Research shows that Americans are more willing to be involved in world affairs than they have been for a very long time. Americans are becoming aware that a leading role of the US in the world is important to their security and to their prosperity and increasingly, for their freedom.
This interview was conducted as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. Each year, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw sponsors a select number of journalists for an independent, transatlantic trip to research stories relevant to the foundation’s work on climate & energy policy, democracy & human rights and foreign & security policy. Fellowships are selected annually and are open to journalists in any medium. Adam L. Reichardt, the Chef Editor of New Eastern Europe, is one of the three fellows in 2019 edition. During his fellowship, Adam investigated the social perception of the Russian interference in American democracy and the support for multilateral cooperation within NATO.
Interview with Ivo Daalder*, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Adam Reichardt: I wanted to start by looking at Americans’ view towards their country’s membership in NATO. A recent polling actually suggests, surprisingly, that American support for NATO is very high. A Gallup survey from March found that 77% of Americans support their NATO membership while recent research which you published found that 70% of Americans believe that the US should take an active part in world affairs. This is an interesting change from just a couple of years ago when a Pew Research survey found that only 49% of Americans support their NATO and international cooperation. Why do you think there has been this change? Is there a renewed interest in foreign policy, is this a rejection of Donald Trump’s “America first” policy or is it because there has just been a lot of attention recently?
Ivo Daalder: First on the degree to which there has been a change. We don’t actually see the same kind of significant change when it comes to support for NATO. Americans’ support for NATO has always been pretty strong, and today it is stronger than ever. In our most recent survey, in 2018, we found that 75% of Americans believe that the US should maintain or increase its commitment to NATO. And of those, 18% think it should be an increase. This is the highest it has been since 1974 when we have started researching support for NATO. So the question you ask rightly is “Why”? And not only regarding NATO, but also support for our alliances overall and support for international trade and engagement in the world.
In our research, we see Americans being more willing to be involved in world affairs than they have been for a very long time. I think the reason is that when something is questioned, which has been taken for granted for too long, it becomes more valuable. It is kind of like oxygen, you do not know how important it is for your ability to live until oxygen disappears. We can ignore whether NATO is important or not until we have an administration – or in this case a president – who starts asking for the first time really in 70 years some very serious questions about continued America’s commitment. What we see, as a response, are Americans becoming aware that a leading role in the world is important to their security and to their prosperity and increasingly to their freedom.
Could you speak a little more about your polling methodology? Do you look at different geographies or different demographics of Americans?
We have been polling since 1974, for 45 years. We have the longest longitudinal study on this topic, so we've asked the same kinds of questions over time to see whether there is change. The big question that you mentioned – “do Americans want to stay and have an active role in world affairs or stay out of world affairs?” – we have been asking that every year since 1974. And in 2018 it was the highest it has been, except for one other time in 2002 immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Our survey of about 2000 randomly selected people does have a demographic and regional breakdown, but the reality is that the largest differences among Americans are not geographical. The Midwest is not more isolationist than the East and West coasts. The real difference today is based on political party support. Democrats and Republicans have very different views, and increasingly differing views, on a whole range of issues compared to 15 or 20 years ago when the differences among Democrats and Republicans were not that big. Now Republicans in particular have become outliers compared to Democrats on some issues. Some differences are also generational. Young people are more, and they have always been, supportive of multilateral forms of engagement and less ready use of force than older Americans. But today the visible differences are based on which political party someone supports.
And if we think about NATO specifically, would you say that there is good understanding among Americans of what NATO is and what is the purpose of it?
There is a reasonable understanding. People understand that NATO means our allies, that they are our friends and we tend to work together when there is a military conflict. I would say there is not a deep understanding of all 13 articles of the North Atlantic treaty, nor a deep understanding of how NATO operates in Brussels. But Americans understand – and this is the really big issue – that NATO is a defense alliance. Similar to trends in Europe, general support for NATO is higher than support for the willingness to use military force to fulfil NATO commitment. For the past 10 years, we have been surveying Americans asking whether they favored the use of US troops in the case a NATO ally like Poland or a Baltic state is attacked. That used to less than the majority, but now it is more than the majority. And again, today is the highest it has ever been – 64%. It is higher, frankly, than most European NATO members.
It is well known that Donald Trump has been very critical of some members of the Alliance, particularly those who do not pay the agreed 2% of GDP on defense. Some of that criticism has been taken pretty badly in Western Europe and we hear some Western Europeans now talking about a new crisis in transatlantic relations. Do you think that there is a crisis in transatlantic relations?
Let me separate out the question of burden sharing from the question of the crisis in the Alliance, because they are not necessarily the same. Donald Trump is not the first president, and he won't be the last, to make the case that Europeans need to spend more on defense. Harry Truman in 1952, for example, said that the Europeans needed to deploy 96 divisions in order to counter the Soviet threat. So we have been at it for a long time and some Europeans are not spending enough on defense – so there is nothing wrong in making that argument.
Interestingly, we have done some polling on what is the most effective way to get Europeans to spend more on defense. Should it be by threatening to not fulfill the commitment to NATO? Or should it be through diplomacy and persuasion. Overwhelming majorities think it should be through diplomacy and persuasion, not by threats. We even looked at how Republicans look at that question and there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans, as you would expect, but if you look at those Republicans who have a very favorable view of Donald Trump, they think you should be threatening to not fulfill commitments. Those republicans who don't have a favorable view of Trump are much more like Democrats. So it's the tactics by which he is making his case that most Americans do not support.
This gets to the issue of the crisis in transatlantic relations. The question and the real reason the potential now for a crisis is whether this president is committed to the values on which NATO was founded. Those values are a strong commitment to human rights and democracy and the rule of law and a strong commitment to mutual security. It is well understood that Article 5 – that an attack against one is an attack against all – is fundamental to the security structure in Europe. This is why countries like Poland joined NATO in 1999. It is why NATO expanded its reach into other countries in order to provide that security guarantee, so countries have the confidence to transform politically and economically knowing that NATO was founded on this essential principle that we favor common defense. Now, the first time since 1949, we have a president of the United States who has put a question mark behind that principle. He did it in May 2017 when he refused to even endorse Article 5 in front of the new NATO headquarters at the very time when he was unveiling a monument to the 9/11 attacks – which was the only time Article 5 had ever been invoked to defend the United States. You read that in Poland or Estonia or in Lithuania and you ask - can we count on this president? The reality is that alliances are not only based on capability and how much we spend on defense. They are fundamentally based on trust. Governments need to have confidence in the willingness of other governments to come to their aid when defense is at stake. If that confidence disappears, the entire system falls apart.
You bring up Poland which has been one of the countries that does spend the 2% and it is very interested now in getting more support from US troops and looking into trying to get a US base in Poland. What is your assessment of this? Do you think there is a chance that the US would move in this direction? They agreed recently to an increase in US troop presence, but what about a permanent base?
I think the question of a permanent base or increasing capabilities is tied to two things. One is that there is always a need by a country that feels the most threatened and is most dependent on the help of another country. Poland feels threatened given what's happening with Putin’s Russia. There is a constant need for countries to be reassured about the importance of the commitments and the physical manifestation of that reassurance is very powerful. Troops and bases are one way in which countries traditionally say: “We care for your security, we are going to be there when needed.” So the question is – how much is needed for deterrence. This is more important now, because the President of the United States has questioned his country’s commitment to NATO. So, the only way to make the commitment real is with physical troops and a base.
In my opinion, however, it shouldn’t be a question of a regular base versus a rotating presence. This is less important than how quickly we can reinforce the defense of Poland or the defense of the Baltic states. Is our command structure and logistical capabilities able to do so? What is the overall capacity of the alliance and how quickly can we get forces, for example, from Texas to Gdansk in order to deal with the threat that may be arising or has already arisen? Those are the fundamental questions of deterrence. Frankly a military base is expensive. By the way, under Donald Trump there is no way the Americans are going to pay for the base – so you will have to pay for it yourself. If you had the money in Poland to pay for a base, I’d rather suggest investing in more aircraft or more tanks and more capability than a base (which will be just moving troops from Germany to Poland). With this issue, we are dealing with psychology rather than real needs. Psychology’s important and as I've mentioned when trust is in short supply, physical manifestations of commitment is important. I'm not against a base in Poland, but I'm not in favor of it either. However, the fact that President Andrzej Duda, when he was in Washington, was unable to convince Trump on the base makes it less likely that it will happen any time soon.
Moving on towards relations with Russia, because this is another area that I'm interested in and we have been touching on it a little. What is your current assessment of US relations with Russia? It seems especially from the outside, but probably also from the inside, that the White House has one type of approach towards Russia, while the rest of the foreign policy establishment, including Congress, has completely different attitudes towards it. How should countries from outside, especially the Allies, interpret the current US approach towards Russia and Vladimir Putin?
The difference really is between Donald Trump and everyone else. During the 2016 campaign, Trump ran on the idea that a strong and positive relationship with Putin and Russia would be a positive for the United States. There was a clear fascination and a clear sense on the president’s part that a positive and strong personal relationship with Putin is a good thing. No one else agrees – including those in his own administration. The National Security Advisor John Bolton does not. And Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, doesn't as well. I don’t know what the new acting defense secretary Mark Esper thinks about this issue, but I doubt he thinks it is a good idea. Nobody in the Congress, not a single Republican or Democrat or anybody in the foreign policy community agrees with the president on this. This is singular, it is specific to the president.
Part of Trump’s fascination comes from his belief that the legitimacy of his election depends on him denying that the Russians did anything bad in 2016. He sees the arguments that the Russians interfered in the election and that Putin wanted Trump to win as challenging the legitimacy of his victory. In my view I don’t think that is the case. I think the question of interference and the question of who won the election are separate questions. But in any case, Trump has combined them just like many of his critics. And as a result we have this really strange reality that the President of the United States seems to have a fondness for Vladimir Putin. The difficulty that that creates in Europe is two-fold. First, there are a lot of people who agree with him, like Matteo Salvini in Italy or Marine LePen in France and much of the far-right in Western and Southern Europe who have an affinity to Putin (or on the left side are people like Gerhard Schröder). Plenty of people throughout Europe, including the Hungarian government, want to have a very strong and positive relationship with Putin. On the other side are those who I would say have a realistic view of the president of Russia including Angela Merkel and of course the governments of Poland and the Baltic states.
In essence, what Trump is doing is he is splitting that essential division that has been there for a really long period of time. It has always changed on where it was between those who think that Russia needs to be confronted with strength and those who believe it needs to be done on the basis of dialogue. That's a long-standing difference within Europe. It existed before and during the Cold War. It got bigger in the 1990s and certainly in the last 15 years, and Trump is playing straight into this. Division is the one thing that the Russians have been trying to achieve, like the Soviets before them. So if you are sitting in Warsaw or your sitting in the German chancellery and you see Trump and what he's trying to do with Putin you get a little worried.
You mentioned the Russian interference in the election in 2016. The US is about to go through another election cycle in 2020, do you think there were any lessons learned due to the Russian influence in US democracy? Are we risking that it could happen again in 2020?
Yes, the lesson that was learned was that in fact foreign powers do interfere in one's election. The second lesson is that you need to have a united country to deal with that and not make it a political issue. The problem here is that it has become a political issue. A president of the United States is unwilling to acknowledge and accept that this is a real threat. He has even said publicly that foreign interference in elections is fine if it benefits one side over the other. That is deeply corrosive for the democratic system and makes it much harder to have an adequate defense against this kind of interference which, by the way, is not only Russian. It is also Chinese, probably Iranian, maybe even North Korean. We need to have a much better capable defense against this. We should hope that a country, however divided politically on who should win what election, could unite on this issue. That an election ought to be decided by American voters and not by foreign powers interfering. But that is not the case. Congress has not passed the legislation needed to bolster the security of our election system. We are weakening our defenses, so the lesson is to know what could happen and if you don't do anything about it, it is going to happen again.
It is a problem in Europe as well. Is there a role for NATO in all in this?
There is a role for strategic communications. There is a center of excellence in Latvia which deals with that. Of course, there is a role for cyber-defense, but that also crosses the private-public divide, and it is very difficult for a military alliance to get involved in private business activities. This is where the European Union could do more, in managing cyber-defense activities with the business community.
Coming back to the 2020 US presidential election, how important do you think foreign policy and security issues will be in 2020 presidential election or maybe even the primary of the Democratic party, which started with its first debates in July?
Assuming there is no big crisis, like Iran or a worsening of the relationship with China, which is a big assumption by the way, but assuming that we are where we are today – I think foreign policy will continue to have a marginal role in the election. It has never had an important role in elections and is unlikely in this election. Unless you can demonstrate that the actions of the President have resulted in real fundamental problems for a large number of Americans, it becomes very difficult to make that case. The president may want to try to do this, he's doing it on immigration which in some sense is a domestic policy issue but in another sense is a foreign policy issue. It is similar for China. If we get into 2020 and are in a large trade war with China, this may have a big impact on the economic development of the United States, this may have an influence on the election. Looking at the Democratic primaries, I don’t think foreign policy is going play a big role. The big issue there is who will be the most able to unite democrats and beat Trump. The extent that foreign policy is an ingredient in that effort may have some influence on the Democratic nomination process. Presumably that would help Joe Biden because he has more foreign policy experience over others. But if Biden is the nominee, the overwhelming reason would be because people think he's more likely to beat Trump, not because he has foreign policy experience.
*Ivo Daalder is the President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was the US ambassador to NATO during 2009-2013.
Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.