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Support for the Use of Force: Situational and Contextual Factors


Measuring support for, or opposition to, the international use of force is not an easy matter. As earlier research (Mueller, 1973; Larson, 1996a; Everts and Isernia 2001; Feaver and Gelpi, 2004) has shown, people are particularly sensitive to the circumstances under, and purposes for, which the use of force is either envisaged or actually taking place. Hypothetical cases as well as questions about the use of force before the decision to use this instrument has actually been taken may be especially misleading with respect to what can be expected in concrete and specific historical cases. Timing is also a relevant element in view of the 'rally around the flag' effect, or the tendency of people to support the use of military force, despite hesitations, once their government has taken a decision to do so (Mueller 1973; Brody, 1991; 2000).

In recent years, considerable progress has been made, however, in tracing the factors and conditions which determine the willingness of people to support the international use of military force. Nevertheless, considerable gaps in our understanding remain. One reason for this is the fact that most of the available studies are based on data from the United States, while there is considerable uncertainty whether and to what extent findings for this country can be generalized to other countries and cultures. Another shortcoming of studies in this area of research is that many suffer from one or two forms of bias: (1) they focus on the decision to initiate (to participate in) a military conflict (or the decision to go to war) and not on later phases when the issue is the continuation of the conflict; (2) they are static and do not account for the fact that the impact of causal factors may vary over time and be different in different phases of a conflict. Number of casualties, for instance, or the expected likelihood of success, will tend to have different impact in the earlier compared to the later phase of a conflict. This chapter aims to fills some of these gaps.

In this chapter, we triangulate among different kind of data. We first look at the aggregate picture, analyzing the impact of several factors on support for the use of force, using the wording of the question as the stimulus to gauge it. We then move to the individual level, exploring the relative weight of situational factors as compared to predisposition in a set of hypothetical and concrete situations.

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