The Paradox of Protesting Democratic Wars

Aside from casualties and money, one of the biggest costs of the Iraq war may have been the toll it took on the world’s opinion of the U.S. (particularly the Arab world’s opinion). The war was a recruiting tool for terrorists and it established an icy relationship between the Arab world and the West that likely directly (terrorism) or indirectly (increased aversion to democracy) led to the deaths of many more people.

When the Iraq war eventually came to its vague conclusion, much credit was given to the large anti-war protests that swept the nation (and deservedly so). However, a new study by researchers as the University of Geneva reveals that when it comes to the “bad PR” caused by war, protests are a mixed blessing because they make the war appear more illegitimate to other countries:

As expected, military aggression was perceived as less illegitimate when the aggressor country was democratic and the victim country nondemocratic, but only when the democratic population was perceived as providing support for attacking a nondemocratic country. When the democratic population was perceived to be opposed to the aggressive policy of their government, military intervention was perceived as illegitimate as in the other conditions.

Here is the paradox: If you want to stop a war it is useful to stage a protest that turns public opinion against the war. However, by turning public opinion against the war, you make the war appear more illegitimate to other countries, and that can increase negative consequences such as diplomatic tension or terrorist recruitment. In other words, in order to end the war, you must for a time make the consequences of the war even worse.

That’s not to say that people should ever hesitate to protest a war they find unjust. After all, “bad PR” is not the major drawback of war. But the study does indicate that, all things being equal, less public forms of protest (e.g. calling your congressman) may have its advantages.

On the other hand, the “downside” of making the war appear illegitimate to other countries may actually be a benefit because increasing the cost of the war may help bring it to an end. This circular causal chain makes it difficult to evaluate the true effect of protests (strictly with regard to “bad pr”). For example, it’s hard to know whether the immediate downside of increased terrorist recruitment outweighs the upside of the increased terrorist recruitment raising the costs of the war and thus increasing the chances the war will be stopped.
Falomir-Pichastor, J., Staerkle, C., Pereira, A., & Butera, F. (2011). Democracy as Justification for Waging War: The Role of Public Support Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611420172

2 Responses to The Paradox of Protesting Democratic Wars

  1. The point where political science, democracy and public opinion (domestic and foreign) intersect is an interesting and shifting place. Where this place is looks one way in the present and will look very different decades or centuries from now.

  2. RobG says:

    I think this paper misses a very important point. I’m a British citizen who went on several protests against the Iraq war, and have subsequently spent several extend periods living in the Middle East. Time after time I found people in the Middle East tell me: “we dislike your government and strongly oppose what it did, but we really like the people of your country and know that what the government did wasn’t in your name, because we saw the big protests”. So while it made the government seem more illegitimate, the protests also made the people of the aggressor country look better, and may well have reduced the likelihood of terrorists launching attack on civilians in that country.

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