Imagine a country that is struggling to grow economically. Jobs might be difficult to find. Wages might be kept artificially low, even though business profits are extremely high. The infrastructure of this country is beginning to fail, with some bridges more than 100 years old and still in daily use.
There may be racial tensions within this country. Socioeconomic tensions might exist between different classes. Healthcare access might be limited, if it even exists at all.
Every one of these issues is a reflection of domestic strife. The problems that the population experiences will be blamed on the leaders of this nation. What can those leaders do to distract the population?
With the diversionary theory of war, those leaders could create an intentional conflict with another nation so that domestic turmoil is no longer the primary concern of the general population.
How Can People Be Distracted from Domestic Turmoil by War?
In political science, there is an effect that is referred to as the “rally ‘round the flag” syndrome. This concept causes the general population to reduce their criticism of government policy to focus on nationalism and patriotism when the presence of an international crisis is present. This effect was first proposed in 1970 by John Mueller and it defines three qualities that are part of an event.
• The conflict must be international.
• It must involve the country and the President of that country directly.
• It must have elements that are dramatic, specific, and sharply focused.
Although any country can benefit from the rally syndrome described by Mueller, the focus of his work involved the population of the United States. Mueller identified 5 different categories of conflict that were used to distract the population from the domestic issues that were being faced in the 1950s and 1960s.
1. Sudden Military Intervention. Mueller lists the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Korean War as diversionary examples for this rally type.
2. Major Diplomatic Actions. Mueller lists the Truman Doctrine for this category. The “America First” diplomatic actions introduced by the Trump Administration in 2017 could also qualify in this category.
3. Dramatic Technological Developments. Mueller listed the space race, with the launching of Sputnik, as evidence of this type of rally.
4. US and Soviet Summit Meetings. Although this rally option is somewhat dated, the Trump-Putin conversations and the investigation into Russian collusion in the 2016 US election are modern examples of this diversionary tactic. Mueller lists the Potsdam Conference as evidence.
5. Major Military Developments. Mueller lists the Tet Offensive as an example of this rally. In modern terms, the “troop surges” that have been experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq or the rhetoric between North Korea and the United States are also possible examples of this category.
There are two reasons why the diversionary theory of war is so consistent and effective at creating a distraction. The first is the idea that the general public of a country, particularly the United States, sees the President or their leader as the embodiment of national unity. The second reason involves opinion leadership.
In politics, the US has a two-party system. One party is the majority and one is the minority every time. When there is a time of conflict, the opposition party to the President does not criticize the actions, legislation, or behaviors of the President. That provides fewer stories for the political media to report on, which causes the general public to believe that there is less conflict domestically than there is internationally.
What Happens with the Diversionary Theory of War?
Increases in approval ratings are almost always directly associated with the diversionary theory of war for the leaders involved. When there is a lower overall rating at the beginning of the conflict, there will be a greater boost achieved in terms of population percentage points.
Terrence Chapman and Dan Reiter suggested this concept in 2004. They note that when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Roosevelt’s response went up 12% because his approval rating was already at 72%. In comparison, when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred during the administration of George W. Bush, his approval rating increased from 51% to 90%.
The effects of diversion are also enhanced in the US because the President is seen as the head of state and the head of government.
Over a short-term basis, the diversionary theory does create more popularity for leaders, but it doesn’t change the turmoil being experienced. That means more diversions must take place or the problems causing the turmoil must be fixed or rebellion against the leaders will eventually occur.