Home Communication Public Opinion, Transatlantic Relations and the Use of Force
The task of political leaders
What is clear is that in building support for particular foreign policies, including the use of military force, all leaders must be sensitive both to their own and to their allies' domestic constituencies if they hope to forge coalitions to act together. In general, one of the key tensions for leaders to manage is between the divergent instincts and preferences of Hawks and Doves when it comes to issues of just war, the use of force, and international legitimacy. In the absence of such efforts, even modest differences in the structure of public attitudes can have far-reaching consequences in public debates. One of these consequences is that the natural coalitions that emerge on both sides of the Atlantic may continue to cluster at opposite ends of the political spectrum - and hence aggravate a relationship already under tension in spite of broad agreement on the nature and urgency of common threats.
In practical terms, an American President can indeed seek to form a working majority for using force absent a UN mandate built on a coalition between Hawks and Pragmatists - as was the case with Iraq. No European leader, however, can attempt to pursue such a strategy successfully and hope to gain majority public support - with the possible exception of the United Kingdom. This does not mean that European leaders cannot mobilize public support for going to war or using force. It does mean, however, that a different rationale and basis of legitimacy is likely to be required if public support is to be gained. In most European countries, that majority would have to consist of a coalition between Pragmatists and Doves. This is what Tony Blair sought to do in the United Kingdom in the case of war in Iraq. As we know, it had only a limited success.
This suggests that the approach the United States uses to build support for its policies in Europe matters a lot. An American President who pursues a unilateral and Hawkish foreign policy course may be able to bank on a considerable degree of potential public support at home, in the United States - but acting thus he is going to have a hard time gaining public support in Europe given the structure of public attitudes, and irrespective of who is in power on the other side of the Atlantic. If Washington is interested in restoring, and maintaining a viable consensus across the Atlantic when it comes to the use of force, it must recognize the need to develop a rationale for such action that takes the structures and requirements of European public opinion into account - especially if those structures are different from those in the United States.
This rationale is hard to come by due to the way hypothetical situations get translated into actual political decisions in domestic political life in Europe as well as the United States. Europeans, while more averse to the use of force, especially in power politics situations, can, however, be moved to think differently about it in practice. The crucial factor in making them believe that the use of force should be supported is Atlanticism. An appeal to Atlanticism is the only available bridge to close the gap on the general orientation toward the use of force. Atlanticists (in Europe) are those who can change their mind and approve the use of force in cases where they would not agree to it in principle, because they feel that doing things together is important. This is true across the political spectrum, but it is particularly effective among those on the center-Right in Europe. This is one of the most powerful mechanisms through which policy coordination on such a controversial issue as the use of force is made effective in Europe. An appeal to Atlantic values and the ability to show that the decision to use force has been made and enacted through Atlantic institutions and in close contact with all the relevant allies in a multilateral setting is crucial to gaining public support for the use of force in Europe.
In the US, in contrast, Atlanticism does not play the same role. Atlanticism has an influence among the center-Left (the Liberals) in the US, but a quite opposite one among those leaning to the Right (the Conservatives). This explains why Americans and Europeans do clash when it comes to the use of force. While the Left in the US is responsive to the appeals of Atlanticism, since those appeals work to some extent for them too, for the Right these appeals are not only ineffective but also positively counterproductive. Those on the Right more supportive of the use of force are those who are not Atlanticists.
While Europeans can be moved to support the use of force through an appeal to Atlanticism, it is much harder to move the American public on the Right using these same values. This surprising asymmetry has two results when it comes to coordination of different political coalitions in Europe and the United States. A Republican president in the US will find it extremely difficult to mobilize his electorate using Atlanticism as a value, since it works against the main driver of support for the Republicans, the appropriateness of unilateral use of force by the American power. But, to give up on Atlanticism in the US severely undermines the ability of an American president to mobilize the support of the European public, especially when Atlanticism is most needed to overcome reluctance to use force.
A second problematic consequence of this asymmetry is that while there are factors that can move Europeans, reluctantly, to support the use of force, nothing similar exists to convince Americans Hawks to give up on the use of force in the name of Atlantic solidarity. In a way, it is easier to convince someone reluctant to use force to change their mind in favor of military force than to induce someone willing to do so to reconsider it and give their support for alternative, non-military, measures. Republicans in US and Conservatives in Europe lack a common grammar through which to hammer out a feasible political agreement in case of divergence.
In conclusion, a transatlantic clash on the issue of whether and how to use force is most likely to break out when an American government with a Right-wing orientation meets with Left-wing governments in Europe. In this situation, the traditional mechanisms built into the structure of beliefs of both Europeans and Americans to mend the relationship when both sides face difficult decisions, such as the one on the use of force, are less likely to work and politicization of the issue would likely make things even worse.
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