Britons’ Enduring Support for NATO

As world leaders meet in Vilnius for the NATO Summit, BFPG’s latest public opinion research finds that Britons have strong and enduring support for NATO. Every year BFPG conducts an annual survey of public opinion on foreign policy, covering everything from aid and climate change to alliances and defence. It draws out the key trends in perceptions of UK foreign policy, highlights where and how public support converges and diverges from current government policy, and identifies where demographic variations in perceptions lie.

In response to the current geopolitical context, our 2023 survey focuses sharply on perceptions of the UK’s defence and security activities, including membership of NATO. It finds strong and robust support for the UK’s involvement in NATO, with the overwhelming majority (78%) of Britons supporting the UK’s membership of the organisation. Meanwhile, just 9% of Britons believe the UK should leave NATO. 

This strength in support marks a substantial 11 percentage point uplift in support for membership of NATO in two years, up from 67% when we polled on this question in 2021. This is largely driven by a fall in the proportion of Britons who are unsure of their view of NATO membership or who have never heard of the organisation, reflecting the growing prominence of NATO in the public consciousness since the invasion of Ukraine. It is striking though, that this increased awareness of NATO has been almost entirely funnelled into an uplift in support for NATO membership, highlighting how the prominent role NATO has played in Ukraine has made the strategic value of membership more evident. This is reiterated by the fact that, even as tensions between Russia and NATO grow, 75% of Britons believe that NATO makes the UK safer, while just 6% of Britons believe the organisation makes the UK less safe. It is therefore clear that NATO is seen as a well-trusted and respected organisation among Britons, and is seen to deliver on its key tenets and principles, shoring up the UK’s security, as well as that of our allies.

Support, of course, is not universal and there are inevitably demographic variations in support. Most notably, while support is incredibly high among older Britons, e.g. over-66s (90%), younger Britons, e.g. 26-35-year-olds (64%), are less supportive. This suggests that some of the trust and support for NATO is a hangover from its involvement in the Cold War, through which many older Britons lived, while (thankfully) younger Britons have not experienced as many direct benefits from NATO in their lifetimes. Nevertheless, given a strong majority across all demographics support NATO membership and believe it makes the UK safer, there is a remarkably strong mandate for the UK’s membership of NATO – something rarely seen in UK foreign policy.

However, the situation in Vilnius is less cohesive. While Turkey’s agreement to support Sweden’s membership of NATO all but clears the pathway for Sweden’s accession to the organisation, commitments in the Vilnius Summit Communique to ‘extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met’, further postpones a decision on Ukraine’s membership of NATO. While no one is suggesting that Ukraine should join NATO while war still rages in the country, Kyiv’s allies, particularly in Eastern Europe, who have pushed for fast-track membership for Ukraine, will no doubt be disappointed. President Zelensky has already publicly condemned the decision as “absurd” as world leaders must now frantically look to repair relations with Ukraine over the decision.

The issue of defence spending also continues to loom over the Summit. The Summit Communique reaffirms members’ ‘enduring commitment’ to spending 2% of GDP annually on defence and recognises that in many cases expenditure over 2% is needed. But this is nothing new. NATO members have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to this spending commitment but consistently fail to meet this target. Indeed, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, just a third of NATO members are on track to meet their commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence this year. With many NATO members facing significant domestic economic challenges, it is unlikely that this commitment will be consistently hit in the near future, much to the dismay of those already fulfilling the commitment and those most exposed to current and likely future geopolitical challenges.

On the final day of the Summit, there is, therefore, lots still to be done to bring unity and strengthen cohesion in NATO. In the meantime, Prime Minister Sunak can at least, attend the summit safely in the knowledge that the British public is strongly behind NATO.

Since 2019 BFPG has completed a nationally representative public opinion survey on the key foreign policy issues of the day. Polling for the 2023 edition of the survey involved a nationally representative sample of 2,158 people and was conducted from 26th May – 1st June 2023. The full report will be released w/c 17th July. Press who wish to receive an embargoed advance copy of the report, please contact

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group