Public Opinion and Interventions Abroad

By Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal

Does public opinion influence Canadian decisions on interventions abroad? Do policy-makers pay attention to what ordinary Canadians think when they decide whether to commit the Canadian Armed Forces to overseas missions?

Two recent interventions—Canada’s long mission in Afghanistan and the current operation against the forces of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām)—provide an excellent opportunity to test the impact of the Canadian public on issues of war and peace.

In the case of Afghanistan, as we show in our chapter in Canada Among Nations 2015, public opinion was generally strongly opposed to the Canadian mission, but policy-makers in Ottawa largely ignored the opposition being expressed by the public: they refused to bring the troops home, and indeed maintained the mission until 2014, when much of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces were leaving. Indeed, the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals conspired with one another to take the Afghanistan mission off the domestic political agenda.

In the case of the counter-ISIL operation, by contrast, public opinion was generally strongly in favour of the Canadian mission. A poll published by Ipsos-Reid in February 2015 showed that more than 76% of Canadian supported Canadian airstrike against ISIS, and 66% supported the deployment of special forces in the region. This support becomes even more pronounced when we remember that there is no such thing as “Canadian” public opinion, particularly not on foreign and defence policy issues. When we look at regional responses, we see significant support. Canadians from the Prairies were the most favourable to military operations—88% of respondents from Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as 81% of Albertans supported the mission—while 66% of Quebeckers approved of military operation against ISIS.

However, the political elite in Ottawa played a very different game with this issue. Three of the opposition parties—the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberals and the Greens—ignored the strong support of Canadians for the counter-ISIL mission, and instead pledged to withdraw from combat operations. The governing Conservatives sought to take advantage of the elite dissensus to turn the operations against ISIL into a political weapon to be used against the Liberals and the NDP. Not surprisingly, support for the counter-ISIL coalition featured prominently in the Conservative election platform: “A re-elected Conservative Government will not cut and run, as our opponents would do. We will not abandon our allies in the broad international coalition against ISIS. We will not pull our troops from the fight against jihadi terrorism.”

How does one explain these very different responses to overseas interventions?

Our chapter on the Afghanistan mission in Elusive Pursuits seeks to explain why public opposition was treated as it was in that case. We argue that the reason is mobilization. Although elites are concerned about public opposition, what they are most concerned about is mobilized opinion—opposition that is actively and openly expressed. And in the case of Afghanistan, the significant opposition to the mission that was consistently expressed to pollsters never mobilized.

We suggest that there were three major reasons for this. First, an open political system like Canada’s allows public opposition to an issue (such as an overseas intervention) to be channeled through official political processes such as party politics and elections, which decreases the odds that such opposition is transformed into a mobilized social group.

Second, if there are shifting political alignments, governments can rely on those parts of the public that support its policies and largely ignore dissenting voices. Over the course of the Afghanistan mission, there was a major change in political alignments in Canada, most notably the fall of the Liberal party and the rise of the Conservatives, as well as with the westward shift of political power. With Western public opinion more favourable to Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan, the Conservatives could rely on their political base to resist opposition.

Third, for public opposition to coalesce into a social movement, it needs some form of elite polarization. In the case of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, there was considerable elite consensus on the importance of maintaining the mission among the two main parties, the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals. It should also be noted that of the two minor parties, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, the Bloc also took the same position as the major parties and supported the mission. In other words, the scope of elite consensus dampened the likelihood of public mobilization.

We show that all these factors converged to limit dramatically the opportunity for public opposition to actually mobilize against Canada’s military intervention, and thereby to increase politicians’ room for manoeuver. In essence, public opposition to a specific policy is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for democratic responsiveness.

We would make the same observation about the counter-ISIL operation: the reason that the strong public support for the mission did not have an impact on the policy-making environment is that the support for this mission was never mobilized. Just as there were few costs to policy-makers ignoring the polls on the Afghanistan mission because the opposition was not mobilized, so too there were few costs to those parties—the NDP and the Liberals—that ignored the strong indications of support for the mission and promised to withdraw from the combat mission.

By the same token, however, there were very few political benefits to the parties that sought to capitalize on public opinion. Both the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives were strongly in favour of the mission, but the lack of mobilization meant that there were few electoral/political benefits to be had from this alignment.

As we await the decision of the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau on Canada’s future in the counter-ISIL operation, one thing is clear: the new Trudeau government will be as willing to ignore the widespread public support for the ISIL operation as the Harper government was willing to ignore the widespread public opposition to the Afghanistan mission between 2006 and 2011. The reason is simple: without mobilization, support for or opposition to Canadian interventions abroad remains largely abstract.

Jean-Christophe Boucher is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at MacEwan University. He is currently a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; a research fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University; senior fellow at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec; and book review editor for the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.

Kim Richard Nossal is professor of political studies at Queen’s University. He is the author of a number of works on Canadian foreign policy, including The Politics of Canadian Foreign Policy, 4th ed., co-authored with Stéphane Roussel and Stéphane Paquin (2015).

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