The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has often adopted resolutions to authorise the American use of force. What do these resolutions communicate to the wider public overseas? Will they increase levels of support for US military action? A survey study [link to article] we have conducted in Japan finds not only that UNSC resolutions increase levels of support, but also that resolutions which failed due to a Chinese or Russian veto will still secure high levels of support for the use of force. If a draft resolution is withdrawn, however, or the US gives up on diplomacy, then public support falls. Foreign public opinion gives an ‘A’ for diplomatic effort when the US at least tries to pass a resolution; self-withdrawal is the worst case for the US.
Background: Public opinion and UN Security Council resolution
The UNSC has the authority to determine the existence of threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression. It gives approval for member states to maintain international peace and security, and has on numerous occasions adopted resolutions to authorise the use of military force, such as in the Korean War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Research has found that endorsement by the UNSC increases support for military action. (If you would like to see the references, check out our full paper here. However, this research has not been conducted in countries outside the US or in countries not initiating the military action. Our study has changed that.
We chose to conduct our survey in Japan because of its famous peace constitution and its overall anti-military sentiment. We can reasonably assume that Japanese citizens will have lower levels of support for military action in general. So if a UNSC resolution leads to increased levels of support, it will be easier for us to see the difference in support levels in Japan than it would be in other countries.
We developed imaginary scenarios for our survey. One scenario was that a dictator in the fictitious oil-rich state of Country A had responded to a recent democracy movement by ordering mass killings. This led to refugees leaving the country, increased oil prices, and the destabilisation of the region. We told our survey respondents that the US had asked the UNSC to adopt a resolution to “take all necessary measures” to stop the killing and restore peace and security, and asked them whether they supported such action on a 1 to 4 scale (one being “opposed” and 4 being “in support”). We developed another scenario based on a fictitious act of piracy, which would lead to calls for a naval operation.
Finding: The veto does not reduce levels of support
Figures I and II show our statistically significant findings for our two scenarios. If the resolution was passed unanimously, passed with abstentions, or even vetoed by China or Russia, levels of support for military action remained constant. However, if the US withdrew its resolution, then levels of support diminished.
Further studies under the “CROP-IT” project and policy implications
With our follow-up research as a part of the CROP-IT (Collaborative Research Of Political Information Transmission) project, funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), we can now conclude that a draft resolution which is adopted unanimously, adopted narrowly, or even vetoed by conservative permanent members like China and Russia is still perceived to be legitimate. Indeed, it is unnecessary to gather all of the fifteen votes to generate a perception of political legitimacy. Our research suggests that nine affirmative votes are enough. Four objections from non-permanent members and two abstentions by permanent members would not reduce Japanese public support. This suggests that a government (more specifically, the US government) seeking approval for the use of force should not give up too easily on UNSC approval, especially if it expects vetoes from conservative major powers. A resolution that fails through a veto can send information to foreign audiences that the use of force has good intentions and is likely to increase public support for military action, even if the resolution does not pass.