No, NATO is not obsolete. It's absolute.
That was clear during this week's NATO Summit, one of three successive, successful summits for President Joe Biden, whose traditional transatlantic views helped shore up an alliance that former President Donald Trump once labeled "obsolete."
Trump eventually leveled his rhetoric, but the damage to his and America's image was done with many presidents, prime ministers and, as profoundly, citizens of NATO nations.
Now, however, new Pew Research Center polling shows strong support for the formidable military alliance among most member nations surveyed and a rebound in Western (indeed, global) support for Biden and the nation he leads.
In fact, the first poll's polar-opposite results show just how much America's president sets America's image: 63% of respondents from 12 countries surveyed at the end of the Trump presidency had an unfavorable view of America, while 34% had a favorable view. At the beginning of the Biden presidency, however, 62% had a favorable view and 36% had an unfavorable view.
Much of this can be attributed to Biden himself.
If, as the apocryphal adage states, "half of life is just showing up," Biden showed up, at the right time, with the right, reassuring message that "America is back." The welcome words from a well-known pol polled well among denizens of the dozen nations surveyed: 75% expressed "confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs," while 22% expressed "no confidence." At the end of the Trump era, 83% expressed "no confidence," while a scant 17% expressed "confidence."
When it comes to NATO support, the confidence may be contagious.
Positive views of the alliance are at or near all-time highs, according to a Pew poll that surveyed 10 of the most consequential countries in the 30-nation pact — including the most influential one, the U.S., where 61% match the medium of a favorable view of NATO. Even higher approval ratings are seen in Italy (72% favorable, up 13% from last year), the Netherlands (71%, up 4%) Canada (67%, down 2%) and Belgium (61%, up 1%).
Slightly lower but still majority totals are seen in Germany (59%, up 1%), Spain (55%, up 1%) and France (51%, up 1%), with only Greece holding a majority "unfavorable" view (57%). Notably, non-NATO nation Sweden was also polled, and there 70% appreciate the alliance, too.
Perhaps the rally-around-the-flags effect is because of the white, blue and red Russian flag. It may not seem as threatening as the red flag with the gold star, hammer and sickle of the old Soviet Union, the nation NATO was created to contain. But Moscow's menacing has resulted in negative views of Russia's leader that are at or near historic highs, according to another new Pew poll on Russian President Vladimir Putin, which reported that across 17 "advanced economies" surveyed (11 Western, six Asian), only 22% expressed "confidence" in him "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."
"The more united the publics and countries are on their view of Russia, the stronger the stance of Biden will be," said Ivo Daalder, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009-2013. Daalder, who is now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said that the president's approach to NATO nations is fundamentally different from the one taken by Trump, who alienated allies with a transactional approach to the pact. Biden went to the summit "with a very, very clear message, which said whatever might have happened in the last four years, under my presidency, we want to, we need to, work with you, our closest democratic allies. So together, we can address the challenges that we all confront."
"The overall message," Daalder said, "is we can't do it alone, we need to work together." And, added Daalder, "that's not a surprising message, that's the kind of message that most of our presidents have delivered at home and abroad since 1941. It just was interrupted by Trump."
The Pew polls "are important in several respects," said Timothy Frye, a professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. Frye, author of the recently released book "Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia," said that "for one, it shows that for all the attention given to Russian attempts at propaganda and information manipulation to improve the world's image of Russia, they don't seen to be very successful at doing that. Russia is more isolated today, in that it has fewer strong allies to rely on than it has in the past."
As for Biden, Frye said the polling reveals that "people are still willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, to take Biden at his word, and that's a valuable tool for Biden."
At the NATO, G-7, European Union and Putin summits, Biden "was speaking as part of not just America alone, but America as part of a group of democracies," said Michael Abramowitz, president at Freedom House, which advocates for democracies worldwide. "Yes, they've had their disagreements and disputes in the last number of years, but they are basically united in their concern about Russia."
And now, especially, China, which was specifically and repeatedly referenced in the NATO Communiqué issued at the end of the summit.
But it isn't a pivot, Daalder said. "Because in order to pivot you're going to something and away from something else," and NATO will not neglect the threat from Russia. And tellingly, the communiqué refers to Russia as a "threat" while China presents "challenges," which Daalder said requires cooperation, but that "dealing with [China] doesn't mean confrontation or conflict. But it does mean increased competition, and working together to compete effectively against them."
The president, presiding over a news conference capping an eventful week in Europe, seemed to sum up how adding, not aggravating, allies is a force multiplier.
"Over this last week, I believe — I hope — the United States has shown the world that we are back, standing with our allies," Biden said. "We rallied our fellow democracies to make concerted commitments to take on the biggest challenges our world faces."
No one country, even one with as much will and might as the U.S., can take on, let alone tackle, these challenges alone. But as the Pew polls and summits showed, the U.S. is not solitary, but in solidarity with revitalized alliances.