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International Influence on U.S. Public Support for Drone Strikes

International Influence on U.S. Public Support for Drone Strikes

Photo credit: MSgt Eric Miller; The National Guard

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kreps, S. E., & Wallace, G. P. (2016). International Law, Military Effectiveness, and Public Support for Drone Strikes. Journal of Peace Research.  

Talking Points

  • By highlighting civilian casualties and breaches of international law, international organizations can directly influence U.S. public opinion on drone policy.
  • U.S. public opinion on the drone program is more influenced by international organizations citing legal principles than by their own government claiming drones are legal and effective.


Many international government and nongovernment organizations say the U.S. drone program is against international law and creates more terrorists than it eliminates.  The U.S. government claims drones are an effective way to disrupt terrorist networks and that the program is in accordance with international law. While public support is key to sustainable, legitimate policy in a democracy, research on international criticism of policy is limited and crucial to the longevity of government programs and positions.

This research examines whether the criticism by international organizations (IOs) or Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) impact public opinion in the United States (U.S.) for the country’s drone program, or whether individuals are more persuaded by the U.S. government’s arguments citing the program’s effectiveness.

Since September 11th, 2001, the U.S. has conducted more than 500 non-battlefield drone strikes against suspected terrorists affecting near-by civilians, killing over 4,000 people and wounding thousands more. The U.S. drone program is a staple in the country’s counterterrorism policy and has been heavily scrutinized by both international and domestic actors. In 2013, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly deliberated on a report criticizing the U.S. drone program on the grounds that the program violates international law regarding the use of lethal force. Many NGOs have also voiced criticism, with Amnesty International stating they are “deeply concerned that targeted killings by US drones occurring outside the conditions of armed conflict violate the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute extrajudicial executions”.

This research used a series of surveys to poll 2,394 U.S. voters, measuring the influence of international legal principles versus military effectiveness on public support for U.S. drone policy. The survey participants read through various arguments from representatives of IOs, NGOs and the U.S. government. IO community statements from the United Nations argued the drone program violates international law, the NGO Human Rights Watch provided arguments based on civilian casualties of drone program, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. government defended the effectiveness of drones at eliminating terrorist threats.

The results of the survey showed public opinion was more influenced by the appeals made by NGOs and IOs about the legality and civilian casualties of drone strikes than they were with appeals for drone effectiveness. Survey participants were especially swayed by arguments regarding the high rate of civilian deaths and how drones often ignore national sovereignty laws. Historically, U.S. public opinion is evenly divided on the drone program. This research found the international community can influence public opinion by 7% on average, which is more than enough to shift a minority or split opinion to the majority.

Contemporary Relevance

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has been vocal about his plans to ramp up the War on Terror, including targeting family members of combatants[1].  Drone strikes would be a likely choice for such missions. This research proves that when the international community uses arguments based on the U.S drone program’s violation of international law and high civilian casualties, U.S. public opinion for drones decreases. The international community can use these arguments to continue to spread awareness of violations, including the blatant violation of Article 51.2 of the Geneva Convention, pertaining to the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Practical Implications

This research can provide a useful basis for advocacy groups, challenging the U.S. drone program. The framing – not only the facts- surrounding an issue can be significant with regard to the actual impact on public opinion. This study found that criticism focusing on the effectiveness of drone strikes had little impact on public opinion, but criticism highlighting departures from international law and civilian casualties led to a change of public opinion about the U.S. drone program.

NGOs and IOs, such as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, can gain substantial traction with campaigns bringing attention to the legality or ethical questions of state policy. Considering the average influence on public opinion was around a 7% change, that margin is more than enough to tip the majority opinion against the U.S. drone program.

Continued Reading

The Drone Papers by The Intercept. (

US Public Support for Drones: Separating fact from Fiction by Julia Macdonald & Jacquelyn Schneider. (

Drones: Whatever Became of U.S. Respect for International Norms Prohibiting Assassinations? By Russ Wellen. (

Keywords: drones, international law, public opinion


[1] Business Insider: ‘Here’s what a Donald Trump drone program could look like’

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 6, of the Peace Science Digest.


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