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Europe's Selfishness Is Bigger Threat Than Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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If Western governments consider Russian President Vladimir Putin a major threat, they should do something about their voters, who don't appear particularly inclined to help allies if they get into trouble. This lack of solidarity presents a more basic threat to the West than any external aggression.

In Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO members agreed that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all" and that each state should take "such action as it deems necessary" in response. This doesn't require them to use military force, and a survey by the Pew Research Center published on Wednesday shows that in a number of NATO countries, people wouldn't want to.

Respondents were asked whether their country should use force if Russia gets into an armed conflict with a fellow NATO member. In only two countries -- the U.S. and Canada -- did an outright majority say yes. In three -- Germany, France and Italy -- a majority opposed the use of force:

Source: Pew Research Center

The high level of commitment to NATO in the U.S. is great news for Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Poles. When it comes to military outlay, the U.S. outspends the next most defense-conscious NATO member, the U.K., by a factor of 10, so it's the country that counts. It's not particularly logical, however, that Americans living thousands of miles from the potential war theater are more willing to help out than, say, Poles.

Perhaps it's easier for people in the U.S. and Canada to say they'd fight in a distant war that's unlikely to touch them directly than for Europeans. Even so, the disconnect between threat perception and willingness to act is odd. Seventy percent of Poles told Pew they considered Russia a major military threat, compared with an average of 49 percent among NATO countries in the sample.

One explanation could be that people in the European NATO countries overwhelmingly believe that the U.S. would intervene if an alliance member were attacked. So why get involved if the Americans are going to do the dirty work?

Pew Research Center

These responses probably say more about the widespread perception of the U.S. as a global policeman who will intervene no matter what's happening. There are indications, for example, that if Russia unleashes an eastern-Ukraine-style hybrid war in one of the Baltic States, Europeans won't necessarily be ready to blame Moscow. In the U.S., 42 percent of respondents to the survey said they thought Russia was the party most responsible for violence in Ukraine. In both Germany and Italy, that figure was 29 percent.

A further difference is that Americans see the NATO alliance as a natural extension of U.S. influence, through a group of loyal satellites. A survey last year showed that a plurality of Americans thought the alliance should conduct military operations outside Europe and the U.S.: To them, it's clearly a matter of Western affiliation rather than territorial security. A majority of Europeans, however, don't think NATO should fight outside Europe and North America. For 73 percent of them, the alliance's function is territorial defense.

At the same time, many Germans and Italians may not identify Latvians or Lithuanians as full Europeans, which may also help to explain a reluctance to defend them. As Gerhard Reese of the University of Luxembourg and Oliver Lauenstein of the University of Bamburg put it in a 2014 paper:  

Imagine Germans or French who project their own countries' characteristics (whatever these may be) onto the superordinate European prototype -- consequently, they would perceive their own country as more prototypically European than they would perceive citizens of other countries (e.g., Portuguese, Latvians). Knowing that the French or the Germans were more prototypical for Europe would make them a normative standard, resulting in the view that other countries such as Portugal or Greece would deviate from this standard and thus legitimize their lower status (e.g., economy-wise) in Europe.

There's plenty of evidence that Europeans are not particularly neighborly. The rise of far-right parties, protests against "benefit tourism" from other EU nations, an inability to agree on a common approach to immigration, and fiscal-philosophy-driven tensions between Germany and Greece all show that, despite decades of integration, a large proportion of Europeans remain isolationist.

The continent's leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, should be worried about these attitudes: Even though Russia doesn't appear to be bent on expanding its aggression, it makes sense for Europeans to present more of a united front. Anything else is an invitation for outsiders to exploit Europe's divisions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net