The decision to go to war: how voters misunderstand its legal basis

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
November 07, 2018, 6:39 AM GMT+0

(First published by the Royal United Services Institute here)

Voters are vulnerably ignorant about the UN but can live without its military endorsement

In her party conference speech last month, Theresa May lambasted Jeremy Corbyn as someone who “poses as a humanitarian” but insists that military action “is only justified with the approval of the Security Council – effectively giving Russia a veto”.

This point may have stirred her immediate audience but as polling on the subject shows, both Corbyn and the Kremlin have wider public ignorance in their favour on the UN debate.

When UK, French and US forces attacked Syrian chemical weapons facilities earlier this year, Corbyn was suitably quick to condemn missile strikes as “legally questionable”. And so they were, since the UN Charter stipulates that military action other than self-defence is only legal if authorised by the fifteen-member body of the UN Security Council. This requires nine yes votes but can also be vetoed by a single no vote from one of its Permanent Five Members, or “P5”, being Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States.

Thus the Western trio bypassed efforts to seek UN approval because they knew Russia would block the process to aid its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Unfortunately for the hawks, public understanding of these realities is minimal.

In partnership with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the YouGov-Cambridge Centre recently conducted a set of survey experiments on British attitudes to authorising war. In the first of these, a nationally representative sample of the public was shown a list of statements and asked which one best describes what it means when military action has been officially authorised by the UN.

Answer options included several red herrings, such as “a majority of UN member-states have voted to support it”, that “the UN Secretary General’s Office has authorised it”, and that “UN legal experts have decided the action is lawful”. There was also an option saying “it means Russia, China and powerful Western countries have agreed to allow it”.

Only the last statement comes near to reality. But notably, just 7% of respondents chose it. Among the other options, 34% said authorisation means the majority support of UN member-states, 19% thought it means approval by the Secretary General’s Office, while 11% assumed it means UN legal experts have deemed the action lawful. Telling in itself, about a quarter of respondents chose “Don’t know”, while 2% opted for “None of these”.

What does it mean when military action is officially authorised by the UN? (%)

That a majority of UN member-states have voted to support it34

That the UN Secretary General’s Office has authorised it


That UN legal experts have decided the action is lawful


That Russia, China and powerful Western countries have agreed to allow it


None of these


Don’t know


As these figures further imply, part of the problem for advocates of UK military action is a natural public tendency to blur conceptions of national and international society. While domestic law has an obvious, vertical structure enforced by the supreme authority of state, there is no such executive branch of the international system. In so far as there is a body of rules governing the interaction of states, it relies on a more horizontal structure of consent and collective enforcement. Hence many assume the UN blessing represents some higher judicial or supra-parliamentary verdict on legitimacy, when it is more practically a measure of great power alignment.

The contestable nature of international law also helps to account for competing judgments on legality of the April missile strikes. While their opponents referred to Security Council process as the exclusive source of legal authorisation, Downing Street justified its intent to protect civilians from continued chemical attacks on the basis of customary international law – in other words obligations arising from established practice rather than formal written convention.

Founded just after the Second World War, the UN was meant to realise a broadly novel concept in history by outlawing the use of war as an instrument of policy and enforcing this through collective action against offenders. From Cold War stalemate to post-Cold War chaos, however, this model has forever been hampered by perennial questions of legitimacy and prerogative, namely when is it justified to violate the sovereignty of other countries, on whose authority if the UN is politically paralysed, and how can such a norm can be recognised without regressing to an age of “might is right”?

A major attempt to answer these questions emerged with Tony Blair’s momentous speech to the Chicago Economic Club in 1999, where he proposed a new “Doctrine of the International Community”. This essentially argued that in an ever globalising world, there were times when obvious humanitarian need trumped the principle of sovereignty, and the moral weight of liberal international community trumped the will of individual naysayers on the Security Council.

A popular view says the Blair Doctrine was later discredited in public eyes by intervention in Iraq. But as polling further suggests, the British outlook remains distinctly Blairite in certain ways.

A comparable British sample was asked what it means when military action has been authorised by NATO, instead of the UN. Results again show a significant knowledge gap, with roughly half of people saying variously that NATO authorisation means “a majority of UN member-states have voted to support it” (26%), or that action has been authorised under the (fictitious) “International Legal Charter” (16%), or that “legal experts in the Hague” have decided action is lawful (6%). Only 19% got nearer to reality with an option saying “it means a number of Western countries have agreed to protect each other”. About a third said “Don’t know” while 2% chose “None of these”.

What does it mean when military action is officially authorised by NATO? (%)

That a majority of UN member-states have voted to support it26

That a number of Western countries have agreed to protect each other


That action has been authorised under Article 51 of the International Legal Charter


That legal experts in the Hague have decided the action is lawful


None of these


Don’t know


Crucially, there is also little difference between the perceived importance of securing UN and NATO support. One sample was asked if Britain should take military action only with UN authorisation or should be prepared to act without it, while another sample was asked the same question but referring to NATO authorisation instead. Results are nearly identical, with 45% of the first sample saying Britain should only act with UN authorisation, while 42% of the second sample stated we should only act with NATO authorisation. Roughly a third in each case thought we should be prepared to act without the respective authorisation.

In other words, NATO and the UN play a similar role as legitimising stamps of endorsement, which further highlights two important points: first, that UN authorisation only really matters to public opinion for how it vaguely signifies the moral authority of broader multilateral support; and second, that many of us still consider the Western alliance as a key source of that collective authority, whether consciously or subconsciously, and in notable contrast to the Corbyn world view.

The polling further tested this by asking what kind of support or authorisation is most important to have when Britain takes military action. Respondents were shown six different options and asked to rank them in order of importance, including “majority approval by the UK Parliament”, “authorisation by the UN”, “authorisation by NATO”, the “support of key Western allies like the United States, France and Germany”, the “support of major humanitarian charities”, and the “support of China and Russia”.

Parliament tops the list with 46% ranking it first or second in order of importance. This is followed respectively by NATO authorisation (35%), the support of key Western allies (33%), UN authorisation (31%), humanitarian charities (14%), and finally the support of China and Russia (3%). Beyond the primacy of Westminster, then, respondents afford roughly similar weight to the endorsement of Western allies and the UN, and little to the verdict of Russia or China.

What types of support or authorisation are most important to have when Britain takes military action?

Majority approval by the UK ParliamentRanked first - 31%

NATO authorisation

Ranked first - 16%

Support of key Western allies

Ranked first - 14%

UN authorisation

Ranked first - 13%

Major humanitarian charities

Ranked first - 6%

Support of China and Russia

Ranked first - 2%

These are sentiments that Blair instinctively understood in his vision of international community. The public can live without UN endorsement if they think the general sway of Parliament and Western consensus falls in favour.

This duly corresponds with other data suggesting the backlash against liberal internationalism has been overstated. Previous YouGov-Cambridge studies show significant support for various forms of intervention against Assad and the Islamic State group, including air power, special forces, arming rebels and putting advisors on the ground (see results here and here).

By a similar token, other YouGov research indicates that when Parliament defeated the government and opposed Syrian air strikes in 2013, it was Britain’s involvement in those particular circumstances of debate that many voters rejected, rather than the essential merits of a tough Western response to Assad. Low levels of polling support for recent missiles strikes in the country reflect a specific hesitancy about Middle Eastern quagmires, combined with general apathy towards the Syria debate after years of conscious neglect by Westminster. Still we find a majority would back enforcement of a Syrian no-fly zone.

Certainly voters have a new reluctance towards land warfare. But there is more public leeway on deploying into theatre than snap overnight polls sometimes suggest. The longer British polling record demonstrates a consistent "rally-round-the-flag-effect", whereby voters tend to muster behind action once it starts, and more so if perceived as urgent rather than discretionary.

If British fighting spirit endures, however, this is now clearly tempered by a lower tolerance for risk, a higher bar for justification and increased reverence for strong international endorsement. We are newly vulnerable to the lexicon of anti-war legalism, therefore, but much less to its underlying ideology.

See results here, here and here.

BANNER IMAGE: Protests in London against the UK's intervention in the Syrian Civil War, November 2015. Courtesy of Alisdare Hickson/Flickr