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Threats, Public Support, and Military Intervention

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The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest. 

Citation: Haesebrouck, T. (2019). Who follows whom? A coincidence analysis of military action, public opinion and threats. Journal of Peace Research56(6), 753–766.

Keywords: military intervention, public opinion, Libya, ISIS, Iraq, Syria

In democratic societies, one would assume—or at least hope—that the opinions of an informed public would have an impact on their governments’ decision-making about whether to initiate military action based on perceived threats. The relationship between military action, public opinion, and threats is at the core of this study. Who follows whom: is the voice of the public constraining military intervention, do governments use their public relations efforts to manipulate the public in favor of intervening, or are citizens and decision-makers equally inclined to react to threats to national interests with a call for military action? It depends on the context of the intervention.

There is an extensive body of research looking at the public opinion/foreign policy nexus. According to the author, there are disconnected strands of existing scholarship that either look at whether public opinion shapes foreign policy decisions or whether governments are able to influence public opinion to advance their interests. In this study, the author tries to bridge the gap by connecting the strands in a single analysis.

To examine the relationship, the author looked at the behaviors of EU member states in two military operations: 1) the 2011 intervention in Libya, and 2) the operation against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The research methodology of coincidence analysis allowed for a systematic comparison across the cases while accounting for the complexities within. While the military operations had degrees of similarities, the main differences were the stated humanitarian goal in the case of Libya and the goal of protecting national interests by preventing the creation of an international terrorism safe haven in the case of targets in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the operation in Libya was authorized by the UN Security Council, whereas the fight against ISIS was carried out by an ad hoc coalition.

In the case of Libya, EU member states’ use of force was constrained by public opinion. In other words, “public opinion was decisive for participation in the Libya intervention.” In the few countries where public opinion was not decisive, contextual circumstances helped explain inconsistencies with the general findings. Italy, for example, which is close to Libya both geographically and economically, reluctantly participated in air strikes despite the lack of public support only when it became clear that Gaddafi would lose power. Portugal, which was in the midst of a domestic political crisis, did not participate in military action despite public support for doing so. In the case of the anti-ISIS coalition, the analysis revealed that perceived threats caused both public support and military action. EU member states perceived a clear threat to their interests, which was enough for them to get involved in military action. The aggressive intentions of ISIS and the presence of foreign fighters made the threat tangible to the populations and thus also generated public support for military operations. In cases such as Sweden and Germany, constitutional restrictions, namely domestic legal rules, prevented the nations from participating in those operations.

The results show that the context is decisive for the relationship between public support, military action, and threat. Whether public opinion acts as a constraint on military action depends on the primary objective and whether there are clear and tangible national interests at stake.

In the context of the Libya operation, there were no aggressive intentions by the regime against the countries in question. Less tangible threats to national interests in Libya resulted in domestic conditions and public opinion acting as a constraint when it came to participation in military action. In the context of the ISIS operation, clear and tangible threats led to public support and military action independent from each other.

As the author concludes, “whether public opinion is a constraint on military action or an effect of threats strongly depends on the primary objective of the military operation and whether or not the threats to a state’s national interests are clear and tangible.”

Talking Points

In the context of EU member state decisions about whether to participate in military action either in Libya (2011) or against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (starting in 2014),

  • Less tangible threats to national interests resulted in domestic conditions and public opinion acting as a constraint when it came to participation in military action (in the case of Libya).
  • Clear and tangible threats led to public support and military action independent from each other (in the case of anti-ISIS military operations).
  • “[W]hether public opinion is a constraint on military action or an effect of threats strongly depends on the primary objective of the military operation and whether or not the threats to a state’s national interests are clear and tangible.”

Informing Practice

This study contributes to knowledge about the interplay between threats, public opinion, and military action. Its finding that the specific context of a military intervention—particularly its objective and the extent to which there are “clear and tangible” threats posed to national interests—influences whether public support acts as a constraint on decisions to use military force is instructive. It tells us that campaigns to inform public opinion about the shortcomings of military action will be more decisive in cases where there are no direct threats to national interests. It is also worthwhile, however, to ask what assumptions are being made in this research—as well as by political leaders and the public—about what constitutes an appropriate response to direct threats when these are present. It is taken for granted, for instance, that when there is a direct threat to national interests, military action is a necessary and effective response that will ultimately safeguard these national interests. If we are to make any headway in preventing the knee-jerk reaction of military intervention when national interests are at stake, we must address these assumptions head on.

First, the immediate context of possible military action and those conducting it needs to be thoroughly analyzed through a conflict mapping framework. A systematic deconstruction of all possible variables does not only help separate seemingly obvious positions from interests and underlying needs. It also sheds light on the many complexities of a conflict within its historical context. In the cases shown in this study, conflict mapping then would include an examination of the 2011 uprising in Libya in the context of the Arab Spring and the underlying grievances that led to the rise of ISIS, respectively. Both cases then can be viewed through a lens of conflict transformation that includes many viable nonviolent alternatives to military action. The latter, as we know from other research presented in the Peace Science Digest, is often an ineffective and counterproductive tool for countering terrorism, as it fuels grievances of already marginalized communities, feeding into narratives employed by terrorist groups and providing these groups with new recruits. Conflict resolution or peacebuilding approaches to confronting terrorism take the broader historical, political, and socio-economic context into consideration and include engaging in dialogue with members of terrorist organizations and the communities that support them, addressing legitimate grievances of these actors, and countering the alienation felt by those on the margins of society.[1]

Second, discussions and decisions about military intervention take place within a larger context of militarism, where in a society war and preparation for war dominate politics and foreign policy. Our own security, in this context, can only be maintained by military force. A demilitarization of security entails several strategies including the promotion of nonviolent norms and alternatives to military intervention, a reconfiguration of the responses to terrorism, the creation of a peace economy, gender equality, and disarmament efforts.[2] Advocacy organizations such as World Beyond War, Peace Action, or Win Without War push for such systemic changes and can help transform the militaristic narratives around threats underlying the militarized security paradigm.   

Finally, when we are able to connect the case-specific and broader context analyses to the role of public opinion and war support, other research found that when people are aware of nonviolent alternatives to war, they are less likely to tolerate casualties and support war.[3] Awareness can be created through informed peace activism, advocacy with elected officials, public education, and media engagement, among other approaches.  

Continued Reading

Bove, V., Rivera, M., & Ruffa, C. (2019, October 14). Terrorism boosts military involvement in politics (and why it matters for democracy). Retrieved October 16, 2019, from https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2019/10/14/terrorism-boosts-military-involvement-in-politics-and-why-it-matters-for-democracy/

On conflict and context analysis:

War Prevention Initiative. (2017). Conflict analysis: A quick guide to structured conflict assessment frameworks. Retrieved from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/conflict-analysis-quick-guide.pdf  

de Mel, N., & Venugopal, R. (2016). Peacebuilding context assessment. Sri Lanka 2016. Commissioned by the United Nations. Retrieved from https://lk.one.un.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Peacebuilding-Context-Assessment-Draft-1-single-pages.pdf

[1] Peace Science Digest. (2017, July). Counterproductive effects of military counterterrorism strategies. Retrieved November 13, 2019, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/counterproductive-effects-military-counterterrorism-strategies/

[2] Shifferd, K., Hiller, P., & Swanson, D. (2018). A global security system: An alternative to war. 2018-19 Edition. Charlottesville: World Beyond War.

[3] Peace Science Digest. (2018, August). Proven decline in public support for war when the alternatives come to light. Retrieved November 13, 2019, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/proven-decline-in-public-support-for-war-when-the-alternatives-come-to-light/

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