Robin Niblett
Director, Chatham House
The UK and NATO have both been in strategic decline in recent years, but the 2014 Chatham House-YouGov poll reveals public backing for a strong security role for both.
Prime Minister David Cameron meets local producers who have helped supply this year's NATO Summit on 3 September 2014 in Newport, Wales. Photo by Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images.Prime Minister David Cameron meets local producers who have helped supply this year's NATO Summit on 3 September 2014 in Newport, Wales. Photo by Stefan Rousseau-Pool/Getty Images.

In August 2014, Chatham House conducted its fourth survey with YouGov, which tracks trends in attitudes to international affairs in the UK among both the general public and opinion formers in senior roles across multiple sectors. Over the next few weeks, Chatham House will highlight some of the findings from the survey ahead of the publication of the main report later this month.

‘This Alliance must and will adapt.’ That was the first conclusion in the summit communique the last time the UK hosted a NATO summit, in London in 1990. Then, the UK stood alongside its allies on the winning side in the Cold War. The spread of democracy and economic transformation promised a new era for Europe, and NATO would need to change.

Since then, NATO has nearly doubled in size, as former Warsaw Pact nations concluded that membership in the Alliance was an essential component of their national modernization and future independence. It has engaged in operations far from its shores, from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Aden and Libya and supported humanitarian assistance in Pakistan. It has reformed its command structures and defined a new Strategic Concept at its 2010 Lisbon Summit.

But it has also appeared to be an Alliance in decline. Defence spending among all of its members, bar the United States, has declined precipitously. NATO's security commitment to many of its new members is not credible. Its most prominent ‘out-of-area’ operation in Afghanistan has been held up as an example of the inability of Western nations to intervene successfully in post-conflict stabilisation. And now the Alliance is being challenged in its back yard by Russia's own intervention in Ukraine.

Britain's own strategic position has mirrored that of NATO. A victor at the end of the Cold War, the UK has been a strong proponent of NATO's enlargement and has been a leading player in its overseas operations. But the UK is now in the midst of severe cut backs in its defence spending following the financial crisis. And the failed vote on punishing Bashar al-Assad for his chemical weapons use in Syria has exposed the level off public aversion to further UK overseas military interventions.

Can the UK now recover its commitment to and leadership role in the Atlantic Alliance in 2014, as President Vladimir Putin challenges Western nations' commitment to their security? The results of the latest Chatham House-YouGov poll reveal a clear public awareness of NATO’s continuing value and importance to Britain's security. 

61% of the public consider NATO ‘vital’ or ‘important’, and only 14% think it now ‘irrelevant’. Opinion formers were slightly firmer in their views, with almost half (47%) believing NATO is ‘vital’. This may be driven in part by real concern about Russia. 67% of the public consider Russia to be a ‘threat to the security of the EU’, and a quarter think conflict with Russia to be one of the top threats facing the UK. And more of the British public would like to raise defence spending than reduce it, underpinned by the fact that the highest number of respondents since our first survey in 2010 now think the UK should remain a ‘Great Power’.

Britain may be in the throes of a period of profound introspection and possible radical change, with the referendum on Scottish independence fast approaching and another potentially in the wings on its future membership of the EU. But on perceptions of its security and the need for NATO to remain at its heart, the UK government has something to work with.

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*All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. For the general public, the total sample size was 2,059 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 6th - 12th August 2014. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). For the opinion formers group, the total sample size was 704 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 31st July - 16th August 2014.  The survey was carried out online.