Rulers or Rules? International Law, Elite Cues and Public Opinion

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One of the mechanisms by which international law can shape domestic politics is through its effects on public opinion. However, a growing number of national leaders have begun to advocate policies that ignore or even deny international law constraints. This article investigates whether international law messages can still shift public opinion even in the face of countervailing elite cues. It reports results from survey experiments conducted in three countries – the USA, Australia and India – which examined attitudes on a highly salient domestic political issue: restrictions on refugee admissions. In each experimental vignette, respondents were asked about their opinion on a proposed or ongoing restrictive refugee policy that was endorsed by the government but also likely contravened international refugee law. Respondents were randomly exposed to messages highlighting the policy’s illegality and/or elite endorsement. The results show that, on average, the international law messages had a small but significant persuasive effect in reducing support for the restrictive policy, at most 10 percentage points. Surprisingly, there was no evidence that the countervailing elite endorsement was a significant moderator of this effect. However, in the case of the USA and among Republican co-partisans of the president, the elite endorsement independently increased respondents’ beliefs that the restriction was legal under international law while having no effect on support for the policy. The results suggest that cues from domestic elites do not strictly trump those from international sources and that, despite cues about national leaders’ policy advocacy, international law can affect the attitudes of some voters even on an issue as heavily politicized as refugee policy.


International Law, political science, domestic politics, national policy conflicts with international law, elite rulers

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European Journal of International Law