The majority of French, Germans and Italians oppose their country using military means to defend a NATO ally against Russian aggression, according to data published today by the Pew Research Center. The questions were posed in the light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and highlight how difficult it will be for national governments to initiate military assistance to that country which is not even a NATO member.
In answer to the question “if Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighbouring countries that is our NATO ally, do you think our country should or should not use military force to defend that country?” only two countries – the US and Canada – recorded a majority for the proposal that they should intervene.
A fundamental principle of NATO, found in Article 5 of the organisation’s founding treaty, is that an attack on one member is an attack on all. This principle of “collective defence” is not merely intended as a military obligation following an attack, is intended to act as a deterrent to potential aggressors. It reads:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Only just over a third of Italians and Germans support NATO membership for Ukraine, whereas a majority supports that proposition in Poland, Spain, France, Canada, the US and the UK. Only the US and Canada find majority support for both Ukranian membership of NATO and military intervention for those threatened by Russia.
It appears that Poland, Spain, France and the UK want to hold incompatible positions, or believe in a modified NATO membership for Ukraine in which they can join the intergovernmental military alliance but not benefit from Article 5. In reality those countries square the circle in another way, one which bodes ill for the future of NATO.
Spain, France and the UK, as well as Canada, Italy and Germany, all overwhelmingly believe that if Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighbouring countries that is a NATO ally, the US would use military force to defend that country. In Poland it was a minority belief, although still one held by 49 per cent of the population.
One can see, therefore, that the overwhelming view of those NATO members questioned is that in the final analysis they can rely on the US to sort out the crisis on their eastern border without muddying their own hands. The sustainability of this position has to be questioned – for how long can European members of NATO absolve themselves of responsibility for mutual defence treaty obligations while expecting the US to take up the slack on their behalf?
Defence expert and Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis summed up the dilemma facing proponents of NATO’s role as both a deterrent to and defender against aggressors in a recent interview with The Independent:
“People are very blasé about extending NATO membership, and I’m totally opposed to the suggestion of extending NATO membership to countries such as Ukraine or Georgia, because you’ve got to ask yourself one question: would you be prepared to start a third world war in defence of that country? Because if you extended the guarantee, and then dishonoured it, the whole basis for NATO’s deterrent would disappear.”