared a briefing designed in part to “name and shame” NATO members who had failed to meet the agreed alliance commitment to devote two percent of GDP to defense. At the close of the summit, President Obama, who had recently offered his opinion that “free riders aggravate me,” stated in his press conference:

“The majority of allies are still not hitting that two percent mark… So we had a very candid conversation about this.”

High support for spending

There is some irony in the debate being reopened at just this moment. As the graphic below shows, European public support for increased defense spending in 2016 is higher than at any time since 2002. Between 2002 and 2012, a majority supported increasing defense in only two countries – Poland and the United Kingdom.

In 2016, majority support exists in all but one country – Spain.

The graphic shows net support for increased defense spending: that is, the percentage who support increased spending relative to the total who have an opinion about change in spending. More details on the source of these surveys are here.

Graph conversation. German Marshall Fund of the United States and Pew Global Attitudes Survey 2016

Perhaps not surprisingly, NATO governments have already acted on this increased level of support by announcing plans to increase defense spending.

France and Germany, which have two of the largest defense budgets on the European side of the alliance, both have announced plans for multiyear increases after many years of cuts. Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also announced substantial increases.

In a statement delivered in Warsaw July 8, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted the planned increases in spending and observed:

“We still have a long way to go. But, I believe that we have turned a corner.”

Will it last?

Despite this confidence, it would be premature to conclude that public support for increasing defense will continue to be high.

One reason is that support for defense tends to decline after spending is increased – a phenomenon that political scientist Christopher Wlezien labeled a “thermostat effect” in his signal study of American public opinion on defense spending. Richard Stoll and I found the same thermostat effect in a study of European public opinion.

This thermostat phenomenon is visible in the below graphic, which shows net support for defense spending for four countries for which we have historical opinion data. In these four countries, when defense spending was declining, support for more defense increased, and the reverse is also true. Other things being equal, then, we would expect that several years of increases in defense spending would yield a subsequent decline in public support for continuing that increase.

Graph conversation. Richard Eichenberg, Public Opinion and National Security in Western Europe, Cornell University Press, 1989; see figure above for additional sources

In light of President Obama’s observation that “free riders aggravate me,” it is important to point out that free riding does not seem to motivate European public opinion. Quite the contrary: Richard Stoll and I have shown in a recent study that Europeans who favor strong American global leadership and close partnership with the U.S. are more likely to support increased defense spending. Were free riding on their minds, the opposite would be the case.

Of course, other factors may affect public opinion. For example, should Europe be so unfortunate as to experience another major terrorist attack, or should Russia initiate additional aggressive actions in Ukraine or the Baltics, then support for defense spending is unlikely to reverse in a dramatic way.

A changing Europe

An additional factor in determining spending will be the condition of the European economy. Recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 has been sluggish in most of Europe, and several key members of NATO remain under economic and budgetary pressure.

For example, France, Italy and Spain, all countries with substantial defense budgets, have high unemployment rates and budget deficits. Italy’s banks are in trouble and may require some form of bailout from national or European institutions.

The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, so-called “Brexit,” may also create constraints on its defense budget. Responding in part to direct criticism from President Obama, U.K. Prime Minister Cameron had agreed in 2015 to minimize intended cuts to the defense budget. However, most analysts expect that Brexit will lead to at least some economic dislocation that will slow revenues and require budget cuts, including cuts to the defense budget.

Among these uncertainties, however, one thing seems certain: Germany will play a key role in NATO’s future.

Germany is unique among the major European NATO allies. Its economy is strong and its public finances are sound. Historically, support for NATO and transatlantic ties have been strong in Germany. As noted above, support for defense spending is currently high compared to past trends. Finally, in recent years leading German politicians have expressed a willingness to reverse the traditional reticence Germany has displayed toward exercising a leadership role in international affairs.

However, it would be unwise for Americans to assume that Germany will be an uncomplicated partner. For one thing, despite the recent increase in support for defense spending, Germans remain skeptical of military force as an instrument of policy.

For example, among eight NATO members surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2015, Germans ranked last in their willingness to come to the defense of its allies. Further, although support for defense spending is high at the moment, historically this support is among the lowest in the alliance. And as I suggested above, if you look at past trends in public opinion, the planned increases in German defense spending are likely to yield a decline in support.

Although public support for defense spending is currently high, a number of factors suggest that the future is likely to bring continuing debate and contention on the issue of sharing the burden of defense in NATO.

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