Public Opinion and Military Intervention

For modern day states, especially democracies, the outcome of a military intervention is not just determined by the outcome on the battlefield but is also to a huge extent determined by the public opinion. The “Vietnam syndrome” and the much recognized and debated topic regarding Vietnam as a political loss for the American is deeply interconnected with public opinion on the intervention. The aim of this paper is two understand how public opinion can ‘make’ or ‘break’ a military intervention. I will do this by firstly looking at how an activated opinion of the masses can dictate a government’s decision to intervene or not. Secondly, I will look at the casualty hypothesis wherein in a loss-averse public starts to view an intervention negatively as casualties start mounting up.

For a long time public opinion was disregarded by academicians. Numerous communication models, like the Hypodermic Needle model or the Magic Bullet model, assumed that the public were mere consumers of information and that they lacked the element of rationality. As a result of this belief, which largely stemmed from the works of the Chicago School during the aftermath of the Second World War and the tragedy of Nazi Germany, it was believed that the public were vulnerable to any information being “injected” into them as a result of which their opinion was inconsequential. It was in this context that the idea, “the President doesn’t follow public opinion, he leads it” emerged.[1]

However, this dismissal attitude towards public opinion started to change as more and more research started to point towards the inherent rationality of the public and their ability to assimilate, analyze and impact policies, especially in the case of liberal and democratic societies.[2] Public opinion can in the words of V.O. Key be described as, “those opinions held by private persons which the government find it prudent to heed”.

The monumental impact of public opinion can be seen through the electorate decisions that the public makes. Therefore, democratic states need to pay attention to the demands of the public and are to huge extent dictated by the public opinion. In democratic states, the civil-military relations are such that the power of decision making pertaining to military intervention largely lies with the executive and the legislative, which in turn is affected by public opinion, and not with the military.

The inter-connectedness of civil-military relations is not just limited to the decision of making a military intervention or not. It includes the use of military to promote democratic values in other countries and is also reflected in the “cultural dimensions of strategy and policy”. In fact, post the Cold War era there has been an increased acceptance of the fact that culture, which includes identity, political culture in the ………………..of the structure of decision-making and public opinion, has increasingly become a factor in determining the course of today’s complex and interconnected world.[3]

Here it is important to note that every time the state makes the decision for or against a military intervention it does not proactively seek the public’s opinion. This can be attributed to the fact that the public does not always have a well articulated opinion. However, this does not mean that the public does not have any opinion; it only means that the opinion is “latent”.

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Latent public opinion refers to “ingrained sets of values, criteria for judgement, attitudes, preferences, dislikes – pictures in [the] head- that come into play when a relevant action, event, or proposal arises”.[4] It shows that the public can many a times be considered as detached and/or uniformed. However, it is important to note that an unsophisticated public is not necessarily an irrational one.[5]

Latent opinion when manifested can translate into active opinion. Therefore, it can be said that latent opinion has potential for expression- provided it is activated by some message or event. According to Mood theory that was articulated by Gabriel Almond, opinion becomes activated when two things happen simultaneously- a) events that directly threaten the normal conduct of affairs, and b) occurrence of assertive or self-confident moods among the public.

Here the role of elite debate and media is crucial. A polarized public debate between key decision-makers which is covered by the media provides the public with signals that helps convert latent into activated opinion.

The existence of latent public opinion is most visible in the case of foreign policy. Given the remoteness and the complexity of foreign policy the public is not very well informed about the foreign policy neither does it have a consolidated and concrete opinion on foreign policy matters.

It is, particularly, difficult to assess Public opinion in the matters of Foreign policy. For instance, Public is unlikely to have refined views on issues of arms control and trade agreements as there are significant gaps in public knowledge on these issues.

In the context of military intervention the public opinion is driven by two key factors- a) the relation between domestic and international politics, and b) the number of casualties sustained.

‘Making or Breaking’ a military intervention

  1. Two- Level Game

A government’s foreign policy and domestic policy have a deep impact on each other. That means a state does not intervene independent of domestic considerations. In fact, international negotiations between states, including the decision to militarily intervene, occur simultaneously with negotiations at the intra-national level.

That means the executive needs to take into consideration the internal political environment while trying to deal and decide on an external policy. Economic, political and social factors all come into play while making such decisions; this is where public opinion, whether active or latent, also comes into play by either making a case for or case against military intervention.

Japanese PTF Brazilian

Japanese PTF Brazilian

Japanese PTF Brazilian

Domestic politics can have a direct bearing on international politics and vice versa. It is, therefore, important for policy makers to achieve domestic policy goals so as to maintain

international bargaining power. On the other hand, international negotiations must also be in tandem with domestic constraints. These premises are integral to Putnam’s Two-

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Level Game theory of international relations.

At the national level, domestic groups often pressurise the government to adopt favorable policies to promote their interests. In turn the politicians seek power by forming coalitions among those groups. At the international level, national governments seek to maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments.

(Putnam 434).

Eg. Britain’s austerity politics and the decision against military intervention.

Putnam’s theory involves two levels of interaction among players. It is important to note

that the two-level game is incredibly complex; moves that are rational for a player at one

stage may be injudicious for that same player at the other stage (Putnam 434). To

simplify the game, it is broken down into two levels– international and domestic. At

Level I, the international level, bargaining between the negotiators leads to a tentative agreement. At this level of negotiations, the ‘chief negotiator’ is the main negotiating force. The ‘chief negotiator’ can be an individual, multiple persons, or single/multiple organizations depending on the situation.

Level II, the domestic audience, constitutes separate discussions by supporters of the ‘chief

negotiator’ about whether to ratify the agreement. Level II can be characterized as a parliament, ratification vote, or any number of other instances requiring acceptance of the Level I agreement.

The agreement formulated at Level I must be voted up or down by the constituents at Level II. Crucially, the important inter-relationship between the two levels is that any Level I agreement must be ratified by Level II (Putnam 436). Any modification of the agreement at Level II counts as a rejection of Level I and will require a re-opening of negotiations at Level I; final ratification must be ‘voted’ either up or down by Level II (Putnam 437).

II)Causalities and Public Opinion

In contemporary times the growing awareness and concern for human rights has led to the birth of a strong correlation between the number of casualties sustained and the public opinion about the military intervention.

Sensitivity to causalities is believed to be the “Achilles’ heel of modern-day democracies”.[6] Favorable public opinion is an essential element to any administration’s ability to prosecute war. This is because public opinion can constrain an administration’s ability to carry out its foreign policy goals, especially if the boundaries of what is acceptable to the public are breached. If the war drags on, casualties are sustained, the principal foreign policy objectives are considered illegitimate or the public perceives that the policy is not being successful, it may “push back” against or punish an administration by voting against it in the next election.

This relationship is extremely strong and visible in the West as a result of, what Gerard Chaliand terms as, “the West’s inability to stomach the losses”. With the establishment and recognition of human rights coupled with a demographic trend that suggests lower fertility and birth rates as compared to other parts of the world ensures that each and every life counts.

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These trends can be seen all throughout military interventions post the Second World War- ranging from the Vietnam and Korean War to Afghanistan and Iraq War, including the humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and Somalia.

As a result of a loss-averse public, the decision to intervene is to large extent determined by the public’s understanding of a) the possible swiftness of an attack, and b) the mounting cost of the intervention, especially in terms of the human lives. If the public is convinced that an intervention will be quick and will not protracted then it is more likely to create a favourable environment for the intervention amongst the people. However, if there are indicators that hint towards a long drawn-out conflict then the public opinion is bound to be largely against any such intervention.

This can be seen during the Gulf War during Sr. Bush’s administration. Even though America’s ability to go for an ‘all-out’ war in other countries had been largely crippled as a result of the “Vietnam syndrome”, America was able to make a case of its intervention in the Gulf as a result of the swiftness of the attack. Additionally, given the heavy-dependence on aerial attacks the Americans and their allies were able to minimize personal losses which created a further favourable public opinion.

Having said this, the public opinion can start to wither away as the public becomes aware of the mounting casualties.

Over four thousand American casualties and over four years of conflict have

had a significant influence on public support for the war in Iraq. The media response to

the climbing casualty rate, the November 2006 mid-term election results, and recent elite

political rhetoric demanding withdrawal are important indicators that public support for

this conflict has deteriorated.

A good example of this is the public’s response to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy in the November 2006 election. In fact, “public opinion, the support and mobilization of which is required for sustaining an extended conflict, plays a critical role in resolution, especially when

government preferences diverge from majority opinion.”4 So important is public opinion

that it may be America’s Achilles Heel.5


Kim, Jiyul.Cultural Dimensions of Strategy and Policy. Strategic Studies Institute, 2009. (accessed September 25, 2014).

Key, V.O.Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. Crowell, 1964.

Schwarz, Benjamin C.Casualties, Public Opinion and U.S. Military Intervention. Arroyo Center: RAND, 1998.

Smith, Eric R.A.N.The Unchanging American Voter. California: University of California Press, 1989.

[1] The Followership Model of Public Opinion states that the general public is more likely to be lead by the decision-makers rather than lead them.

[2] Refer to the work of Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro (1992)

[3] Jiyul Kim,Cultural Dimensions of Strategy and Policy, (Strategic Studies Institute, 2009) (accessed September 25, 2014).

[4] V.O. Key,Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, (Crowell, 1964), 264.

[5] Eric R.A.N Smith,The Unchanging American Voter, (California: University of California Press, 1989).

[6] Benjamin C. Schwarz,Casualties, Public Opinion and U.S. Military Intervention, (Arroyo Center: RAND, 1998), chap. 1.

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