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Support of the air strikes and other military actions: a comparative look

Three genuinely comparative surveys were held at different stages of the conflict in a number of European countries, plus the US and Russia (Table 5.1).6 They tapped support for air strikes in a quite similar and comparable fashion. All of them referred to the NATO operation and asked whether the respondents supported or opposed this operation as such, rather than his/her own country's participation in it - a slight difference that is not without consequence, as we will discuss below.

When public opinion was surveyed in a set of sixteen countries on the day after the bombings had begun, reactions to the events were quite varied. Going by the number of those who supported 'NATO's decision to carry out air and missile attacks against Serbian military installations', we can distinguish at least three groups of countries: supporters, mixed feelings and opponents of the air war.

The most supportive countries with respect to air strikes included those that we have defined in Chapter 2 as staunch Atlanticists: the US (68 percent), the Netherlands (68 percent) and the United Kingdom (68 percent), as well as Denmark (74 percent), Norway (64 percent) and

Table 5.1 Views on NATO air strikes against Serbia over Kosovo (% support) - (March-June 1999)

March-April a

May 1999 b

June 1999 c

Average*

Diff**

Original NATO members

Belgium

53

42

47

-11

Canada

64

Denmark

74

70

72

-4

France

54

68

62

61

8

Germany

57

52

54

54

-3

Greece

2

2

2

0

Italy

47

37

51

45

4

Luxembourg

61

61

na

Norway

64

64

na

Portugal

41

41

na

Spain

34

39

36

5

United Kingdom

68

67

67

-1

United States

68

68

na

New NATO membe Czech Republic

rs

35

35

Hungary

48

48

Poland

54

54

Other countries

Austria

41

41

Croatia

82

82

Finland

50

44

47

Ireland

46

46

Russia

2

2

Slovakia

21

21

Ukraine

4

4

Format of the questions and sources:

  • a) 'As you may know, NATO has recently taken military action in Kosovo. Do you support or oppose NATO's decision to carry out air and missile attacks against Serbian military installations?' (AngusReid Group/The Economist, March 25-April 17, 1999, N = about 500 per country).
  • b) 'Do you personally support or oppose the military actions by NATO in Serbia?' (ICM/ European Barometer/The Guardian, May, 1999, N = not available).
  • c) 'Do you personally approve or oppose the military intervention by NATO in Yugoslavia?' (IPSOS/Liberation, June 2, 1999, N = 500 to 900 per country).
  • * Average level of support across time. Not weighted by the number of cases.
  • ** Difference between the earliest and latest survey available.

Canada (64 percent). A second group of countries showed mixed feelings about the NATO action. Three of the older NATO members - Germany, France and Italy - were in this middle group, together with Poland (54 percent) and Hungary (48 percent) - two countries that had been among the first generation of new NATO members admitted shortly before the war began - and Finland (50 percent). Public opinion in these countries was divided, with only slim majorities or large pluralities of those polled in support of the air strikes. A third group consisted of those countries in which the public was clearly opposed to the NATO operation. In the Czech Republic (although another new NATO member), for instance, those against the NATO operation outnumbered those in support with a margin of 3 to 1. In the same group were the Russians, among which 94 percent of those polled opposed. They were joined by Ukraine (89 percent), and Slovakia (75 percent), where citizens nearly unanimously opposed the NATO air attack.

A few weeks later, in May 1999, admittedly in a very different phase of the war when the first doubts about the effectiveness of the bombing actions became manifest, another poll showed still a similar pattern, with a few new countries added to the picture, such as France (68 percent) and Luxembourg (61 percent), where stable majorities now supported 'the military actions by NATO in Serbia'. Belgium (53 percent),7 Austria (41 percent), Finland (44 percent), Germany (52 percent) and Ireland (46 percent) were situated in the middle group, with a slim majority or a plurality of the polled population supporting the NATO operation. In Spain (34 percent) and Italy (37 percent), on the other hand, no more than one-third supported the NATO operation. Greece, with its historical ties to Orthodox Serbia, was clearly the odd man out in NATO. While the government of Greece had decided to go along with the NATO action, this policy was almost universally opposed at the mass level.

A third comparative survey8 was carried out in early June 1999, on the eve of the acceptance by Slobodan Milosevic of the peace plan proposed by negotiators from Russia, America and Finland, and this may explain the slightly higher level of support overall for the NATO operation at this time. There are still interesting differences among the polled countries, however. Support had now become high in France (62 percent) and the United Kingdom (67 percent). It remained at an intermediate level in Germany (54 percent) and in Italy (51 percent), with a plurality or slight majority opposing it in Belgium (45 percent) Portugal (51 percent) and Spain (49 percent). Again, strong, almost unanimous opposition was found in Greece, with 97 percent not approving the NATO intervention. To the bottom group of countries, we can now add Sweden, where only 34 percent were in favor and 39 percent opposed NATO air strikes, at least initially.

In brief, some changes and fluctuations in particular countries apart, on the whole support for the air strikes did not decline very much over time, let alone decline systematically. Contrary to what one would expect, given the political controversies over the merits of military action, public opinion on the general issue of air strikes did only fluctuate somewhat during the war but not trend-like. The war was over before a process of erosion could set in.

This conclusion is supported by a variety of figures. To the extent that we can truly compare data over time (data are available from Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom), even if with some caution due to slightly different wordings, there is little evidence that the obvious lack of success of NATO's bombing and the media reports about civilian casualties and other damage in Serbia affected public opinion much, or in a trend-like pattern. There were a few exceptions (Belgium, showing a decrease, and France, showing an increase). In Germany, support increased, but only slightly, in the first half of April, but it declined again in the course of May, after which it eventually turned slightly up again. In Italy a trend similar to that of Germany was found. Support slightly increased during the first part of the conflict, reaching its maximum around the half of April, and then steadily declined to increase again once the end of the war was in sight. In the case of Great Britain, the set of questions covers a shorter period only (until May 1) and is therefore less easily comparable. However, also in the British case we find that support first increased and then slightly decreased, with a majority still in favor.

One available time series, for Italy (covering a period of two months), supports the conclusion that if changes did occur they were neither big, nor systematic (Table 5.2).

Table 5.2 Bombing or return to diplomacy? Opinions in Italy, March-May 1999 (in % vertical)

26/3

29/3

7/4

13/4

17/4

19/4

27/4

5/5

10/5

17/5

Return to diplomacy

72

66

60

63

67

65

63

67

62

69

Continue the bombing

22

31

34

30

28

29

31

33

34

28

Don't know/ no answer

6

4

6

7

6

6

6

5

4

3

Format of the question: - 'Prime Minister D'Alema has said that after the first bombing the moment has come to return to diplomacy, while Mr Clinton and Mr Blair want to continue the bombing until Serbia sign the peace agreement. Which position do you support?'

Source: SWG-Trieste, 1999.

The case of Kosovo illustrates the danger of generalizing from observations in one European country only, but it also suggests that a few general factors were yet at work that shaped the evolution of support over time in each of the countries concerned in a similar fashion. The resulting general pattern (presented in Figures 5.1 and 5.2) was indeed remarkably similar across the Atlantic and in all countries concerned for which we have data. There was hesitation before the war, a short spike of exaltation when the military action began and a more or less rapid decline in support as success turned out to be elusive and the war dragged on. This pattern is found in both the US and among the European countries.

 
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