NATO at 75: No Rest for the Weary

NATO’s second-act problem was resolved by a revanchist Russia, but Trump’s possible return and questions over Ukrainian membership will pose ongoing challenges
July 08, 2024 at 11:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • The 75-year-old NATO alliance faces two main questions heading into the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington this week: How to deal with Ukraine’s request for membership and what a second Trump administration would mean for the United States’ commitment to NATO.

  • Adults in major European member countries where we surveyed on Ukrainian membership in the alliance were more likely than not to support it. And despite former President Trump’s revived threats to withdraw from NATO and stop supporting Ukraine, a majority of U.S. adults — including a narrow majority of Republicans — support admitting Ukraine.

  • More broadly, NATO is popular among its members, but not everyone else is a fan: Trends in our favorability data among non-NATO countries suggest that global populations view NATO as a proxy for Western military action. But institutional constraints on the alliance’s ability to expand its membership beyond Europe mean it will remain ill-suited to alter the dynamics of growing great power competition between the United States and China, regardless of favorable public views of the alliance throughout much of the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere.

  • Looking forward, time will tell if the Cold War alliance has a strong enough raison d’ȇtre to remain relevant until its 100th birthday, or even its 150th.  For now, however, demand to be invited to the party is running high.

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NATO turned 75 years old in April. While some would have said the septuagenarian was on its last legs just a few years ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 injected a new sense of purpose into the alliance. The full invasion after years of frozen conflict in Crimea — which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014 — made it exceedingly clear that the Kremlin can at any time turn up the heat in other frozen conflict zones ranging from Transnistria in Moldova to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. More than two years after Putin’s invasion, what remains less clear is the scope of NATO’s future role in Russia’s near abroad.

Is a bridge to Ukrainian membership a bridge too far?

One major question mark is NATO expansion, most saliently to Ukraine itself. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy has hoped for a formal invitation to join NATO since the war began, something that was not forthcoming at the 2023 summit in Vilnius and reportedly is not on the table at this week’s summit in Washington, either. 

The allies have instead made non-time bound comments that Ukraine will someday become a NATO member. Media reports that a new mission in Germany will coordinate aid to Ukraine underscore the longer-term nature of the allies’ commitment to supporting the embattled Eastern European nation, referred to by some as a “bridge” to membership. But some elites believe even that is a bridge too far, with dozens of foreign policy experts arguing that a promise to bring Ukraine into NATO once the war ends creates incentives for Russia to keep fighting. 

Birthday party pooper

The other elephant in the room is a possible second term for former President Donald Trump, famously a NATO skeptic. Congress has prophylactically passed a bill that makes it more difficult for the U.S. president to withdraw from NATO. But the commander-in-chief could undermine the alliance simply by casting America’s commitment to collective security in doubt. Concerns along these lines are a major reason Ukraine aid will be coordinated under NATO’s auspices going forward, but even that mechanism cannot fully insulate U.S. security commitments from presidential authority. 

Public sympathies lie with Ukraine, but opinion on membership is uncertain

In general, adults in six member countries where we surveyed the public on Ukrainian NATO membership are more likely than not to support it. Adults in the United Kingdom were the most unsure about offering Ukraine membership by a wide margin, with 49% saying they didn’t know or had no opinion on the matter. Germans expressed the most hesitation, with 1 in 5 strongly opposing it.

Adults in Six NATO Countries Are More Likely to Support Ukrainian Membership than not

Shares of adults in each country who say they support or oppose Ukraine being admitted as a member to NATO
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Survey conducted May 20-24 among representative samples of 2,214 U.S. adults and roughly 1,000 adults in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points and +/-3 percentage points, respectively.

Across the Atlantic, the majority of U.S. adults, including a slim majority of Republicans, say they would support admitting Ukraine to NATO, this despite former President Trump’s vocal criticism of it. The average U.S. adult also holds favorable views of the alliance (as can be seen in the chart below), providing U.S. politicians arguing for continued U.S. leadership in the alliance with the political cover to do so. While recent history indicates that Republican views would likely shift somewhat to come in line with Trump’s rhetoric if push came to shove, our data suggests there is currently a gap between Trump’s views of NATO and those of his constituents that is worth monitoring, though Democrats are ultimately NATO’s biggest cheerleaders.

NATO is popular among its members, but not everyone else is a fan

Beyond the question of membership for Ukraine, our global data on favorability toward NATO, a metric we’ve tracked daily for the past several years, offers insight into broader dynamics surrounding NATO’s role in the world. From the perspective of net favorability — measured as the share of adults holding favorable views of NATO minus the share holding unfavorable views — the institution is largely popular among its members, except for ambivalent Turkey. NATO is unsurprisingly deeply unpopular in Russia, and evokes mixed feelings in other parts of the so-called Global South, including among its largest populations: Adults in China and South Africa have nearly neutral views about the alliance while those in India feel positively about it, even though their country is non-aligned militarily and reliant on Russia as a key military supplier. 

Global Views of NATO

Net favorability toward NATO among adults in each country
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"Net favorability" is the share who hold favorable views of the the institution minus the share who hold unfavorable views.
Source: Morning Consult Political Intelligence. Data points represent a monthly aggregate of daily surveys conducted in June 2024.

Don’t forget the “North Atlantic” in NATO 

In a nod to global sentiment toward NATO as a proxy for Western military ties more broadly, views of the alliance in many Middle Eastern countries fell swiftly in the wake of the the Israel-Hamas conflict. Perceptions that the United States and its allies unjustly supported Israel and facilitated its ground offensive into Gaza drove declining views of NATO despite the fact that Israel is not — nor is eligible to become — a NATO member. Indeed, the “North Atlantic” in NATO is written into the treaty, limiting its expansion to European states.  

This example is suggestive of the extent to which NATO is viewed as a proxy for Western military alliances in general. But limitations on expanding the alliance only to European nations — even when global views of the institution are broadly favorable in Asia and elsewhere — means it is unable create collective security structures to defend Asian allies against growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. 

Looking forward, time will tell if the Cold War alliance has a strong enough raison d’ȇtre to continue to be relevant until its 100th birthday, or even its 150th.  For now, however, demand to be invited to the party is running high.


A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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