The Power of Humanitarian Narratives: A Domestic Coalition Theory of Justifications for Military Action

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 680 –695
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919852169
In October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,
George W. Bush (2001) presented US intervention in
Afghanistan as “a sustained campaign to drive the terror-
ists out of their hidden caves and to bring them to jus-
tice.” By employing security frames, he joined a tradition
of presidents using rhetoric about the United States’ well-
being to rally public support and limit opportunities for
dissent (Brody 1991; Drezner 2008; Krebs and Lobasz
2007; Western 2005). In the same speech, however, Bush
(2001) immediately followed this security rationale with
a humanitarian appeal, noting, “At the same time, we are
showing the compassion of America by delivering food
and medicine to the Afghan people, who are, themselves,
the victims of a repressive regime.” Such humanitarian
justifications offer a helpful alternative explanation when
there is “no obvious national interest at stake for states
bearing the burden of intervention” (Finnemore 2003,
52), but critics and proponents alike expect them to be
less effective than security claims. From this view,
humanitarian justifications should have little influence on
public opinion toward interventions like Afghanistan
because support is already maximized by security frames.
But Bush’s rhetoric is not unique—US presidents have
used humanitarian narratives in their explanations for
every military intervention of the post-Cold War period.
What, if any, benefits do presidents receive for offering
humanitarian justifications for security-driven interven-
tions? Are humanitarian narratives inconsequential when
US security is at stake?
I argue that humanitarian justifications play an under-
appreciated and critical role in mobilizing domestic sup-
port, even in security interventions. Uncovering the
power of humanitarian narratives requires moving
beyond aggregate analysis—focused on whether anyone
responds to humanitarian claims—to ask who responds to
these appeals and under what conditions. I develop a
domestic coalition framework that evaluates the effec-
tiveness of humanitarian frames in the context of who
presidents most need to persuade in the build-up to inter-
vention. Drawing new implications from the public’s
852169PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919852169Political Research QuarterlyMaxey
1Loyola University Chicago, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sarah Maxey, Loyola University Chicago, 1032 W. Sheridan Road,
Chicago, IL 60660, USA.
The Power of Humanitarian Narratives:
A Domestic Coalition Theory of
Justifications for Military Action
Sarah Maxey1
Conventional wisdom assumes the best way to mobilize public support for military action is through the lens of
national security. Humanitarian justifications provide a helpful substitute when US interests are not at stake, but are
less reliable. However, US presidents have provided humanitarian explanations for every military intervention of the
post-Cold War period. What, if any, power do humanitarian justifications have in security-driven interventions? The
article answers this question by developing a domestic coalition framework that evaluates justifications in terms of
whose support matters most in the build-up to intervention. Survey experiments demonstrate that humanitarian
narratives are necessary to build the largest possible coalition of support. However, presidents risk backlash if they
stretch humanitarian claims too far. Data from thirteen waves of Chicago Council surveys and an original dataset
of justifications for US interventions confirm that humanitarian justifications are a common and politically relevant
tool. The findings challenge both the folk realist expectation that the public responds primarily to threats to its own
security and the constructivist tendency to limit the power of humanitarian justifications to cases of humanitarian
intervention. Instead, humanitarian justifications are equally, if not more, important than security explanations for
mobilizing domestic support, even in security-driven interventions.
military interventions, humanitarian, public opinion, presidents
Maxey 681
foreign policy beliefs (FPBs), I identify cooperative
internationalists as key players in domestic coalitions.
Humanitarian narratives are powerful, effective tools in
security interventions because they are necessary to max-
imize cooperative internationalists’ support.
The argument raises three questions: (1) who responds
to humanitarian considerations, (2) are these individuals
a non-negligible segment of the public, and (3) do presi-
dents provide humanitarian justifications for security
interventions in a manner that capitalizes on their power?
I use a multi-method design to address each question on
its own terms. First, survey experiments vary the content
of justifications for intervention to investigate whether
humanitarian claims persuade individuals who are less
convinced by security frames. The findings demonstrate
that there are individuals—cooperative international-
ists—whose support is maximized by humanitarian rather
than security considerations. Contrary to early scholar-
ship that viewed a public responsive to humanitarian
claims as too emotional to be trusted (Almond 1950;
Lippmann 1955; Morgenthau 1978), the results suggest
individuals can be humanitarian and prudent. Cooperative
internationalists are responsive to humanitarian claims,
but they are also sensitive to their misuse. Second, I use
data from thirteen waves of the Chicago Council Survey
to determine whether cooperative internationalist values
are common enough to matter for coalition building. The
findings suggest that the magnitude of cooperative inter-
nationalist sentiment is non-negligible. Appealing to
cooperative values is thus worthwhile for leaders trying
to build the largest possible coalition. Third, I construct
an original dataset of justifications for US interventions
to determine whether presidents take advantage of the
power of humanitarian narratives. The analysis confirms
that humanitarian appeals are common, carefully used
tools in security interventions.
The findings show that conventional wisdom underes-
timates the power and scope of humanitarian narratives.
Focusing on how leaders can build the largest possible
domestic coalitions challenges the folk realist expecta-
tion that the public responds primarily to security threats
and the constructivist tendency to evaluate humanitarian
justifications only in cases of humanitarian intervention.
Instead, making a compelling humanitarian case is as
important as demonstrating clear links to the national
interest and these narratives are a critical mobilizing tool
in security interventions.
Presidents and Public Opinion
Official justifications for intervention deserve attention
because presidents’ statements influence how the public
evaluates their leadership and policies (Cavari 2012;
Druckman and Holmes 2004; Nelson and Oxley 1999).
Unlike other domestic actors, presidents can “use the
mass media to speak directly and at length to the general
public” (Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson 1997, 238). Their
messages are communicated directly through publicly
televised addresses and repeated via media coverage and
responses from other elites (Berinsky and Kinder 2006,
641). These messages shape public opinion through a
combination of (1) persuasion—changing the content of
beliefs, (2) framing—changing the importance of beliefs
used to evaluate an issue, and (3) priming—changing the
accessibility of considerations (Nelson and Oxley 1999;
Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson 1997; Zaller 1992).
Presidential statements carry amplified influence at
the beginning of interventions because of information
and first-mover advantages (Baum and Groeling 2010;
Kernell 1997, 194; Western 2005, 14). The president’s
decision to make a statement sends the initial cue that the
conflict is important enough to warrant a military
response. The president’s account may also be the only
one available in the early stages of intervention because
elites lack both access to classified information and polit-
ical incentives to challenge official claims (Baum and
Groeling 2010; Kriner 2009, 668; Schultz 2003). In this
low-information environment with a public “highly sen-
sitive to questions of war” (Western 2005, 14), the presi-
dent’s early statements frame the intervention and set the
terms of the debate that follows. An extensive body of
scholarship shows that official frames affect public atti-
tudes on issues ranging from free speech to environmen-
tal protection (Chong and Druckman 2007; Druckman
et al. 2010; Druckman and Holmes 2004; Nelson and
Oxley 1999; Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson 1997). The
frame the president uses can shape public views by mak-
ing certain factors more accessible or important in evalu-
ations of the policy or by changing the content of
individuals’ beliefs altogether (Druckman et al. 2010;
Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson 1997; Zaller 1992).
Over time, more information about the intervention
becomes available and elite consensus plays an important
role in maintaining public support (Berinsky 2007;
Guisinger and Saunders 2017). Even as presidents lose
their monopoly over information, however, Cavari (2012,
337) finds evidence that by using their first-mover advan-
tage, “presidents generate a momentum of public support
that may have a long-term effect on the structure of mass
opinion.” In addition to creating public momentum, early
frames are reiterated throughout the intervention and
affect the claims opponents focus on discrediting. For
example, Kull, Ramsay, and Lewis (2003, 571) show that
many Americans held “misperceptions relevant to the
rationales for going to war with Iraq” in line with Bush’s
initial justifications. The persistence of these beliefs and

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