Should public opinion polls influence America's nuclear policy?

Some Republicans in Congress reportedly made a big deal out of a recent survey by President BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE’s administration about nuclear weapons. Biden’s team surveyed American allies to find out how they felt about changes to U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the replies were “overwhelmingly negative,” according to the Financial Times. Then Axios reported that congressional Republicans were clamoring for the president to release details from the survey, no doubt with the hope of using the results in political debates about nuclear weapons.

But that poll isn’t the only one of interest in this debate. A series of relatively underreported polls reveals a reality that is quite different from the headline in the Financial Times (“Allies lobby Biden to prevent shift to ‘no first use’ of nuclear arms”). It may be that at one time you could truthfully argue that U.S. allies favored the use of nuclear weapons to defend them. Political realists, however, must admit that whatever the case may have been in the past, those days are over.

Surveys of public opinion show decisive majorities in favor of signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in a number of countries once considered strong supporters of nuclear weapons.A January 2021 YouGov poll of European countries found overwhelming majorities for signing the treaty in five NATO allies — Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain.

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It’s hard to square these results with the report about the Biden team’s survey. According to a briefing paper and the accompanying report issued by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “Support for NATO countries to join the TPNW remains high with 89 percent of Spanish, 87 percent of Italians, 86 percent of Icelanders, 78 percent of Dutch and Danish and 77 percent of Belgians supporting their country joining the treaty.” It may be that government officials still insist on nuclear weapons, but there appears to be a decisive and ongoing shift in public opinion against them.

How trustworthy are these results? YouGov is a British polling company that made a name for itself in the middle 2000s with an innovative approach to polling — connecting with respondents online rather than face-to-face. Unlike some online surveys, they have a solid reputation for accuracy. FiveThirtyEight gave them a B+ rating after comparing 455 of their surveys with actual election results and noted that their polls correctly predicted the outcome 89 percent of the time.

The difficulty facing Republican supporters of nuclear weapons is that in democracies when public opinion shifts, it generally leads to a change in policy. Despite what allied governments may be saying, the tide of opinion appears to be with the Biden administration.

There have been practical consequences to these shifts in attitude. The Netherlands sent a delegate to the 2017 United Nations conference that negotiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. They did it not because the defense minister wanted it, or because the foreign minister favored it, but because the Dutch parliament passed legislation forcing the government to send a representative to participate. No other nuclear-armed state or NATO ally attended. But in The Netherlands elected representatives heard from their constituents and apparently concluded that banning nuclear weapons was not an issue they could fail to support wholeheartedly.

The situation is similar in other, non-European allies. In Japan, a 2020 scholarly survey found that “baseline support for the Prime Minister signing and the Diet ratifying the TPNW [the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons] stands at approximately 75 percent of the Japanese public. Only 17.7 percent of the population is opposed, and 7.3 percent is undecided. Moreover, this support is cross-cutting, with a wide majority of every demographic group in the country favoring nuclear disarmament.”

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And in Canada, a recent Nanos poll found that 74 percent of Canadians supported (55 percent) or somewhat supported (19 percent) the Canadian government signing the treaty.

It seems as if the Biden administration knows something that some in Congress have not yet picked up on: There is a commonsense case for eliminating nuclear weapons that is increasingly taking hold outside government circles. After all, no one keeps a technology that is not very useful and is extremely dangerous. And that is exactly what nuclear weapons are: dangerous and not very useful. They are dangerous because of the possibility that fallible human beings will stumble and deterrence will fail. They are not very useful because of the practical reality that they haven’t been used for nearly a quarter-century. 

Judged by these polling numbers, the Biden administration’s consideration of a “sole purpose” doctrine — a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first — would have widespread support in Europe and with other U.S. allies.

Ward Wilson is executive director of RealistRevolt, a Chicago-area nonprofit that argues against nuclear weapons. He has been a senior fellow at several think tanks, including the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the British American Security Information Council, and the Federation of American Scientists. He is the author of “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons.” Follow him on Twitter @WardHayesWilson.