The Trump effect: How the U.S. president may be reshaping attitudes toward NATO

It's no secret that Donald Trump dislikes NATO.

But the U.S. president's incessant hammering of alliance members to urge them to pay more for collective defence may be having a spillover effect, particularly among traditionally staunch western European allies.

That's how some analysts are reading the results of the latest Pew Research Centre survey of the attitudes of individual countries toward the 70-year-old North Atlantic Alliance.

While most member countries maintain a positive view of NATO, there has been a marked, steady erosion in support in France, Germany and Spain compared to previous surveys.

It could very well reflect "the Trump Factor," said Steve Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and a professor at Carleton University.

"I'm not that surprised to see public opinion dropping in Europe about NATO because it's now about whether it's given enough money to Donald Trump," he said. "Trump is making it less popular in Europe."

Is Europe souring on its own defence pact?

The survey by the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based, think tank, which included 21,029 respondents in 19 countries, found the attitudes of "several countries have soured on the alliance" over the last decade.

The results come at a time when Canadian support for the alliance remains steady (66 per cent) and the Liberal government sings the praises of multilateralism.

We seem to be the outliers, however. Support in Britain, Poland and Lithuania and Greece increased slightly (although the Greeks only mustered a 37 per cent favourable view). Every other country, including the United States, saw a decline — in some cases a slight decline, in others a more pronounced one.

Support in France registered at 49 per cent, down from 71 per cent two years ago. Germany saw a 16 per cent decline to 57 per cent support over the same timeframe.

Both countries have been targets of Trump's Twitter rants about defence spending — his demands that nations meet the NATO benchmark target of setting aside an amount equivalent to two per cent of their gross domestic product for military appropriations.

French President Emmanuel Macron, just prior to the last NATO leaders' meeting in December, bemoaned the state of the alliance in an interview, describing it as "brain dead" and urging the discussions to move beyond money.

"In the last several years, in Europe every discussion about NATO has been about Trump demanding more money," said Saideman, who has written extensively on alliance relations.

The migration crisis

Another contributing factor, he said, is disappointment in many European countries over the alliance's lack of success in stemming the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Stéfanie von Hlatky, a defence expert and associate professor of political studies at Queen's University, agreed there is "disillusionment" among allies and said there's "a slight Trump effect" at work, but cautioned that the reasons behind the discontent are complex.

What surprised her, she said, was the widespread belief tracked in the survey among member nations that U.S. would step up to protect them in the event of a Russia attack — despite Trump's suggestion that America might not come to the defence of allies who don't pay up.

The survey also raises questions about the willingness of individual countries to commit their own forces to defend allies.

"Despite the organization's largely favourable rating among member states, there is widespread reluctance to fulfil the collective defence commitment outlined in Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty," said the Pew Research Center report.

"When asked if their country should defend a fellow NATO ally against a potential attack from Russia, a median of 50 per cent across 16 NATO member states say their country should not defend an ally, compared with 38 per cent who say their country should defend an ally against a Russian attack."

Von Hlatky said the survey seems to reflect a belief that the Americans would carry the lion's share of the burden in any future conflict — a notion that could provide more ammunition to Trump, who has argued forcefully that American soldiers already do too much.

The Pew Research Center survey also tracked what may be a shift in Canadians' attitudes when it comes to the use of military force on the international stage. According to the report, 71 per cent of Canadians agreed that military force is sometimes necessary to maintain order — a finding that is remarkably close to American attitudes.

Saideman called the result "striking," but cautioned more research is needed to see how much of a departure it might be from previous attitudes.