The Relationship Between Public Opinion and International Peacekeeping

Nov 26, 1997, for International Peacekeeping

by Howard Fienberg

The will to participate in international affairs is an intellectual and learned attitude validated by immediate experience and moral pressure. (Almond 76)

International affairs is a complicated field, a realm usually dominated by professional diplomats, and assorted 'experts'. However, at least in the Western world, the general public must have at least some input. How much input is received and sought varies, but the existence of a dichotomy between an expert- and elite-driven foreign policy and one that is driven by or responsive to the wants of a larger constituency, as one would think should be the case in a democratic state, makes for an intriguing discussion.

International peacekeeping has come to the forefront as an issue today and is subject to this strange dichotomy in the process of their operation. A seemingly divisive issue politically, international peacekeeping provides a useful focus for a larger debate over the role of the public in foreign policy. While the democratic world is what one wishes to learn about, this paper will tend to focus on the US, Canada, and the UK. Certainly the author's knowledge of the three is better than of most, but as well, Canada and the US both play special roles in international peacekeeping and both their publics have special dynamics of public opinion.

This paper will focus first on American public opinion on foreign affairs, and internatiopnal peacekeeping. Following that will be a study of the role of the Congress in the US, an analysis of the validity of opinion polls, the effects of the media on the public and the government, an analysis of Vietnam Syndrome, and finally a look at the unique outlook of the Canadian public on peacekeeping.

The Realities of Public Opinion

The assumptions expressed by most American politicians recently have focused on a new American reluctance to involve itself overseas. They believe that Americans do not and will not support foreign affairs, particularly of the sort of UN peacekeeping operations. There is an assumption that Americans have become self-interested, discounting foreign affairs unless they relate to a narrow vision of the national interest.

Steven Kull's polling evidence proves them wrong. Offered an isolationist argument, "the majority of Americans reject them." (Kull 103) It is true that Americans do not prefer the US to continue in the role of the hegemonic 'world policeman,' but this is only because they prefer a multilateral approach, a "shared leadership." (Kull 104) This means that Americans tend to find foreign operations and intervention, in pursuit of whatever goal, best led by the UN, and best run in conjunction with as many other nations as possible.

Peter Rodman, of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, seems to be misinformed when he comments on recent peacekeeping expeditions, claiming that "American public support for this sort of [operation] is very thin." (Greenberger 163) Kull's survey evidence shows that the exact opposite view is predominant among the American public. Americans are most definitely frustrated by peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, but for specific reasons. They are in favor of the operations and are frustrated by what they see as ineffective, ill-conceived, and dangerous operations. They favor giving far greater power to peace keepers. Their opinion is generally that peace keepers are ill-equipped to do what needs to be done, and that, providing other nations share the burden, they should be given the means and power to do their job.

The American public has been found to grossly overestimate the amount the US spends on the UN and peacekeeping, which is why there is such support for cutting the perceived amount that is spent. Most Americans are shocked by how little is spent on, and how few US troops perform in, peacekeeping operations. (Kull 109) Most Americans are also misperceiving their fellow citizens, assuming that most Americans are more isolationist than themselves. (Kull 111)

The US Legislature

The division of powers enshrined in the American constitution makes the country's government fundamentally different from the Parliamentary systems making up most of the democratic world. This is because a balancing of powers between the executive, judicial and the legislative branches exists, where the three are meshed in a parliamentary system. The legislative branch, Congress, fulfills an important role regarding public opinion in the US which must be understood.

Following the experience of Vietnam, the US Congress passed a law saying that the executive (the President) could not send American forces abroad for more than 3 months without Congressional authorization, curtailing part of the president's power as the commander-in-chief. Therefore, America's commitment to peacekeeping missions longer than 3 moths must be approved by the Congress. This is no mean feat nowadays.

The power of Congress over the long-term deployment of US forces in peacekeeping, and funding for UN operations in general, makes them exceedingly important to the overall scheme. One wonders if this is such a good thing, considering their anti-UN stance.

It is arguable that Congress is closer to the public than President Clinton, since a third of its members are up for election every two years, as opposed to the president's four year terms. Also, in its vast numbers are represented American diversity of opinion. In particular, members are closer to many segments of opinion than the president can ever be, because their constituencies are dramatically smaller, and easier with which to keep in touch.

Special interest groups notwithstanding, all the aforementioned may be true, but they are also more removed from the international scene than the head of state, making it simpler for them to try to ignore foreign affairs. This is exactly what Congress has done throughout US history, and this generation is certainly no exception. "To the extent they think about foreign affairs at all, it is budget driven." (Greenberger 160)

The new Republican majority in the Congress is young, lacking in military experience, "and are therefore less worldly" than their predecessors. They are much less supportive of "free trade and foreign spending." (Greenberger 160) Their "view of international affairs begins and ends back home." (Greenberger 165)

The former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger insists there is no malicious intent involved, simply ignorance of foreign affairs. They remain focused on domestic problems (Greenberger 162), not unlike most other Americans.

The other factor mitigating against Congressional support for peacekeeping and the UN is their hatred of President Clinton. "Often, this animosity drives foreign policy issues," creating what Representative Howard Berman calls a "reflexive anti-Clinton mood." (Greenberger 162) Thus a recent 23.5 billion dollar spending bill contained some 23% cuts to diplomatic and UN activities." (Greenberger 163)

Peacekeeping has usually been driven within the government by the executive, rather than the legislature. Congressman continue to wonder, for instance, "how to explain the Bosnia mission to the survivors of any US casualties." (Towell 3602)

Do Opinion Polls Get it Wrong?

Steven Kull's work on polling the American public is eye-opening, but can be to some extent refuted with a more careful analysis. Public opinion does not have a direct connection to electoral politics, and certainly has only an indirect link to actual voting behavior, which is what concerns one the most of all issues. That is because one is dealing with states which have elected representatives to handle government, not direct participation, and while there are pressure groups and lobbyists, the general public really only makes it voice heard through one method, the vote. This may seem to give excessive credence to a Weberian elitist model of democracy. While the theoretical grounding will not be discussed here, as an approach it will not be relied upon to that great an extent, merely enough to highlight the divergence between public opinion and the vote.

In the UK, while opinion polls continually express that the British public is becoming ever more liberal and tolerant in their attitudes toward crime and punishment. It is the authoritarian-style ministers who are voted into Parliament; most ministers are in continuous competition with each other, trying to be as 'tough on crime' as possible. The question becomes why the public changes its tone between the opinion poll and the voting booth. There can be several explanations.

First, perhaps polling and sampling methods are faulty. The proliferation of opinion polls rests on our faith in them, and that faith has been lessened over time, especially since polls seemingly failed to predict the Conservative victory in the general election of 1992. One has a certain instinctual skepticism of the methodology behind sampling; questioning a thousand people in order to get the opinion of the whole country seems absurd. Although the methodology has been proven correct and worthwhile over time, there is still a certain unease with this form of quantitative analysis.

Second, it may be that those being polled are lying. If this is the case, then survey methods would need to be adjusted to counter this problem. People may lie for any number of reasons, and one can not speculate here. If lying is the problem, then surveys might just have to be comprehensively overhauled or junked.

Thirdly, there is the section of the population that does not vote. In the last few American elections, barely half of the population eligible to vote did so. Participation in other democracies is usually higher, but the problem remains. This would be a case of the silent majority which is remains so much so that it fails to express its wishes on voting day.

Finally, and most convincingly, is the argument that the public's stance on most issues is unrelated to how it votes. The same person who cites that they feel more tolerant in dealing with crime, approaches the voting booth with a whole jumble of issues floating about in their head. Several may come to the fore, or none at all. Perhaps they waltz in like a robot and press the button for one party's candidate simply out of habit. Or perhaps they weigh the issue that is usually the most important to a voter, that of how the voter feels the government will affect its pocketbook. Putting more people into prison appears to offer 'more bang for less buck', than the more tolerant rehabilitation programs offered by the other candidate. In general, though, the voter will most often worry about how the party will handle the national economy and how that handling will affect their own finances.

Essentially, people's priorities are ill-judged by surveys. Scottish polls indicate that devolution is important to most Scots. This remains unrelated in their voting behavior, for the most part, as neither of the two dominant British parties have, until recently, supported devolution for Scotland, and have gotten most of the vote over the years. The Scottish National Party in particular should have reaped the benefit of this stance, but has not gained much in power over the years. This is because voters fear the real fiscal costs of devolution; they support it because they feel it is right and good, and makes them feel nostalgic about their country's past. However, when the chips are down, there are simply other issues of far greater importance to them.

So, how does one relate these difficulties back to support for international peacekeeping? Foreign policy issues tend not to be raised much, except in times of war. This is particularly true in Canada and the US, but just as much so in Europe if one discounts the European Union. EU affairs are generally important across Europe because of the integrated nature of the union, but one must exclude them from the view of foreign policy. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), linking the US, Mexico, and Canada, has been of fleeting importance to the public. Despite a general apprehension, the publics of the US and Canada have accepted the agreement as a positive achievement. The Liberal party in Canada tried to fight the 1988 election with opposition to NAFTA as the basis of their platform, and failed to turn the focus of the election to NAFTA. Ross Perot attempted the same in the 1992 American elections, and also failed. With NAFTA, arguably the most important foreign policy interest, garnering little real attention, there is little that could be left to the remaining issues.

Foreign affairs loom mostly for certain special interest groups, like Israel for Jewish voters. Other than cases such as that, it means very little. Most of the public don't think about foreign affairs that often.

Consequently, "the less voters" concentrate on "foreign policy during [election] campaigns, the more" room for maneuver and flexibility "elected officials have in choosing what positions to take on those issues" once they are in power. (Rosner 119) Here the Weberian approach seems justified, with free-wheeling elites running the government as they see fit, questioned only by infrequent elections.

Polls tend not to take account of the dynamism of issues that politicians can understand and harness. A survey can ascertain how an electorate feels about an issue, but is poor for determining the electoral potency of that idea. Politicians seem to have an almost sixth sense in judging the potency of an issue, and capitalizing on it, leaving pollsters baffled.

Politicians, as well, will often cater to the opinions of an express group, rather than the majority of the electorate, because it is that group which is his base of support. (Rosner 119) Even if the majority of a given electorate support greater American efforts at peacekeeping, the electorate is often sufficiently stratified that the politician can focus on his minority of supporters.

A particular difficulty in the link between poll response and voting behavior is in how issues are portrayed. "Voters want to cut foreign aid mostly because they overestimate how much of the federal budget it consumes." (Rosner 117) Most citizens are surprised by how little of their tax money goes towards foreign aid in general, and the functions of the UN in particular:

as Americans learn more about US programs abroad - how few US troops are involved in peacekeeping, for example, or how few dollars flow to foreign aid - the better they feel about these efforts." (Rosner 117)

It is misrepresentation and, too often, outright lying, by politicians that skews how the public views the UN. Politicians steer the blame for any difficulties onto Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, and the UN as a whole. If an operation goes wrong (and most do, for numerous reasons), the blame is passed. Rarely does the political establishment attempt to educate the public as to why something happened, when it is so much easier to turn the UN itself into a scapegoat.

The peacekeeping operations in Somalia provide a worthy example. An American operation had been essentially a success in getting aid to the Somalis, and bringing some order to the country. The administration had been looking for a way out, and the Congress was looking for an issue to beat the administration with, and both found their search answered by a videotape of a US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu. Regardless of the real American opinion, which had not wavered much in its favor of the operation throughout, Congress pounced on the broadcast and used it as a tool to pressure the President to withdraw US forces.

Despite the many phone calls from constituents which Congressmen cited as the reason behind their insistence on withdrawal, it seems that the public was still behind the operation. One image can change a lot, but even so, the numerous casualties up to that point did little to test the public's resolve. (Gowing 67)

This example leads one to the next point of focus, that of the influence of the media, and whether it shapes or expresses the opinion of the public.

The Media

"The superficiality of the involvement of most" people with matters of the UN and international peacekeeping, and foreign affairs in general, "is also suggested by the extremely limited character of the information... which most of them have." (Almond 80) The limitations of that information are due to the functioning (or lack thereof) of the media.

The Somalia crisis can serve as a poignant example of how the media related to government policy and public opinion. Somalia was simply not on the American government's agenda in the beginning. Officials in Foggy Bottom made the claim that the reason the Somalia famine was ignored "before July 1992" was due "to a lack of media attention and a system overloaded by concurrent humanitarian crises in the Balkans, Iraq, and elsewhere..." with which both the media and the administration were then engaged. (Clark 226)

Until the Secretary General's tirade and news media focus forced a change in policy, the United States supported minimal UN response to Somalia- despite, not because of, the situational reality- because no one was challenging such an approach. (Clark 227)

So the administration was avoiding taking a stand, or doing anything. A sharp upswing in the media focus on Somalia tipped the government's hand, forcing them to take some kind of action. The intervention that followed was arguably a success, but the government still dithered, making the public uneasy. The public was happy about the seeming success of the mission, but were concerned that US forces would be there for a long time, for no clear or present reason. The problem then was that the government's lackadaisical approach made them vulnerable to undercutting by the Congress. Congressional opponents of both the mission and Clinton took advantage of the media's intense reporting on the American servicemen in the hands of Aideed's forces, and turned it to their advantage, harping on the display as a rationale for getting out of Somalia, and Clinton's administration crumbled. UN officials allege that

If the US government had taken a clear position on Somalia and begun preparing the US public for an eventual winding down of its commitment, then the images of the dead serviceman would never have had quite the same powerful impact on the public as it did. (Gowing 67)

So, in this case, the media was placing an otherwise ignored policy issue on the agenda, and almost forcing the administration to react. What is sometimes termed the "CNN effect" is usually "necessary to mobilize pressure on (the Western) governments to act." (Jakobsen 213)

A major humanitarian intervention, led by the US, was the result, but, since it was reactive rather than proactive, it was not well conceived, making it extremely vulnerable. The media, of course, offers few suggestions, merely the cry of 'do something!' As Sir Michael Howard noted, television brings a crisis closer to governors but provides "no new means to resolve it." (Gowing 12) "The challenge for governments is to appear to react" at the same time as they are trying to adhere to some semblance of a rational national interest in their policy. (Gowing 10)

Television coverage is thus a powerful influence in problem recognition, which in turn helps to shape the foreign policy agenda. But television does not necessarily dictate policy responses. (Gowing 18)

Also, the media does not necessarily express the wants and vision of the public. More often it serves to shape their wants. Therefore, if governors do react to the media in a direct fashion, they are moving even further away from public opinion than they might be otherwise. In essence, the media can serve to shape both public opinion and government policy, but need not do either so blatantly and thoughtlessly. As well, the media should not be relied upon for influence on either party, as its resources are limited, and so is the breadth of its attention, perhaps even more so than the general public.

Vietnam Syndrome

The most typical explanation given as to why Americans in particular are reluctant to involve themselves in affairs of peacekeeping is Vietnam Syndrome. This is essentially deemed a disease, which prevents the US from intervening abroad. Elites cite this as their reason for not wanting to get involved, since they can't stand the thought of 'our boys' being killed half way across the world when no obvious national interest or security is at stake. What they mean is that the American public won't put up with casualties to US troops after the Vietnam debacle.

There is another level to this syndrome, which is rarely addressed directly. That is the revolution that occurred in the era of the Vietnam War, not only in the US but in the rest of the democratic world as well. The public was demonstrating in the streets because the elites were not heeding their wishes. Since there was no true moral reason for the intervention, nor any threat to national security or the national interest, the public wouldn't countenance the war. The result was a greater democratization of society, and a vast increase in the level of distrust between the public and the elites, reaching its apex in the Watergate scandal.

In terms of peacekeeping, what is important to note is the moral objection to the war expressed by the American public. It is not that the public is scared of a Vietnam-style quagmire where they can't easily win, but that they refuse to support operations which don't conform to at least one of two basic criteria: (1) the operation must be morally right; (2) it must be in the direct national interest.

The Vietnam War did not fit either of these two criteria. The moral basis, of fighting communism, was paper-thin at best. The national interest, of preventing the spread of Soviet influence, was dubious as well.

The secret lies in the inherent idealism of the American public. They are imbued with a philosophy of American exceptionalism, that the US is a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. While a few may wish to lead as an example, shining America's light from home, most favor American activity abroad in support of moral ends.

The United Nations fits the American notion of international morality. Consequently, "from its inception... the United Nations has had the general support of the American public." (Wainhouse 526) "There have been periods of some widespread disillusionment," particularly as there was a rise in the bloc of third world countries which often denounced the US, "but outright or consistent opposition has come from a very small segment of opinion." (Wainhouse 526)

Peacekeeping has usually been viewed from above as a risky proposition with little or no possible benefit. The public will tend not to run the same sort of rational choice cost-benefit analyses, and it is from them that most of the moral push comes from. The clamor for humanitarian intervention comes from below, not the top.

As well, Kull's study reveals that even in situations where US forces are portrayed as being under serious threat, the American public, for better or for worse, rather than wishing forces withdrawn, tends to favor an increased US presence and aggressiveness in achieving its goals. (Kull 111-3) This is primarily linked to what is termed America's 'John Wayne' outlook on military affairs, but hasn't changed that much since the Vietnam era.

Canada and Peacekeeping

Among the nations of the world, Canada holds an almost unique position towards peacekeeping. Although nations like Finland, Sweden, and India have exemplary records in involvement with peacekeeping, Canada has turned it into a way of life. What began as an elite-driven enterprise has become an inspiration, and a moral imperative, to the nation as a whole.

At first, just following World War II, peacekeeping was seen as a

drain on very scarce Canadian defense resources, a thankless task, a potentially divisive mission at home, and a way in which Canada might be dragged by other countries into distant conflicts in which it had little interest; (Jockel 11)

not too far from what many think of it now. However, Canadians became rather keen on peacekeeping, after Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in helping to establish the UNEF operation in the Suez. That growing love for peacekeeping among the public forced a reluctant Canadian government to participate in the UN operations in the Congo in the early 1960's.

Enthusiasm is so great in the Canadian public nowadays that for a government to refuse involvement in an operation now would mean to "brave substantial criticism at home." (Jockel 13) Although tempered by the Bosnian peacekeeping operation, so that the public now realizes that peacekeeping can no longer be considered low-risk, sentiment among the Canadian public remains resoundingly in favor of continued peacekeeping involvement. A simple demonstration of the esteem with which peacekeeping is held is in the hero status of Major General McKenzie, a former leader of the UN's operations in Bosnia. His popularity was so great that both the Liberals and Conservatives tried to woo him to run for parliamentary seats for them. (Jockel 18)

Peacekeeping is considered a "strong factor" in their national influence, giving them a powerful voice for such a minor nation. Mostly, however, it has a unique standing with Canadians because it provides a distinguishing national face for a nation subsumed in the shadow of its more powerful neighbor. Always striving to differentiate themselves from the US so as to justify their national existence peacekeeping offers them such an opportunity. As well, it is one of the few factors unifying a relatively divided nation. Dealing with a multi-cultural society, and with a serious francophone-anglophone split, involvement in peacekeeping operations is one of the only things that Canadians can easily agree upon.


The general public in any country tends to be "indifferent to questions of foreign policy because" they are so removed from everyday "interests and activities." (Almond 70) This need not be so. If there is a conclusion that can be reached from this paper, it is that there is much work to be done in education.

The average citizen is faced with foreign affairs as a chimera which can never be really understood, and results in the belief that they should leave their governors to handle them. The public also has become too complacent in how the media offers them information.

What is required, therefore, is an active campaigning in democracies aimed at: increasing public awareness of foreign affairs and the need for international peacekeeping and instilling a critical approach to the media's reporting of events. Only from there will citizens be able to understand the machinations and meanings of what their governors say and do, be capable of judging them properly, and making their governors more amenable to their true (and informed) wishes. That is what democracy is supposed to be about.

Works Cited

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