In Other Words

Red, White, and Bush

The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 45, No. 5, October 2001, New Haven

The public reaction to the recent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil provides a textbook example of the "rally around the flag" effect. No longer is Commander in Chief George W. Bush a questionable president with anemic approval ratings; instead he has suddenly become the nation's leader, supported by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. Sound familiar? Cast your mind back 11 years to the Gulf War, when George Bush Senior's popular support followed a similar upward trajectory.

Although recent events and anecdotal historical evidence suggest that this tendency for the public to rally around national leaders in times of crisis is quite real, some researchers are still keen to play down the phenomenon. A notable example is the article "Patriotism or Opinion Leadership?" by mathematician William D. Baker and political scientist John R. Oneal, which appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Journal of Conflict Resolution, a bimonthly publication out of Yale University and sponsored by the Peace Science Society (International).

The authors analyze 167 international military disputes involving the United States between 1933 and 1992, covering every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George Herbert Walker Bush. They find that, over this period, the rally effect was "neither as sizeable nor as certain" as is often made out. Even hostile situations that "seriously threaten the nation's economic, political, and strategic interests" only produced a limited boost in presidential popularity. Baker and Oneal also argue that, during international crises, the U.S. public normally does not unite behind the president out of any heightened sense of patriotism. Rather, what matters most is "how effectively the White House manages the presentation of the dispute through presidential statements, prominent media coverage, and the garnering of bipartisan support."

How do these conclusions square with the recent surge of popular support for George W. Bush? The bulk of conflicts analyzed by Baker and Oneal were small-scale affairs in which U.S. security was not directly threatened. In these smaller disputes, there have clearly been limits to the rally effect. As Bush Senior found to his cost, the Gulf War proved insufficient to save him from defeat in the 1992 election. However, the current war on terrorism is very different. The American homeland has been attacked. Images of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in flames evoke memories not of the Gulf War, Somalia, or Kosovo, but rather of large-scale, epochal events like Pearl Harbor and Vietnam.

By developing categories such as "hostility levels" and "crisis severity," Baker and Oneal attempt to capture the clear differences between large and small incidents. But their methodology still leaves much to the imagination. For instance, there is no way of distinguishing between the "total war" of the 1940s and the more limited conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Nor do the authors gauge the extent to which certain pivotal international crises exerted a lingering impact on popular attitudes, thus influencing public reaction to later conflicts. After all, Pearl Harbor did not just rally the public behind President Roosevelt. It also cast a long shadow over American life in the 1940s and 1950s, engendering anxiety and insecurity and boosting support for firm presidential actions in the early Cold War era. Moreover, Vietnam was not just a war in which the "rally effect" soon waned. It also made the public far more wary of presidential saber-rattling in the decades that followed.

In 2001, as in 1941, there clearly was a "rally effect" after a shocking and unexpected attack on the American homeland. But how long might this current rally last? As Baker and Oneal would argue, the answer depends partly on how effectively President Bush uses the "bully pulpit." He has certainly made a good start, delivering an impassioned message to Congress, carefully warning the public that there is a long, hard struggle ahead, and trying to forge a cooperative relationship with the U.S. media. But Bush's task will surely become harder if the conflict drags on and casualties mount. The president would do well to consider the model of Franklin Roosevelt, an inspirational leader who steered America successfully through a long and bitter struggle.

Even after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt never took public support for granted. Instead, he responded to ebbs and flows in popular morale, worked to undermine isolationism, and sustained a broad consensus over a long period. Roosevelt's reward was not simply to win the war. In 1944, he also gained reelection for an unprecedented fourth term.

In Other Words

Latvia's Faux Pas

Nevienam Mes Latviju Nedodam (We Do Not Give Latvia to Anyone)
Edited by Aivars Garda
384 pages, Riga: Vieda Publishers Latvia, 2001 (in Latvian)

Since their post-Soviet independence, the Baltic states have been performing an intricate dance: integrating sizable minorities of the former "imperial" master while consolidating national identity and establishing their place in a broader Europe. Stepping out from Russia's shadow is probably most complicated for Latvia, both because of its sizable Russian minority (the region's largest) and its role in the Russian oil industry. Latvia has the region's best ice-free ports, through which Russia channels 12 to 15 percent of its oil exports. The economic importance of Latvian oil transit revenue guarantees Russian "oil barons" and their local partners' considerable behind-the-scenes influence on Latvian policy.

Although the strains inherent in Latvia's balancing act with Russia have been managed relatively successfully since independence, a vocal minority disputes the viability of a multicultural Latvia and harbors the hope that the roughly 700,000 Russians now living in Latvia will somehow just disappear. One such dissident voice recently published a controversial book of essays, We Do Not Give Latvia to Anyone, which created a furor both in Latvia and among its neighbors, not least Russia. The resulting controversy may end up looking like a small bump in Latvia's long road to becoming a European multicultural democracy, but it also illuminates the difficulties of postimperial ethnic coexistence and Russia's aims and interests in the region, not to mention the occasional pitfalls of European integration.

The driving force behind the book is Aivars Garda, the obscure right-wing publisher of Vieda Publishers Latvia, who mixes anti-Western politics with New Age pseudo-religious rhetoric. In early 2001, Garda organized an essay contest for youth, promising cash prizes for the best entries. The topics are typical extreme right-wing fare with a Latvian twist -- why people should live in their own "ethnic homeland[s]," why Latvia's "liberation from 700,000 colonists" is the will of God, why the European Union (eu) is a "contemporary Tower of Babel," and why sale of Latvian land to foreigners is "slavery." Mainstream newspapers refused to advertise the contest. Nevertheless, word spread, and about 70 high-school and university students, as well as a few established activists, submitted essays, most of which were printed.

The book, a pretty boring read, is filled with sentimental nationalist poetry, inane comparisons of the Soviet Union to the EU, and suggestions of how best to promote the "voluntary repatriation" of the Russian minority to Russia. Among the more militant passages is Garda's preface, in which he calls the Russian "colonists" a "cancer" and urges a "struggle against internal and external enemies." Two essays by right-wing activists end with the interwar fascist greeting "Hail in the Struggle!" Others spout similarly intolerant fare: "blood purity," "the twisted Russian language, alcohol, destruction, polluted environment that are inalienable attributes of Russian pseudo culture," and the Russian community's "murderer, destroyer, provocateur stance, which has been nurtured for centuries." However, by the standards of Russian, European, or American extremism, the book is mild fare, and Latvian officials appear to have hoped reaction to it would blow over quickly.

That did not happen. We Do Not Give Latvia to Anyone received a great deal of local and international publicity. A local Russian-language newspaper urged authorities to bring charges of incitement against the publisher, and Russia issued a statement harshly condemning the book and what it called a Russophobic hate campaign "in the spirit of Goebbels." At Russia's prodding, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe investigated. Mainstream media condemned it as intolerant, representatives of international organizations suggested the book was in "bad taste," and 30 representatives of nongovernmental organizations and academia addressed an open letter to Latvian politicians urging them to keep distance from racists and implement their social integration policy more vigorously. The furor was sufficient to put the book through three printings and briefly to the top of the bestseller list.

The fuss bewildered the Latvian political elite. The government has enshrined "social integration" as one of its core objectives, and in the wake of earlier disputes with Russia on such issues as barriers to citizenship for ethnic Russians in Latvia, Latvian laws and practices on the treatment of minorities have gradually been brought into line with European norms. In a belated response to outcry over the book, the Latvian prime minister and president issued bland statements of condemnation, and law enforcement authorities carefully reviewed the book but found nothing that constituted incitement under Latvian law.

Russia's reaction to the book fits a long-running pattern of bad-mouthing Latvia, a pattern that undoubtedly will become more pronounced during the run-up to the November 2002 Prague summit on NATO expansion, as Latvia and the other Baltic nations seek invitations to NATO membership, much to Russia's distress. Over the last decade, Russian politicians have sought to isolate Latvia internationally, charging it with "gross and systematic human rights violations," "ethnic cleansing," and "apartheid" in its treatment of Latvia's Russians, which make up 30 percent of the Latvian population. In 1998, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov even compared Latvia to Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia's rhetoric has grown more subtle but often more invidious. Lately, Russian officials have drawn parallels between Latvia and Macedonia. Russia's message: Absent a West-imposed "settlement" in Latvia, civil war is possible, or at least, Russians would be justified in using violent tactics. Most outrageously, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center and the inauguration of America's campaign against terrorism, Russian officials have tried to brand Latvia a state that aids and abets terrorism in Chechnya. While some Latvians sympathize with Chechen victims, Latvia has neither the means nor the suicidal inclination to assist anyone struggling against Russia. On the contrary, Latvia has repeatedly reiterated its interest in maintaining good relations with Russia.

Most immediately, opposition to NATO expansion underlies Russia's tactics. If Russia can sow doubts about Latvia's stability and commitment to Western values, Latvia's NATO bid will suffer. In the medium term, Russia will also oppose Baltic membership in the EU unless it can get a good deal from the West in exchange for its acquiescence. A wide array of actors in Russia -- oil barons included -- stand to lose influence when the Balts accede to the EU: There will be less room for influencing economics and politics in the region, higher insurance costs and more stringent environmental controls for raw materials transit, and fewer opportunities to play up the minority card once Latvia is judged to have met EU human rights conditions and its Russian speakers begin to think of themselves as European.

The truth is that NATO and EU membership will benefit Russians in Latvia, and moreover, strengthen Latvia's relations with Russia. To gain admission to these clubs, Latvia must adhere strictly to European legal standards. Also, a secure and prosperous Latvia will find it increasingly easy to extend a hand toward Russians at home and abroad. Russians in Latvia, for their part, will find it easier to identify with a modernizing, European Latvia. Russia will no longer be tempted to try to isolate Latvia, and more businesslike interstate relations will permit an expansion of cultural and other exchanges. People of Garda's ilk will undoubtedly continue to make noise, but nobody will pay them much attention, in Latvia or abroad.