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NATO Enlargement and Russia

Consistent with the warming trend in attitudes toward Russia, the majority in favor of including Russia in NATO has increased. While a strong majority of Americans supported enlarging NATO, they primarily favored doing so to remove divisions in Europe and to promote collective security, rather than as a response to a Russian threat. Overall, there has been strong support for taking an inclusive approach to Russia—as evidenced by strong support for the Russia-NATO Council. In the short term, most have wanted to show some sensitivity to Russian concerns by not moving too quickly with the expansion of NATO, and by holding back from putting military forces close to Russian territory.

Perhaps the strongest indication of how much Americans have come to see NATO as a collective security system rather than a traditional alliance focused against Russia is their growing receptiveness toward the idea of including Russia in NATO. In aJune 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll, more than two-thirds (68%) favored expanding NATO to include Russia; only 24% were opposed. [1a] Of all potential new members, support for Russia was highest. This is distinctly stronger support than in the late 1990s (discussed below), and is consistent with the warming trend in attitudes toward Russia since the Sept. 11 attacks (see "Views of Russia and the US-Russia Relationship").

While a strong majority of Americans has supported enlarging NATO, they have primarily favored doing so to remove divisions and to promote collective security in Europe, rather than as a response to a Russian threat. In February-March 1998 and earlier in September 1996, PIPA questioned respondents extensively about their attitudes toward Russia in the context of NATO enlargement. When offered a choice between two different reasons for enlargement, roughly two out of three picked the inclusive reason: "NATO should be expanded to remove the outdated divisions of the Cold War and help bring Europe together" (63% in 1998, 68% in 1996). Well under a third preferred the reason that focused on a threat from Russia: "NATO should be expanded to make NATO larger and more powerful so that it can more effectively deal with the possibility of a threat from Russia in the future" (29% in 1998, 22% in 1996). [1b]

When respondents were presented various reasons for and against NATO enlargement in PIPA's 1996 and 1998 studies, the most popular arguments were based on the principles of inclusiveness and collective security. For example in 1998, 80% found convincing the argument that "It is better to include Eastern European countries in NATO rather than to exclude them because peace is more likely if we all communicate and work together," while 75% found convincing the argument that "NATO should commit to defending Eastern European countries because it is important for potential aggressors to know that they cannot get away with conquering other countries." [2]

Arguments based on consolidating NATO's position in relation to Russia or deterring Russia did not do well. The least popular of any reason for enlargement, found convincing by only a third, was that "Russia is very weak these days and this creates an opportunity for NATO to expand into Eastern Europe and consolidate our victory in the Cold War" (35% in 1996, 34% in 1998), while a strong majority found it unconvincing (60% in 1998, 61% in 1996). [3] Fifty-two percent found unconvincing, and 45% convincing, the argument that "Promising to protect Eastern European countries will help NATO deter Russia from ever threatening those countries again"(1996). [4] Nonetheless a majority did agree with the fairly objective statement that "If Russia goes back to being aggressive, we will be in a stronger position if the countries that are close to Russia are on our side rather than Russia's," with 63% finding this convincing, while 35% did not (1996). [5]

While Americans do not see the Russian threat as a key reason to expand NATO, the fact that Russia is not seen as an acute threat is largely rejected as a reason for not expanding NATO—the rationale for having NATO function as a collective security system is seen as valid in its own right. The argument that "NATO was set up mostly to deal with the Russian threat. Now that the Cold War is over NATO is outdated, so expanding it does not make sense," was found convincing by only a third (30% in 1998, 35% in 1996). [6] Similarly, in 1996 only 35% found convincing (62% unconvincing) the proposition that "There is no need to expand NATO now because Russia does not pose a significant threat now. If they start to go back to their old ways we will have plenty of time to act." [7]

Preference for Inclusive Approach

Consistent with the view that NATO should act more like a collective security system rather than as something focused on the Russian threat, Americans want to see NATO take an inclusive approach to Russia and even support ultimately including Russia in NATO.

In both 1996 and 1998, of all the reasons not to enlarge NATO that PIPA tested, the most popular was that such a policy was not inclusive enough. It read, "Instead of expanding NATO, something new should be developed that includes Russia rather than treating Russia as an enemy." Even though more than 60% supported expanding NATO in 1996, when enlargement was still a fairly amorphous idea [8], 62% found this reason convincing (unconvincing: 33%). [9] In 1998, on the threshold of the US Senate vote over the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, 53% still found this reason convincing (unconvincing: 41%). [10]

In May 1997, NATO and Russia agreed to set up a new consultative institution—the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council—to have regular discussions of security issues. PIPA asked about this in a 1998 question that described the controversy around this idea:

There is some controversy about whether [the Council] is a good idea or a bad idea. Some say that giving Russia a new avenue to press its position gives Russia too much influence and risks weakening NATO. Others say that including Russia in such discussions promotes communication and can help resolve potential conflicts.

Two-thirds (67%) of respondents thought that the Council was a good idea, while only about a quarter (26%) thought it was a bad idea.[11] (Interestingly, in a Gallup poll at the same time—March 1998—59% felt that NATO was affecting US-Russia relations for the better, and only 20% thought its effect was for the worse.) [12]

The current growth in willingness to see Russia eventually join NATO was foreshadowed in earlier PIPA results, in which support for Russian inclusion was particularly pronounced when a longer time horizon was offered. Given two statements, only 30% embraced the position that "There are too many ways that our interests might come into conflict with Russia in the future and there is always the chance that Russia may go back to being aggressive. Therefore it is not a good idea to include Russia in NATO." Sixty-four percent chose the one that said "Once Russia has shown that it can be stable and peaceful for a significant period we should try to include it in NATO. This will help assure that Russia will stay stable and peaceful." (The 1996 results were virtually the same, with the first statement getting 29% and the second 65%.) [13]

Even when asked in 1998 if Russia should be included in NATO at that time, a slim majority was supportive. When PIPA included Russia on a long list of potential countries for inclusion in NATO, in 1998 51% favored including Russia with 41% opposed (1996: 52%, with 40% opposed). [14] Others have found even stronger support. In an April 1996 poll by the Fletcher School of Tufts University, 62% said that Russia should be allowed to join NATO [15], and a January 1994 CNN/USA Today poll found 54% support. [16]

However a 1996 PIPA poll question that highlighted recent Russian elections in which politicians unfriendly to the West had done well found a plurality hesitating at the time. Asked to choose between two statements 56% chose the one that read "Given the strength of communist and ultra-nationalist candidates in Russia's recent elections, Russia remains too unstable for us yet to admit it to NATO" while 37% chose the one that read "With the Cold War over, we should admit Russia to NATO; doing so would improve the security of Europe and encourage Russia to be more peaceful." [17]

Sensitivity to Russian Concerns

In the short term a strong majority wants to show some sensitivity to Russian concerns by not moving too quickly with the expansion of NATO. In 1996 PIPA asked respondents to choose between two arguments:

Some people say it is important to expand NATO to include east European countries soon to address the security vacuum in eastern Europe. Others say that the West should not move too quickly on expanding NATO because Russia feels threatened by NATO expansion and the West's relations with Russia could worsen as a result.

Only 25% opted for including east European countries "soon to address the security vacuum in Europe," while 65% preferred the view that "the West should not move too quickly." [18]
This majority preference against acting precipitously was accompanied, however, by a desire to keep options open that might be necessary later. Respondents were introduced to the idea, then under discussion, that NATO could promise Russia that it would not shift its own forces "forward" into Eastern Europe:

As you may know, Russia opposes NATO expanding into Eastern Europe. However, some Russians are saying that Russia might tolerate it if NATO promises to not move NATO troops or nuclear weapons into Eastern Europe. Some people say that making such a promise would be a good idea because it would reassure the Russians that NATO is not a threat. Others say that making such a promise is not a good idea because this would be letting Russia dictate NATO policy and would tie NATO's hands to some degree. Do you think that it is a good idea or not a good idea for NATO to promise Russia not to move its troops or nuclear weapons into Eastern Europe?

Only 32% thought it was a good idea for NATO to make this promise, while 61% thought it was not a good idea. [19]

This is consistent with other data suggesting that Russian fears or pressure do not, by themselves, deflect the public from supporting the general direction of NATO enlargement. Hearing in 1996, as a reason against enlargement, that "Russia opposes NATO expansion and going ahead anyway could revive Cold War tensions, strengthen Russian hardliners and lead Russia to withdraw from some arms control treaties," 54% found it unconvincing, while 41% found it convincing. [20] Similarly, in a January 1997 Pew poll, when respondents heard about two imagined Russian reactions and were asked "What is your greater concern?" only 25% chose "NATO expansion will anger Russia and make it more hostile," while 41% chose the alternative concern: "If NATO is not expanded, it will encourage Russia to again threaten its European neighbors." [21]



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