August 30th, 2013
01:32 PM ET

Does public care about U.N. blessing over Syria?

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.

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.

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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.

More from CNN: Obama's 3 options

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.

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Topics: Poll • Syria • United States

soundoff (91 Responses)
  1. sand

    there is no Shia against Sunni its all a lie the only-thing USA wants to do is stop the technological progress of Iran because USA is losing in that race.

    August 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Um... we are not losing technologically to Iran

      August 31, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Towel Head Detector

      Warning!!!!!!..........Warning!!!!..............Warning!!!!!!!!!!!!...........Towel Head Detected!!!!!!!!!!! (and a retarded one at that!)

      September 3, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  2. matslats

    Forget the law, forget the UN, ignore who really supplied chemical weapons to whom, forget who will profit from military intervention, drown out the dissenting voices with your myriad conservative think tanks, forget the wellbeing of Syrians forget the disaster which is Libya, forget the poor in your own country and the lack of money for miliitary adventures, forget the last WMD scandal in Iraq. GO USA!

    August 30, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Proud free American

      So according to you we should forget the words in The Declaration of Independence that remind us that when something is WRONG those who have the ability to do something about it, have a responsibility, a DUTY, to do so. it's not about taking sides or the outcome or the cost. It's about standing up for what WE believe in; that EVERYONE has the right to LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT of HAPPINESS. I will never be that person who keeps walking when I hear a scream for help coming from the alley or ignores a husband beating his wife or a parent tearing the flesh of their child with a switch! Wrong is Wrong!!!

      September 2, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
  3. John

    FRANCE should be the leading NATO power, not USA. USA is not knowledgeable, not informed about the Middle East. The best secret intelligence networks in this part in the world have the FRENCH, not Americans. Why does USA pay American ambassadors around the world ford: ´no performance´. USA can not afford to bankrupt the ´Detroit style´! There is one different game going on – that the Washington DC ain´t going to understand. That´s why the World needs: George W. Bush, Texas, USA.

    August 30, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      France has a record of military successes in recent years. Its president has more power than his American counterpart. If the US and France combine their hi-tech knowhow, they might be able to launch surgical strikes that could cripple Assad's military capabilities.

      August 31, 2013 at 7:22 am | Reply
      • joe anon 1

        are you a robot program?

        August 31, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Proud free American

      It is common KNOWLEDGE that Ain't ain't a word or didn't YOU KNOW that?

      September 2, 2013 at 9:41 am | Reply
  4. Ferhat Balkan

    I'm sorry, bu the UN has been a complete failure when responding to humanitarian crisis. Their indecision to act when people's lives are in danger has proven time and time again that there needs to be a fundamental change in it's structure and operation. Case in point: Srebrenica Massacre, Kmer Rouge, the massacres that took place in the USSR during the cold war, Sri Lanka's civil war, the child abuse scandals in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Haiti etc. Need I go on? And now we have the veto power of greedy nations who don't give a dime about human lives controlling the vote in the Security Council. What will it take to see that the UN has lost any credibility with the people? It's time for a change and it's time to act without the UN.

    August 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      True, the UN is a lame duck. The Security Council needs to be reformed, so that unanimity is longer necessary to pass a resolution. So far China and Russia have been able to wield their veto to pursue national interests.

      August 31, 2013 at 7:27 am | Reply
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    August 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    August 30, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  6. timothyx11

    Who cares what the UN thinks.

    August 30, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  7. timothyx11

    State rep pleaded guilty

    August 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  8. TexasNative

    I for one, could care less about the U.N.

    IMHO, We should leave the U.N. and stand alone.

    August 30, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Reply
    • anna

      It will be even better if Texas does it alone. The cowboy way!

      September 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  9. Daniel Baguley

    Surely the more important question is whether the public actually supports strikes on Syria – which it overwhelmingly does not. Debating this part of the data helps frame the argument in a way pro-war politicians like, as if the only argument is over whether UN support is needed.

    August 31, 2013 at 3:37 am | Reply
  10. ✠RZ✠

    Many things are becoming more evident and more will continue to surface evidencing the fact that the world is slowly waking up and becoming more readily willing to put forth a more pronounced opinion. This is very good in a sense. The problem now is..... who can we all believe and trust in providing us the truth ? Obama ? Kerry ? The MIC ? Russia ? China ? NATO ? The UN ? CNN?

    Good luck !

    August 31, 2013 at 5:18 am | Reply
  11. Mark

    Trust?! Definitely not: not China, not S.Korea, not U.N.O.!! USA has NATO obligations with Turkey, Italy, France, Great Britain, Sweden, ... and not Asia. Forget about Asia, they are anti-American, and richer than Americans. No deal possible.

    August 31, 2013 at 9:01 am | Reply
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