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Elites, International Law, and Public Support for Warfare

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Principal Investigator(s):

Geoffrey Wallace
Rutgers University
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Sarah E. Kreps
Cornell University
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Sample size: 2394
Field period: 05/28/2013-10/03/2013


While covert action was long outside the reach of international legal constraints, international organizations (IOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have increasingly sought to bring covert action under the umbrella of international laws governing the use of force. We examine one target of these efforts, the use of armed drones for counterterrorism. Does the public—which influences state practice and in turn customary international law—privilege concerns about effectiveness or international legal commitments in their support for armed drones? The case represents a consequential but difficult test for international law insofar as domestic political elites have largely been unified in their support for the policy, media accounts of drone strikes have heavily favored the government’s perspective, and the U.S. public has held fairly strong, favorable views towards the use of drones. Employing an experiment embedded in a survey of a nationally representative sample of the United States, we find that the public is moved in their support for drone strikes by legal principles dealing with violations of sovereignty and civilian protections than by more strategic questions of military effectiveness. We further show that these effects are rooted in the normative dimensions of international legal commitments rather than more instrumental considerations. Our findings have implications for understanding the relationship between legal principles and national security, as well as the role of domestic factors in international legal compliance.

Hypotheses and Research Questions:

What type of issue frames most affects public support for the use of drones? In particular, is public opinion more influenced by frames focusing on the effectiveness of drone strikes, or those emphasizing compliance with international law?

What types of elite cues does the public find most convincing when forming opinions over the use of drones?

How does the credibility of an elite actor mediate the influence of this actor’s cues on public opinion toward the use of drones?

Experimental Manipulations:

The instrument involved a modified 3 x 3 design involving two trichotomous treatments and a baseline control group that only received a general prompt on the use of drones by the United States.

Treatment #1 Elite Source: U.S. Government / United Nations / Non-governmental Organization

Treatment #2 Issue Frame: Military Effectiveness / International Law (Civilians) / International Law (Sovereignty). It should be noted that to reflect contemporary debates over drone strikes, the U.S. Government groups were told that strikes were effective or in compliance with the relevant body of international law, while those in the UN/NGO groups were correspondingly told the strikes were ineffective or not in compliance with international law.

Key Dependent Variables:

Outcome Variable #1: Support for the use of drones against suspected military using a five-point Likert scale ranging from Approve Strongly to Disapprove Strongly.

Outcome Variable #2: Credibility of the elite source using a five-point Likert scale ranging from Very Credible to Not Very Credible. This item was only asked to those not in the baseline control group and about the specific elite source they received based on Treatment #1.

Summary of Findings:

We find that the public is much more affected by issue frames emphasizing the international legal consequences of drone strikes, both those involving breaches of sovereignty and civilian deaths. By contrast, frames focused on the effectiveness of drone strikes in eliminating militants had no substantial effect on public attitudes. Across all issue frames the Government elite cue had no discernable impact on public support relative to the control group, while the UN and NGO cues were most influential in the case of the international legal frames. Furthermore, individual respondents’ perceived credibility of each elite actor did not substantially shape the impact of the relevant elite’s cue on support for drone strikes.

Figure 1

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Additional Information:



Kreps, Sarah E. and Geoffrey Wallace. "International Law, Elites, and Public Support for Drone Strikes." Presented at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. The paper is currently under review.




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