The Department of Government
The Department of Government

International Organizations and War

Wed, November 4, 2009

Despite international organizations’ inability to directly enforce their decisions, and therefore their supposed irrelevance to great power politics, governments continue seeking multilateral authorization for the use of military force, and domestic populations sometimes react to multilateral authorization with increased support for their leadership. Strong majorities in the United States support operating through the United Nations and the U.S. public values UN approval. At the same time, failure to get UN approval does not necessarily diminish public support for the use of military force. Terrence Chapman’s article, “Audience Beliefs and International Organization Legitimacy,” published in the Fall 2009 issue of International Organization, solves this puzzle by explaining that, given certain conditions, multilateral authorization conveys policy-relevant information to key audiences.

International organizations’ effect on public opinion is conditional on whether the organization acts inconsistently with public expectations. When countries that the public expects will oppose most policies and only support ones that will not be exceedingly costly, but then support U.S. policy, this signals to the public that the policy merits support, and the public rallies behind the American leadership. Conversely, when countries that the public expects will support the United States in fact oppose U.S. policy, this signals to the public that the policy does not merit support, and the public reacts with skepticism. When international organizations act in accordance with public expectations, public opinion may change little.

In reporting these findings, Chapman demonstrates two key points. First, although they lack enforcement powers, international organizations, by affecting public opinion about foreign policy decisions, do impact international relations. Second, international organizations’ effect on public opinion is not tied to public pursuit of symbolic legitimacy or multilateral support decreasing actual financial costs. Rather, international organizations are relevant because of the information they transmit to publics needing a basis on which to form opinions.

Chapman, with Scott Wolford, also has an article forthcoming in January 2010 in The Journal of Politics. “International Organizations, Strategy, and Crisis Bargaining,” gets more directly to the heart of the matter by addressing the fact that states may consult international organizations because multilateral authorization can decrease the costs of war and make it a more credible option. Proceeding along this line of inquiry, Chapman and Wolford turn conventional wisdom on its head. That conventional wisdom, which holds that international organizations are either ineffectual or a force for peace, is not always correct. Because international organizations can decrease the costs of war, they can also, under some conditions, increase the probability of war occurring by altering how states bargain.

Terrence Chapman is assistant professor of government.

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