By Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to European Voice (subscription required)

Multilateral approval for a military strike against Syria looms large in the transatlantic public debate over what to do about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. But while UN approval might provide legal justification for such action, it is not at all clear that it would afford the American government and its European allies with political cover at home.

The French government now says it will wait for the results of the United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad before deciding whether to take military action. The US government is reportedly open to first seeking a UN Security Council resolution endorsing punishment of Syria before taking any initiative. And Russia has proposed putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

The ostensible rationale for seeking multilateral backing for an intervention in Syria is a legal one. The UN charter pre-empts the use of military force except in self-defence or with Security Council approval. But there is precedent for a military strike without UN authorisation: in 1999, without the blessing of the Security Council, the US and its NATO allies bombed Serbia for 78 days in an ultimately successful effort to force the government of Slobodan Miloševic to withdraw from Kosovo.

Yet the principle of UN authorisation to use military force to deal with international threats has strong support in Europe, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2011. In Germany (76%), Spain (74%), Britain (67%) and France (66%), majorities backed the need for prior UN approval. At the time, only 45% of Americans agreed. Moreover, in that same poll of 23 countries around the world, in only nine did a majority or plurality of the public say that UN approval was needed. So it may be only in Europe that multilateral backing for a Syrian military strike would provide public political support for a Syrian intervention.

And even that UN fig-leaf is no longer certain. In the UK, a BBC survey completed on 1 September found that by more than three-to-one (71% to 20%) the British felt that the national parliament had done the right thing in stopping the British government from participating in an international military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. In France, polls by IFOP found that opposition to French military engagement, even if it had UN backing, rose by nine percentage points, to 68%, over the week ending 6 September. The same IFOP survey found that 77% of Germans opposed German involvement in any international military action against Syria.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., 59% of Americans said Washington should first get a UN resolution to use force before taking military action against Syria, according to a Pew Research Center poll completed on 1 September. A week later, just 28% favoured U.S. airstrikes, while 63% opposed them, according to another Pew Research Center survey.

This opposition to a strike on Syria does not mean that Americans and Europeans are pacifists. Three-quarters of Americans believe that it is sometimes necessary to use military force to maintain order in the world, Pew Research found in 2011. That view is shared by seven-in-ten in Britain, roughly six-in-ten French and Spanish and half the Germans.

But it does not appear that many publics view this as one of those times when action is needed to maintain order. So, even if the United Nations concludes that chemical weapons were used in Syria and the UN Security Council supports some intervention, it is not at all clear that European and American publics would back a military initiative.

Multilateral sanction may provide legal cover, but it may not provide political cover.