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Majority accepts arms exports

Majority accepts arms exports – under the right circumstances. A study with participation of the University of Konstanz examines the attitudes of people in Germany and France towards arms exports

Should arms be supplied to other countries at all? If so, under what conditions? A pilot study conducted in Germany and France a year before the war in Ukraine explores what citizens in both countries think about the trade of arms. The result: 10 to 15 percent of respondents categorically reject arms deliveries, while the majority decides on a case-by-case basis, with moral considerations carrying the largest weight. Fundamental rejection and the strong weighting of moral aspects are more pronounced in Germany compared to France. The researchers conclude that corresponding action by the German government is more strongly constrained by its population, which could complicate a Franco-German or European defence policy in the near future. 

Building on the results of this pilot study, the researchers are now surveying the extent to which the war in Ukraine has changed opinions. For a large follow-up study conducted after the start of the war in Ukraine in the five largest arms exporting countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy – data collection has been completed. The researchers expect to publish first results at the end of 2023/beginning of 2024.

"The Ukraine war sheds new light on our study," says Lukas Rudolph, junior professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, who co-led the study with Paul W. Thurner, professor of empirical political research and policy analysis at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. The study focused on the following three questions: What is the ratio between citizens who reject arms exports categorically and those who consider specific context conditions? Which criteria are relatively important or unimportant for those weighing the pros and cons? And how do the preferences of respondents from Germany and France differ?

Principled opposition
Using a quota-representative sample, the researchers investigated the number of those who oppose arms exports in principle, that is, regardless of the circumstances and recipient country. According to the study, 10 to 15 percent of respondents take this stance. Thus, they make decisions based on considerations that differ fundamentally from those of governments. The motivation of these individuals is predominantly pacifist. "These people are principally opposed to the transfer of lethal weapons to other countries, where they might be used to kill", Lukas Rudolph explains. Isolationists, too, might reject such transfers.

The majority of respondents, however, carefully considers the context of an arms trade. The survey required respondents in both countries to assess exemplary arms exports on three basic dimensions. The economic dimension encompasses the extent to which the arms trade has an impact on domestic economic welfare, for example in terms of job and income creation; the geostrategic dimension assesses implications for security policy, this is, whether the recipient country is strategic partner; the normative-moral dimension focuses on the impacts that arms trade has for the recipient country. Crucial questions here are: Is the export going to a peace-abiding democracy, where human rights are respected, or will weapons be used for a war of aggression or civil conflict?

Respondents in both countries show a similar general calculus
The respondents – a total of over 6,600 people, half from Germany and half from France – had to weigh up several, usually contradictory, consequences at the same time in order to arrive at an assessment of the arms deals. The result shows that the respondents from both countries placed the greatest emphasis on the normative-moral criteria, but also took into account the economic and strategic aspects. According to the study, people in both countries have the same basic calculus, although respondents from Germany gave even greater weight to normative criteria. Moreover, principled opposition to arms exports is greater in Germany than in France. 

As a result, a majority of both German and French respondents would reject arms exports to regions that could be viewed critically from a normative-moral perspective, but also advantageously from a strategic or economic perspective, with this rejection being much more pronounced in Germany. This implies stronger constraints for the actions of the German government. Correspondingly, a majority of respondents in both countries only view those arms exports positively that can be assessed positively in normative-moral, economic and strategic terms – such as exports to fellow EU partners. 

Defence wars weaken concerns
Last but not least, the study notes that the particular circumstances of an arms transfer may well change public opinion. Defensive wars, for example, like in Ukraine, weaken concerns about trade with conflict states.

One conclusion of the study is that due to the different "strategic cultures" of the two countries, a far-reaching Franco-German or European defence policy will be a challenge in the near future. Both countries would be forced to a lowest common denominator on arms export policy. As Lukas Rudolph notes: "It is much harder for the German government to convince its people than for the French government". The extent to which the issue affects actual political behaviour, such as voting decisions, will be the subject of further investigation.

Key facts:

  • Original publication: Lukas Rudolph, Markus Freitag, Paul W. Thurner: Deontological and consequentialist preferences towards arms exports: A comparative conjoint experiment in France and Germany. European Journal of Political Research. DOI:
  • First study that systematically examines the attitudes of citizens towards arms exports, with around 6,600 participants from Germany and France
  • In both countries, a minority principally opposes arms exports, but the vast majority makes  nuanced decisions
  • German respondents are more restrictive compared to French respondents
  • Led by Lukas Rudolph, junior professor of political behavior at the University of Konstanz and Paul Thurner, professor of empirical political research and policy analysis at Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, conducted at LMU
  • Funded by Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung