Does European Public Opinion Make A Difference?

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Does European Public Opinion Make A Difference?
By: Gabriel Coll

In his last speech as secretary of defense, Robert Gates expressed serious concerns about NATO’s future and the capabilities of its European members. Speaking about the 2011 NATO mission in Libya, he argued that despite the campaign having widespread political support, few countries had the military capabilities to participate directly in combat operations. “Many allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t,” he said. Secretary Gates’s statement raises a key concern that is especially relevant today: When the United States shares common interests with its European partners and allies, what level of military cooperation is actually possible? To help answer this question, it is useful to understand the relationship between public opinion and defense investments.

Following the end of the Cold War, NATO and EU security operations expanded to other regions of the world, most notably with the 13-year-long International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. Over that same time period, competing domestic priorities and economic stagnation constrained defense budgets. Today, however, European countries face a set of security challenges in their own neighborhood, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its ongoing intervention in eastern Ukraine, and the worsening migrant and refugee crisis from the Middle East and North Africa. These challenges, while perceived differently in each country, have led or will lead some countries’ citizens to reconsider the relative importance of their governments’ defense spending. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if and when such shifts in public opinion will actually lead to increased investments in security and defense.

In November, the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group will release a report, titled the Relationship of European Public Opinion on Defense Investments, to provide policymakers with more insight into this issue. Our study team built on past research, focused primarily on how public opinion impacts defense spending, by assessing how public opinion ultimately influences defense investments (calculated by combining procurement and research and development spending). This more targeted approach is useful in measuring spending that is specifically tied to the acquisition of improved military capabilities.

One of the report’s major findings is that in Europe, a public perception in favor of more defense spending leads to an increase in defense investments. But it typically takes three years for the public support to translate to additional dollars. Thus, to the degree that the European public shifts its attitudes favorably on defense in the face of growing security concerns, there should be a notable, yet delayed, increase in defense investments. The question remains whether there will actually be a sustained shift in attitudes in Europe as a whole or in particular regions. Policymakers should, therefore, look at European public opinion as one indicator of whether European partners and allies will invest in improved military capabilities in the future.

Gabriel Coll is the program coordinator for the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group (DIIG) at CSIS. Other posts by .


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