International law, military effectiveness, and public support for drone strikes

AuthorSarah E Kreps,Geoffrey PR Wallace
Published date01 November 2016
Date01 November 2016
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International law, military effectiveness,
and public support for drone strikes
Sarah E Kreps
Department of Government, Cornell University
Geoffrey PR Wallace
Department of Political Science, University of Washington
Despite the increased emphasis on domestic politics in the study of international law, scholars remain divided about
whether and how international law affects domestic institutions. Moreover, while public support is a core ingredient
for sustainable, legitimate policies in a democracy, research at the individual level of analysis remains limited.
Weighing in on these areas of study, we investigate the use of drone strikes for counterterrorism, a subject of
considerable debate. Proponents in the government point to drones as both effective for disrupting terrorist networks
and compatible with international law. Critics from groups such as international organizations (IOs) and non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) respond that attacks create more terrorists than they kill and violate legal
commitments. The central question we ask in this article is whether these international legal criticisms impact public
support for drone strikes, the centerpiece of US counterterrorism policy, or whether individuals are more persuaded
by effectiveness-based arguments. Employing a survey experiment of a nationally representative sample of the United
States, we find IO and NGO criticisms can shape public attitudes even around an important national security issue
like drone strikes, but are most influential when messages center on legal critiques rather than matters of effectiveness.
Our findings speak to fundamental questions about the domestic politics of international legal commitments, the
role of IOs and NGOs in shaping political debates, and the durability of US counterterrorism policy.
drones, international law, public opinion
How does international law, and by extension actors
such as international organizations (IOs) and nongo-
vernmental organizations (NGOs) who frequently pro-
mote international legal principles, affect the domestic
institutions that carry out states’ commitments? This
question remains the subject of considerable controversy.
Some scholars suggest that international agreements pro-
vide a focal point for transnational and domestic groups
lobbying for reform and compliance (Dai, 2007; Sim-
mons, 2009), thereby affecting states’ tendency to adhere
to international commitments. Others offer a less ambi-
tious read of the record. Goldsmith & Posner (2005:
185) argue that even when domestic groups seem to have
pressured governments into changing their behavior, it is
not through the influence of international law, since
these groups ‘complain regardless of whether the state
has formally acceded’ to a particular treaty. More dama-
ging to the influence of international law, the authors
claim (2005: 185), ‘when the instrumental calculus sug-
gests a departure from international law, international
law imposes no moral obligation that requires contrary
action’. Indeed, even those with a more optimistic view
on the potential impact of international law acknowledge
that legal appeals face an uphill battle when core security
interests are at stake, as actors tend to emphasize more
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
2016, Vol. 53(6) 830–844
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343316657405

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