By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
In the debate over whether the United States and one or more of its NATO allies should launch a military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over its alleged use of chemical weapons, much has been made of the need for multilateral sanction for such an effort, either by the U.N. Security Council or NATO.
One rationale for seeking multilateral backing is a legal one. The U.N. charter preempts the use of military force except in self-defense or with Security Council approval. But there is precedent for a military strike without U.N. authorization. In 1999 the U.S. and its NATO allies bombed Serbia for 78 days in an ultimately successful effort to force the government of Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. And in 1998, Washington launched missile strikes against al Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Neither action had the blessing of the Security Council.
A second rationale is to provide multilateral political cover for what would be effectively largely a unilateral military action by the United States. However, public opinion data suggest that such cover may be quite thin. Only in Europe is there widespread support for the principle of obtaining U.N. authorization before taking action to deal with international threats. And public faith in NATO among its members is waning.
A 2011 Pew Research Center survey of 23 countries found that in only nine of these nations did a majority or plurality of the public say U.N. approval was needed to deal with international threats. In six countries, majorities or pluralities thought seeking approval was not necessary. Publics were divided in eight other nations. Moreover, in nearly half the countries, one-in-five of those surveyed voiced no opinion on U.N. approval of the use of force.
Notably in the wake of London’s failed August 28 attempt to get Security Council approval for some military action in Syria, only in Western Europe – in Germany (76 percent), Spain (74 percent), Britain (67 percent) and France (66 percent) – did strong public majorities back the principle of U.N. authorization. Americans were divided: 45 percent thought approval was needed, 44 percent did not agree.
Roughly half or more of the publics in countries neighboring Syria did not support the principle of seeking U.N. blessing for military action, including 59 percent in the Palestinian Territories, 54 percent in Jordan, and about half in Egypt and Lebanon.
In Lebanon, only 10 percent of Lebanese Shia, who generally back the al-Assad regime, thought U.N. sanction was necessary. Meanwhile, 59 percent of Lebanese Sunni, many of whom support the Syrian rebels who might benefit from a Western military strike, believed U.N. approval is necessary.
Both the Chinese and the Russian governments oppose U.N. authorization of military action against Syria. Ironically, at least in principle, their publics do not think such approval is even needed. In 2011, only a quarter of Russians thought it was necessary to seek Security Council backing before using military force to deal with international threats, while only 38 percent of Chinese saw a need to first go to the UN to obtain its blessing.
With the British Parliament’s rejection of U.K. military action, the Obama administration’s effort to cobble together a coalition of willing NATO allies to join Washington in any attack now may only include France and possibly Turkey.
This NATO-lite effort comes at a time of waning support for the multilateral security organization, especially in Western Europe. Since 2009 NATO favorability is down 14 percentage points in Spain (to 42 percent) and Germany, and 13 points in France (to 58 percent), according to a Pew Research Center survey done before the most recent allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. Only about half of Americans see NATO in a favorable light, virtually unchanged from 2009.
Although Turkey is a long-time NATO member, Turkish public support for the security alliance is also quite weak. Just a quarter of Turks have a favorable view of NATO today, although that is a 10 percentage point improvement over NATO backing just a year ago.
How a U.S.-led military strike against Syria involving multiple NATO allies might affect public views of the alliance is unknown. But an August 26-28 survey in France by Le Figaro found that 59 percent of the public opposed military action by France even if it has U.N. approval. An August 28 poll by ZDF television in Germany, meanwhile, showed that 55 percent of the public opposed any financial or material support of a U.S. strike against Syria. And in a March 2013 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of Turks were against Western countries even sending arms and military supplies to the anti-government groups in Syria.
All this suggests that the effort to gain multilateral backing and participation in a Syrian military strike may not actually provide any such moves with the political cover with the public that the administration may be hoping for.