Cowardice of The People?

DGAP Conference on Relations between Public Opinion and International Security Policy

21/09/2011 - 22/09/2011 | 10:00 | DGAP | Invitation only

Expert Round Table

Category: Security

Public opinion plays an important role in international security policy – not least of all once critical opposition towards government politics forms. It is surprising how little effort governments and the military dedicate to winning public support. How can strategic communication be improved? Titled “Cautious And Truthful – Public Opinion and Security in Democratic Systems”, an international conference of the DGAP’s USA program covered the topic on September 21 and 22, 2011.

Media and Military in Action

Initially, the discussion focused on the role of the media in the crisis areas of Afghanistan and Libya. One of the problematic elements up for discussion was the inadequately-staffed network of correspondents in successful mass media. Balanced news coverage is very often subordinate to high circulation. Biased reporting is strengthened by the phenomena of so-called embedded journalists. Accredited by warring actors, journalists adopt their own perspectives. During military combat, interrelations between the polity, military, media, and public explicitly appear.

Impact of public opinion

The current mission in Afghanistan was identified as an example of poor strategic communication. Various Federal Governments have been keen to present the mission’s character as being development aid, and blank out hard dispute. A transparent discussion about goals and means of the mission were a long time coming.

Security policy does not play an essential role among the public, and is substantially pushed ahead by the elites. However, certain conservatism and skepticism towards strategic interest in crisis areas far away or the new so-called shadow drone wars exist. It became clear public opinion is, by no means, shilly-shally nor easily manipulated. In fact, it is rather constant, rational and solidly founded on values.

Parliaments and Political parties

Parliaments and political parties, depending on the political system, influence security policy differently. Parliaments, constitutionally assigned a stronger role in decision making, for instance the German Bundestag, will more likely be noticed by the public.

In general for public opinion, security policy does not play a significant role in democratic election campaigns. Not even in the USA, where the president needs to prove his rigor towards foreign threats. But exceptions exist. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder changed course prior to the elections to the Bundestag in 2002 and opposed military involvement in the Iraq war.

In turn, German political parties prioritize their members’ priorities, not those of the overall public opinion. They act as agents of a bottom-up security policy discourse that also gets hold of the public. The majority of internal party communication happens on a more informal level and on a daily basis. Measures can be categorized as swift reactions rather than sophisticated positions.

It’s the Communication, Stupid!

The final panel of the conference made clear that governments need to allow for some principles of strategic communication. Governments need to be aware of their target audience. If the public is reluctant, political leaders can either consider a change in their policy approach or bring the public around. It is necessary to raise the issue of strategic communication within government, but policy will continue to matter, not the communication.

Thus successful communication in the field of security policy needs to cover at least four major points: legitimacy of actions which leaves a choice; threat perception which weighs possible consequences of action versus inaction; efficiency of action and success of a certain strategy; and a fair cost-benefit analysis. If these conditions are met, it might lead to public support of even unpopular missions.

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