International recognition and public opinion towards conflict and violence


Experiments show international recognition of statehood could change popular support for violence in self-determination conflicts. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on social science experiments.

Yael Zeira
16 May 2017

What reduces individual support for the use of violence in self-determination conflicts? Violence against civilians is considered a “grave breach” of international law. Yet, support for the use of violence in self-determination conflicts, including violence against civilians, varies over time. When will ordinary people favor the use of violence over nonviolent methods of resistance? In recent research conducted with Nadav Shelef (University of Wisconsin, Madison), we show that popular support for violence is fluid, and that a new variable—international recognition—can significantly reduce it.

Without at least tacit support, militant groups may lack access to food, shelter, hiding places, information or other resources.

Understanding the sources of popular support for violence is important because militant groups are not immune to public opinion. Without at least tacit support, militant groups may lack access to food, shelter, hiding places, information or other resources, threatening their very ability to survive. Public opinion about violence can also shape the political strategies of militant groups. When popular support for the use of violence increases, leaders may face popular pressure to abandon negotiations or not enter them in the first place. When popular support for the use of violence decreases, leaders may become more willing to accept the political risks of negotiation.

Our research investigates how international recognition affects public opinion about violence and other conflict-related issues. International recognition is one of the main political goals of self-determination movements and is also sometimes pursued by militant groups seeking control of the central state. International recognition also endows self-determination movements with international legitimacy. As a result, our previous research argues that international recognition improves the negotiating position of self-determination movements. As the outcome of a nonviolent strategy of diplomacy and international engagement, international recognition may also convince skeptics that “diplomacy works.” 

Flickr/Rusty Stewart/ Some rights reserved.

Our research on international recognition implies that international diplomatic engagement can play a significant and previously underappreciated role in shaping public opinion about conflict and violence and, thereby, affect conflict dynamics more generally.

In recent work, we examine the impact of international recognition on popular support for violence using a survey experiment centered on the 2012 UNGA recognition of Palestine. In the fall of 2012, the UNGA recognized Palestine as a “non-member observer state” of the United Nations. Our study examines how this decision affected support for violence among ordinary Palestinians using a survey experiment, which we conducted in the West Bank in the wake of the UN decision. Survey experiments are, essentially, experiments embedded within survey questionnaires. In recent years, they have gained popularity for studying human rights and international relations because they allow researchers to isolate the effects of events—such as international recognition—over which they do not have control.

Our survey experiment was conducted among a random sample of 226 Palestinian residents of the West Bank. The experiment randomly assigned some survey respondents to read a news article about the UNGA recognition of Palestine. Following standard procedures in such experiments, the remaining respondents were assigned to read a neutral, nonpolitical, news article. We then compared support for violence between the two groups to see if reading the article about UNGA recognition—and, in turn, bringing recognition to the forefront of people’s minds (known as “priming”)—affected their support for violence.

It did. We found that international recognition significantly reduced popular support for violence among nonpartisans. Nonpartisans, importantly, constitute a plurality of the Palestinian population. Among this group, international recognition reduced support for violence by nearly half a standard deviation—a substantively large effect that is greater than the effects of gender, education, and generation found in recent studies.

Why is this effect of international recognition concentrated among nonpartisans? In conflict contexts, political parties are often polarized around the use of violence. Nonpartisans—that is, individuals who do not identify with any political party—are not committed to a particular party and its position on the use of violence. Therefore, we argue, they are more likely to change their minds on the issue of violence in response to an external shock like international recognition.

International recognition also shapes other conflict-relevant attitudes. In a previous article, we find that international recognition also has a meaningful impact on popular support for territorial compromise. This impact, however, is not unidirectional. International recognition increases support for territorial partition as a strategy of conflict resolution, even as it decreases support for compromise on the specific territorial terms of partition. This finding suggests that international recognition may make it easier for leaders to accept a negotiated settlement that involves partition but may make it harder for them to reach agreement on its terms.

Our research on international recognition implies that international diplomatic engagement can play a significant and previously underappreciated role in shaping public opinion about conflict and violence and, thereby, affect conflict dynamics more generally. Scholars and policymakers alike often express skepticism about the relevance and efficacy of such engagement. For example, in 2005, then US Ambassador John Bolton argued that the UNGA’s resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were “purely symbolic” and “meaningless.” In contrast, our research suggests that one such resolution—UNGA 67/19—had a significant and positive impact on Palestinians’ attitudes about conflict and violence. In particular, UNGA recognition dramatically reduced support for violence among Palestinian nonpartisans who, as in other developing countries around the world, make up a large and growing segment of the population. While a survey experiment like ours cannot predict how long-lasting this drop in support for violence may be, it suggests that international recognition could be an important first step in a broader conflict resolution strategy.

To the best of our knowledge, our research is the first to demonstrate that international diplomatic engagement can reduce popular support for violence. Previous research on this subject has identified a number of important determinants of popular support for violence, including—to name just a few—gender, socioeconomic status, generation, and religious identity and piety. Building on this prior work, our research suggests that international factors—specifically, international recognition—also exert an important effect on public opinion towards conflict and violence. This is important because many of the factors previously found to shape popular support for violence are either very difficult to change or change very slowly. In comparison, international recognition provides policy-makers with a potential policy instrument that they can use to shape public attitudes, reduce support for violence, and promote territorial compromise.


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