The YouGov Big Survey on NATO and war: Americans on defense and reasons to go to war

Milan DinicDirector - Content Strategy and Innovation
June 10, 2024, 2:59 PM GMT+0

A majority of Americans think the U.S. will be directly involved in a war in the next five years. Our study finds that one in five adults under 40 do not think the U.S. should defend itself in case of an attack by another nation

Two-thirds of Americans (65%) think it is very or somewhat likely that the U.S. will be directly involved in a military conflict within the next five years, including 26% who say this is “very likely,” the YouGov Big Survey on NATO and War finds.

One in five Americans (21%) think that it’s unlikely the U.S. will be at war in five years.

While eight in 10 Americans (78%) think that the U.S. territory being attacked or being under threat of attack is a reason to go to war, 11% don’t think so, and 12% say they don’t know.

About one in five adults under 40 (19%) think that U.S. territory being directly attacked or being under threat of attack is not a reason to go to war, compared to 9% of those between ages 40 and 60 and 2% of older Americans.

Should the U.S. defend allies?

About half of Americans (49%) say the U.S. should go to war if an ally is attacked, while 29% disagree and 22% are not sure.

On several occasions, Donald Trump has questioned whether the U.S. should defend its NATO allies if they were attacked. One-third (31%) of Trump supporters say they would not support the U.S. being involved in defending an ally who was attacked; one-quarter (25%) of Joe Biden supporters agree. Still, majorities of both Trump supporters (54%) and Biden supporters (56%) say the U.S. should get involved if an ally was under attack.

Four in 10 Americans (41%) say the U.S. should get involved in a war to stop war crimes such as ethnic cleansing or mass expulsion of people, while three in 10 (31%) oppose this.

U.S. interventions on these grounds were more common during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (as a part of the Clinton Doctrine) and have been favored by other Democratic politicians, including Biden during his career in the Senate. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that 53% of Biden supporters support this idea — getting involved in a war to stop war crimes such as ethnic cleansing or mass expulsion of people — compared to one-third (35%) of Trump supporters.

Americans are considerably more likely to oppose (63%) than support (13%) the U.S. going to war on behalf of a country that is not an ally.

Americans' views on U.S. involvement in previous wars

When it comes to U.S. involvement in wars since the 1940s, World War II stands out as the only conflict that the majority of Americans (69%) think was right for the country to have been involved in. One in 10 Americans (10%) think the U.S. should not have been involved in World War II, including 16% of adults under 40 and 6% of older Americans.

The only conflict besides World War II that more Americans think the U.S. was right rather than wrong to be directly involved in is the Korean War (39% right vs. 24% wrong). Americans are evenly split on the Gulf War: 29% say it was right and 30% say it was wrong.

Americans also are split on whether the invasion of Afghanistan was a right (35%) or a wrong decision (38%). There are no notable differences between Biden supporters and Trump supporters on the issue.

Substantial shares of younger adults consistently say they don’t know whether the U.S. should have been involved in past conflicts.

Trust in the U.S. army and defense spending

The U.S. is ranked in the Global Firepower rankings as having the strongest army in the world. About three quarters of Americans (77%) say they are very or somewhat confident that the U.S. army can defend the country in case of an attack by another power, including 43% who say they are “very confident” about this. The confidence in the U.S. Army is higher among Biden supporters (90%) than Trump supporters (75%).

Only 8% of Biden supporters but one in five Trump supporters (21%) say they don’t believe the army can defend the country.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, countries around the world have increased their defense budgets, including the U.S. In March this year, President Biden released a defense and national security budget which was 1% higher than in 2023.

The YouGov Big Survey on NATO and War finds that about half of Americans (51%) support the U.S. increasing its military spending moderately or significantly, including 22% who say spending should “increase significantly.”

More Trump supporters than Biden supporters favor increasing the military budget (70% vs. 46%).

One-quarter of Americans (23%) think spending on defense should stay as it is, while 13% say it should significantly or moderately decrease.

— Carl Bialik and David Montgomery contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on March 18 - 27, 2024 among 2,217 U.S. adults. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of U.S. adults. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education. The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 2%.

Image: Getty (Spencer Platt / Staff)

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