From reluctance to reassurance: Explaining the shift in Germans’ support for measures of common defense following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Germany has shifted the focus of its defense policy back to collective defense. A new article by Timo Graf, Markus Steinbrecher & Heiko Biehl shows that public opinion on collective defense has also shifted: from a marked reluctance to support NATO’s eastern members to a much greater willingness to contribute military resources to reassure those members in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Against the background of the war, how do we explain that shift in the alliance solidarity of the German people? Which factors are driving this change and how lasting is it going to be? The answer is complex and involves the public image of Russia, the willingness to follow US leadership, and strategic culture.

For decades, both Western and Eastern NATO partners have criticized Germany for not spending enough on (collective) defense and its growing dependency on energy imports from Russia. Economic interests and a free-riding mentality aside, a driving force behind close relations with Russia was public opinion. Significant parts of German society were Russia-friendly and showed little support for strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.

Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022 forced a historic shift in Germany’s defense policy and in its relations towards Russia – a Zeitenwende (epochal turning point) as it is now referred to in the German debate. Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared the contributions of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) to NATO’s territorial defense of Europe as their top priority, because “[t]he crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe […] beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.” The Zeitenwende in defense policy has been mirrored by a major shift of public opinion in Germany on collective defense: Reluctance towards the defense of NATO’s eastern flank has given way to majority support for military efforts to reassure NATO’s eastern members in the face of Russian aggression. German chancellor Olaf Scholz interprets this shift of public opinion as being indicative of “a new mindset in German society.”

Our article seeks to answer two pressing questions: Against the background of the war, which factors are driving this shift in peoples’ alliance solidarity? And are there any early indications on how lasting this change is going to be? These questions are addressed on the basis of multivariate analyses of representative population surveys from 2021 and 2022. The results show that the perception of Russia as a threat to national security is a key factor, yet it is only part of a more complex explanation involving strategic postures and the subjective level of information about collective defense as well. By contrast, the often cited free-riding mentality of the Germans proves largely irrelevant. The empirical findings shine light on Germany’s reaction to Russia’s war against Ukraine and add to our understanding of the societal foundations of alliance solidarity in Germany and other countries.

First, the increased perception of Russia as a strategic threat to Germany is a key driver for public support for measures of collective defense. The largely absent public threat perception kept support for alliance solidarity low until 2021. In 2022, however, the perception of Russia changed fundamentally. A majority of Germans has lost its naïve view on Russia, recognizing Russia as a threat to German security instead, which contributes to a greater willingness to support national contributions to NATO missions on the Eastern flank.

These insights are also of relevance beyond Germany, because just like the German people the citizens of other major western European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France had a very ambivalent view of Russia prior to the war. Since 2022, Russia is seen very unfavorably by majorities all across Europe. How long that pan-European consensus will last very much depends on the duration and the course of the war. As the war continues and as the initial shock of the invasion eventually wears off, it becomes increasingly important to establish the current recognition of Russia as the greatest threat to European security as the point of departure for all joint and national strategies.

Second, the growing public knowledge and media coverage of these missions has also contributed to the change of public opinion. Before 2022, Bundeswehr engagements – like the one in Lithuania – were rarely mentioned in the media and hardly present on the public agenda or in political debates. As we could show this has changed – at least to a certain degree. Still most Germans just know some basic facts or even nothing at all about the Bundeswehr’s deployments in Eastern and Central Europe. Moreover, reporting is bound to decline as the “newsworthiness” of war in Ukraine decreases with every day that it drags on and as it has to “compete for attention” with other global flashpoints.

Third, another force for the change in public opinion has been a renewed orientation towards the United States. In times of crisis, most Germans, like their government, look to the other side of the Atlantic for guidance. They trust in the United States as the protective power of the Western world and want Germany to participate in the common defense efforts. This revitalized transatlantic orientation is an important driver of Germans’ readiness to support NATO’s measures of reassurance.

If a (new) U.S. administration were to signal a reduction in military aid to Europe as the war in Ukraine continues, the willingness of the German and other European people to contribute to the collective defense of NATO’s eastern flank might be at risk. Hence, the Germans do not seem to be ready to act as the military leader of Europe – others being even more improbable candidates. Instead, they look to the U.S.’ military leadership in guaranteeing Europe’s security, which could put the premature debate about Europe’s strategic sovereignty on hold – at least as long as Russia wages war in Europe and the U.S. do not exit NATO.

Fourth, our analyses show that the strategic culture of the German society has not suddenly and fundamentally changed. The basic preferences of the population on security and defense policies are largely stable: Most Germans still favor multilateral approaches in international affairs, show transatlantic orientations, and prefer civilian over military means. Consequently, the substantial increase in support for alliance defense measures looks more like an ad hoc reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than a fundamental reorientation in strategic postures.

Our results provide some implications for policy makers not least because they suggest that the underlying preferences of Germany’s public – its strategic culture – have not changed (yet). So, chancellor’s Scholz statement of “a new mindset in German society” might have been a bit premature. But how to stabilize Germany’s willingness to reassure its Eastern partners and how to avoid a return to reluctance in common defense efforts? Our analyses suggest that the perception of threat is largely determined by Russia’s course of action in Ukraine and beyond. The level of Atlanticism depends for the most part on the continued and visible military support of the U.S. to Europe (as well as the political agenda of its President). And the public’s level of information about the Bundeswehr’s efforts to help NATO secure the eastern flank can be influenced – to a modest extent – by the public communication and information efforts of the German ministry of defense and the government. Consequently, all actors involved in the conflict between NATO and Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine can shape the alliance solidarity of the German people – for better or worse.

Read the article “From reluctance to reassurance: Explaining the shift in the Germans’ NATO alliance solidarity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” here

U.S. Alliance Credibility after the 2021 Afghanistan Withdrawal

In late 2021, numerous commentators feared that America’s dramatic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would hurt its credibility as a great-power security patron among onlookers in key allied and adversarial countries. A new article by D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko shows why such fears are likely overblown. 

The Joe Biden administration’s highly publicized military pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 evoked widespread fears that the credibility of U.S. security commitments around the world would be ineluctably damaged. “[E]very enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power,” one commentator wrote in the New York Times, “[a]nd every ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan—will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies.” 

Such arguments were hugely popular and intuitive, but we found them puzzling for several reasons. To begin with, Afghanistan was not a formal ally of the United States by the time of the 2021 troop withdrawal, since the legal framework for security cooperation between the two countries had been terminated with the signing of the Doha Agreement by the Donald J. Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020. Would onlookers in countries that are formal treaty allies of the United States—as well as those among the adversaries that confront such allies—really jump to the conclusion that U.S. behavior toward such “informal” security partners is likely to be replicated in their own neighborhood? 

Moreover, while many Americans apparently feared that their country’s reputation as a great-power ally in vital regions will be fatally undermined if it fails to defend any individual security partner, recent works drawing on qualitative case studies suggested that foreign audiences do not necessarily evaluate U.S. credibility in such terms. Indeed, such works seemed to hint at the possibility that allied and adversarial audiences might draw the opposite inference under certain conditions. If these onlookers understand U.S. military capabilities and attention as finite resources that must be competitively allocated across different regions, the American decision to abandon a security partner in one region might not necessarily hurt the perceived trustworthiness of its security commitments in another; in fact, such decisions might help improve widespread perceptions of U.S. credibility. 

To test these competing intuitions, we deployed parallel survey experiments in the United States, South Korea, and China—the latter two respectively representing a key ally and adversary for the United States in the strategically vital region of East Asia—approximately five months following the dramatic Afghanistan withdrawal. The idea was to randomly treat ordinary members of the public in each country with a vivid reminder about the U.S. decision to abandon its decades-long military commitment to Afghanistan, including the fact that “the Taliban took control of Afghanistan amidst the ensuing chaos.” 

 After assigning the treatment, we would ask our U.S. respondents to give us their best guess about the level of confidence people in South Korea and China would have in America’s support for its South Korean ally should a militarized conflict arise between the two East Asian powers. We would then compare the American guesses with actual perceptions reported by the publics of these two states when asked about how credible they would deem U.S. military support for South Korea in the same hypothetical clash. 

Our findings were unequivocal. While Americans who were reminded of the Afghanistan pullout tended to become more pessimistic that key audiences in East Asia will view the U.S. security commitment to South Korea as credible, their pessimism was not corroborated by foreign views. Neither the South Korean nor Chinese respondents significantly revised their confidence in America’s regional alliance commitment when presented with the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder. 

More importantly, the results suggested that appropriate diplomatic messaging can help strengthen the credibility of U.S. security commitments among foreign publics in the wake of events like the Afghanistan pullout. When given a short additional message that the United States might henceforth be able to further prioritize East Asia when allocating military resources abroad, the South Korean and Chinese respondents who had been reminded of the Afghanistan withdrawal became significantly more confident that the United States would follow through on its commitment to defend South Korea in the event of a local military conflict. The upshot was that the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal reminder is channeled through the information observers have about their local strategic context, such that its implications for perceptions of American credibility could be diametrically opposed to those feared by U.S. analysts. 

These findings offer clear takeaways for how to think about U.S. alliance credibility in the wake of decisions like the Afghanistan withdrawal. Policymakers, for one, should be more willing to consider extricating the United States from costly military commitments in strategically peripheral areas without fearing the loss of a “reputation for resolve” and the widespread erosion of credibility in more important regions. Indeed, by foregrounding the potential for a favorable reallocation of strategic resources, they might be able to turn such events into an asset in the campaign to enhance the credibility of their country’s alliance commitments in key regions, rather than a liability. 

More broadly, concerned Americans should be mindful of research findings such as ours when observing doomsaying about their country’s broader credibility that typically follows decisions to retrench from—or not become more forcefully involved in—distant regions where the United States harbors only limited strategic interests and informal defense obligations. By and large, audiences among critical strategic interlocutors like South Korea and China do not distrust America’s willingness and ability to defend its alliance commitments in their own region just because it has failed to stand up for an informal protégé half a world away. They understand that the two are different places. 

D.G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko are the authors of “Remember Kabul? Reputation, Strategic Contexts, and American Credibility after the Afghanistan Withdrawal”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.