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What Shapes Public Opinion on War and Defense Spending?

What Shapes Public Opinion on War and Defense Spending?

Photo credit: Matthias Ripp

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Eichenberg, R. C., & Stoll, R. J. (2017). The acceptability of war and support for defense spending: evidence from fourteen democracies, 2004–2013. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 61 (4), 788-813.

Talking Points

  • A person’s acceptance of war and support for defense spending is most consistently influenced by his/her beliefs, values, and life experience.
  • Support for war and defense spending is much lower among women.
  • Current events and short-term threats are only sometimes important to a person’s support for war and defense spending


Past research has recognized that a government’s defense policy priorities must respond to external threats as well as to the public opinion of its citizens. As this study indicates, public opinion on war and defense spending is itself shaped mainly by individual values and beliefs, and only to a minor extent by the existence of external threats.

Two research questions are proposed in this article: 1) What factors influence citizen support for war and military force (what the authors call “acceptability of war”)? And, 2) other than the acceptability of war, what other factors affect support for defense spending? To answer their research questions, the authors use survey data over the period of 2004-2013 from 14 different countries in Western and Eastern Europe, the United States, and Turkey. To answer their first question, they analyzed responses to the following survey question:

Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following—Under some conditions war is necessary to obtain justice. 

This question also serves to measure opinions on fundamental attitudes toward military force from a person’s toleration or rejection of war as an instrument of policy. To answer their second question, responses to the following survey question were analyzed:

Do you think the [country’s] government should increase defense spending, keep defense spending at the current level, or decrease defense spending?

Each question was asked annually in each country over the course of at least five years. The survey also included questions to determine how, if at all, people’s fundamental beliefs about war and military power, their ideological identification, gender, and occupational status, or the presence of short-term threats influenced their attitudes towards war or defense spending.

The most significant finding of the survey analysis was that a person’s basic beliefs, values, and life experiences, which are typically independent of current events and short-term threats, were the most important influences on attitudes towards war and defense spending. In survey responses from all countries, when paired against current events or short-term threats, people’s attitudes towards war were more strongly and consistently related to their fundamental values and life experience. As an example, although respondents considered the extent to which they viewed the Iran nuclear program or China, for instance, as military threats, these threat assessments did not play as important a role in the formation of their attitudes on war and defense spending as did their beliefs, values, and experiences.

Gender was also a strong factor. Women in all countries showed lower support for war—and indirectly for defense spending—than men. This analysis provided important international data on gendered perceptions of war, data which had previously been collected primarily in the United States. Another important finding of the survey was identified when survey responses were analyzed by country. The United States was found to be the most ideologically conservative society, whose citizens accepted war as an instrument of their foreign policy the most, while citizens of Eastern European countries accepted war the least. Also, the attitudes of survey respondents in the U.S. towards war and defense spending were influenced much more by threats compared to those of respondents in other countries.

Contemporary Relevance

These research findings educate us on the important influences behind attitudes towards war and defense spending. They also reveal that current events and perceived threats have a lesser effect on these than was previously assumed. Traditionally, political leaders, especially in the United States, experience an uptick in public support as soon as they order military action against a perceived threat. However, according to these findings, an uptick in public opinion polls may not necessarily translate into an increase in the public’s support for war or their permission to increase defense spending. Recent U.S. military action in Syria provides a relevant example. In the hours and days following the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase, Trump gained tremendous bipartisan support, even from many of his fiercest opponents. However, a temporary rise in popularity after military action must not be confused with support for an escalation of war in Syria or for Trump’s proposed 10% increase in defense spending. Public opinion is often inflated after political leaders order military attacks, causing a temporary distraction from actual (lower) levels of public support for war.

Practical Implications

The authors found that both acceptance of war and support for defense spending are most consistently influenced by a person’s beliefs, values, and life experiences, and that these long-held beliefs are more influential to war support than current events or looming threats. Therefore, those who wish to change the public’s perception of war and its funding must focus on disrupting the narrative that glorifies war and militarism. If the true human, social, and economic costs of war are better known to the public, along with the better and more effective nonviolent alternatives to war, fewer people might adopt the narrative that glorifies war and the underlying beliefs that lead to the acceptance of war as a means to resolve conflict. This aim can be achieved by highlighting the accounts of veterans and civilians who have lived through war and can attest to its horrors, thus impacting the perceptions of those with whom they interact.

Gender was also a strong factor in attitudes towards war support, as survey responses from all countries showed lower support for war and defense spending among women. By assuming more prominent positions in government and civil society, women can use their leadership to help shift attitudes on war away from current norms. At the same time, however, society must transform the unequal ways in which so-called “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics, ideas, and approaches to political problems are valued.

This study also brings attention to the various complexities behind administering and analyzing survey data. People reveal their opinions based on the information that is most prominent in their minds at the time survey questions are asked. Therefore, opinions towards war and defense spending may fluctuate based on how those topics interact with how current events or threats influence their thinking at the time of the survey—even if, according to this research, these are much more likely to be influenced by a person’s values and beliefs. As an example, the 2016 terror attack in Nice, France, was met by 24/7 news coverage and strong rhetoric and action from governments all around the world. If the above survey was taken in the days after the Nice attack, the perceived threat from terrorism would be at the forefront of the survey respondent’s mind and therefore might result in increased public support for defense spending and military action against these threats. Because of the timing of the survey, the threat may cause an overinflation of military support and not be representative of the whole truth. This importance with regard to timing the distribution of a survey should be noted and considered both by those gathering information in this manner and by those who analyze survey data.

Keywords: defense spending, public opinion, war support

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.


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