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Home arrow Communication arrow Public Opinion, Transatlantic Relations and the Use of Force

Some conclusions and a remaining puzzle

Apart from the obvious factor that public opinion was willing to follow their leaders in supporting or even joining in NATO's air strikes because of a basic feeling of solidarity with other countries in the Atlantic alliance, the most important parameters of the evolution of support for the military actions in their various forms seem to be (Everts, 2001)

  • 1) the perceived legitimacy of the actions and the interests involved,
  • 2) the perceived effects of the actions, that is, perceptions of success or failure, 3) the sustainability of the idea of a 'clean war', a war without bloodshed, first of all on one's own side, but perhaps also with respect to civilian casualties on the other side. A fourth factor, finally, could be called 'fatigue'. This gradual erosion was also visible to some extent in the Kosovo war.

As we conclude this section, there is one remaining puzzle. As noted above, this comparative overview of the available polling data on the

Kosovo war shows that, apart from cross-national differences in absolute levels of support, public opinion on all the central issues did not change very much during the entire conflict. It needs further analysis why support for the NATO actions remained stable and how NATO was able to sustain this support in spite of the widespread 'collateral damage', which was covered extensively by the media. There was also the fact that results were not forthcoming until the very end of the conflict, which led to a widespread perception, and at an early stage already, at both the political level and that of public opinion, that the entire air operation was ineffective (Daalder and O'Hanlon, 2001).

Those NATO governments (almost all of them) that refused to countenance the use of ground forces for fear of a backlash from public opinion could find confirmation of their fears in the general gap between support for the air strikes and sending ground forces, particularly when the risks of such an operation were mentioned or suggested. It is understandable, therefore, that they hesitated to deviate from their initial course and continued to restrict themselves to air strikes against Serbia.

This stability is more puzzling than the differences in absolute level of support across countries that are also evident. For an explanation of these differences, we can turn to traditional national foreign policy positions, as shaped by the domestic landscape in each and every country. These differences, by the way, were also found in other cases, such as the Gulf War of 1991 and, later, in the responses to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, to which we now turn.

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