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United Nations

General Attitudes Toward the UN

A large majority of Americans believes that the United Nations plays a necessary role in the world and supports US participation in the UN. Large majorities would like the UN to be stronger than it is and support even rather extreme options for giving greater powers to the UN including giving it the power to intervene in the internal affairs of states and having its own standing peacekeeping force. Large majorities favor the US working through the UN more than it does even if this means the US has to accept compromises and would prefer to see the UN rather than the US take the lead in dealing with world issues. At the same time Americans have in recent years shown significant dissatisfaction with UN performance in fulfilling its mission. The mixture of this strong support for the UN in principle and dissatisfaction with its performance leave most Americans feeling lukewarm about the UN as an institution.

A majority of Americans believe that the UN plays a necessary and useful role in the world. In a February 2005 Gallup poll 64% said that the "The United Nations plays a necessary role in the world" while 34% said it did not. A May 2005 GMF poll found that 56% agreed that the UN "can manage many of the world's most pressing problems better than any single country" and 66% agreed that the UN "enables the costs of international actions to be shared among different countries". A November 2003 PIPA poll found 72% saying they would like to see the UN play "a greater role...in dealing with world problems."[1]

Americans strongly support US participation in the UN. A February 2005 Gallup poll found that only 13% favor the US giving up its membership in the UN, while 85% were opposed. Sixty-nine percent said in a January 2006 Public Agenda poll that "US support of the UN peacekeeping efforts" is "important and worthwhile," while only 24% said it was "a waste of resources."[2]

Strengthening the UN

An overwhelming majority of Americans endorses the goal of "strengthening the United Nations." The Chicago Council has asked about this goal since 1974 and in every year approximately eight in ten say that it should be a foreign policy goal. Most recently in the July 2006 Chicago Council poll, 79% said that it should be a very important (40%) or important (39%) foreign policy goal, with just 19% saying that it should not be important.

At the same time, this goal is not high on the list of policy goals presented to respondents. The percentage saying that it should be a "very important" goal is generally not much higher than half. In 2002 an unusually high 55% endorsed it as a very important foreign policy goal, which then slipped to 38% in 2004 and rose slightly to 40% in 2006.[3]

Pew has also found consistently large majorities for making the goal of strengthening the UN a priority. Most recently, in October 2005 83% said that it should be a top priority (40%) or some priority (43%).[4]

A large majority also supports the idea of the UN becoming significantly more powerful. In December 2006, a WPO/KN poll asked respondents to evaluate a number of possible future trends, one of which was: "the United Nations becomes significantly more powerful in world affairs." Fully two-thirds (66%) said they thought this would be mostly positive, while just 32% said it would be mostly negative. This represents a significantly more positive view of increased UN power in the world than when it was first asked in a November 2004 BBC/Globescan/PIPA poll, where 59% said they thought this would be mostly positive while 37% thought it would be mostly negative.[5]

Support for the UN is sustained even when presented the argument that international institutions are too bureaucratic and tend to oppose the US. In an October 2006 PIPA poll respondents were offered two arguments. The one that said, "International institutions are slow and bureaucratic and often used as places for other countries to criticize and block the US. It is better for the US to try and solve problems like terrorism and the environment on our own instead" was chosen by only 23 percent. Sixty-nine percent chose the argument that said: "As the world becomes more interconnected, and problems such as terrorism and the environment are of a more international nature, it will be increasingly necessary for the US to work through international institutions." The number endorsing this second view has increased over recent years: in 1999 56% agreed and in 2004 64% agreed, while support for disparaging view of working through international institutions has drooped from 39% in 1999 and 30% in 2004.[6]

An October 1999 PIPA poll also offered arguments against strengthening the UN based on it being too bureaucratic. Respondents were presented a list of four international organizations, including the UN, telling them: "Some say that because of the increasing interaction between countries, we need to strengthen international institutions to deal with shared problems. Others say that this would only create bigger, unwieldy bureaucracies." They were then asked, for each institution whether "you think it needs to be strengthened or not." Sixty-seven percent thought that the UN needs to be strengthened, while only 30% thought that it did not.[7]

Americans find attractive the argument that the UN is a way for the US to share the burden of maintaining world order. In the October 2006 WPO poll, two in three (68%) agreed with the statement that "For the US to move away from its role as world policeman and reduce the burden of its large defense budget, the US should invest in efforts to strengthen the UN's ability to deal with potential conflicts in the world." In November 1995, PIPA found 73% agreement with this statement.[8]

The argument that a stronger UN might constrain US freedom of action does not elicit majority agreement. In the same October 2006 WPO poll respondents were also presented the argument that "Strengthening the UN is not a good idea because if the UN were to become stronger, the US could become entangled in a system that would inhibit it from full freedom of action to pursue its interests." Only 37% agreed, while 57% disagreed. [9]

After hearing both of the above-discussed arguments in the October 2006 WPO poll respondents were finally asked, "Overall, do you think that in the long run efforts to strengthen the UN would be a good investment or not a good investment?" Sixty-eight percent said that it would be a good investment, while 28% said it would not be.[10]

Americans want the UN to play a policymaking role, though not to dictate policy. A Gallup question asked in February 2007 presented three options for the role that the UN could play. Only 29% opted for the UN playing “a leading role where all countries are required to follow U.N. policies.” A plurality of 46% opted for the UN playing “a major role, where the U.N. establishes policies, but where individual countries still act separately when they disagree with the U.N.”—thus a total of 75% opted for the UN playing a policymaking role. Just 22% opted for the third option of “the U.N. serving mostly as a forum for communication between nations, but with no policy making role.” Asked in February 2004, February 2005, and February 2006, the question elicited similar responses.[11]

Concerns about the UN impinging on US sovereignty are low. In PIPA's April 1995 poll respondents were asked to choose between two statements about the power of the UN. Only 36% chose the statement: "I am afraid that things like UN peacekeeping are getting so big that the US is losing control of its foreign policy to the UN, while a 58% majority chose: "I am not afraid that the UN is becoming too powerful. The US has a veto in the UN Security Council and therefore the UN cannot dictate anything to the US."[12]

There seems to be little fear that the UN might evolve into a world government that could override US sovereignty. In June 1995, ATIF respondents were presented the argument that "The UN might become a world government and take away our freedom." Seventy-three percent rejected this (58% strongly) with just 17% agreeing (11% strongly).[13]

Support for an expansive UN exists even though most Americans appear to grossly overestimate the magnitude of UN activities. This can be inferred from the public's exaggerated notion of the UN budget. In September 1996, PIPA asked respondents for their impressions of the size of the UN budget, offering four other government budgets for comparison: those of Wyoming ($2 billion), Alabama ($10 billion), Texas ($40 billion), and the US federal government ($1600 billion). Forty-eight percent thought the UN's budget was closest to that of Texas, and 28% thought it was closest to that of the US government (closest to Alabama, 13%; closest to Wyoming, 7%). When the budgets for the UN, for UN peacekeeping operations, and all UN agencies (supported by states' voluntary contributions) are rolled together, the total is less than $10 billion. In short, 76% believed that the UN budget was four or more times its actual size. Yet this (mis)perception of the UN as already being much larger than it is does not dissuade the public from wanting to see a stronger UN.[14]

Concrete Proposals for Strengthening the UN

A number of polls have found strong support, not only for the general abstraction of strengthening the UN but for concrete proposals. Perhaps most interesting the Chicago Council in 2004 and 2006 presented a series of specific options for strengthening the UN, some of them rather dramatic, and most were endorsed by a majority.

The most popular ideas, both endorsed by 75% in 2006, were to give the UN "the authority to go into countries in order to investigate violations of human rights" and a related idea of "creating an international marshals service that could arrest leaders responsible for genocide."

Equally popular (endorsed by 74% in 2004 and 72% in 2006) was perhaps the most ambitious idea to have "a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained and commanded by the United Nations."

A large majority (57% in 2004 and 60% in 2006) endorsed the idea of "giving the UN the power to regulate the international arms trade."

The one idea that did not engender much enthusiasm was to give the UN "the power to fund its activities by imposing a small tax on such things and the international sale of arms of oil-a light plurality supported it in 2004 (49% to 45%) while a slight plurality opposed it in 2006 (45% to 50%).[15]

Polling conducted in 1995 and 1996 explored other ideas for giving the UN such expanded powers. A 1995 PIPA poll found robust support for improving UN communication and command facilities (83%), having joint military training exercises (82%), having UN members each commit 1,000 troops to a rapid deployment force that the UN Security Council can call up on short notice (79%), allowing the UN to possess permanent stocks of military equipment stored in different locations around the world (69%).[16]

Polling conducted in this period also explored certain types of UN taxes. In a June 1995 poll, ATIF tested the proposal that "the United Nations should monitor and tax international arms sales with the money going to famine relief and humanitarian aid." Seventy-two percent of respondents supported the proposal.[17] In April 1996, the Wirthlin Group posed a more extensive series of questions on the subject of UN taxes and found a curious disjunction: the majority rejected the idea in principle but supported it in most specific cases. The poll question in which the idea of UN taxes was rejected by 61%, however, was long and rather complex, and included several pro and con arguments for the idea. Thus it is difficult to determine whether respondents were reacting to something specific in the wording of one of the arguments, given that they then supported the concrete cases.[18] Two of the proposals received over 70% support "a charge on international oil sales dedicated to programs to...protect the world's environment" (72% in favor) and "a charge on international sales of tobacco dedicated to programs to...improve health care" (71%). A "charge on international arms sales dedicated to keeping peace in regional conflicts" was next in popularity (67%), while 51% favored "a charge on international currency transactions dedicated to UN activities generally." The one idea that did not receive majority support was for "a charge on international airline tickets," which was favored by just 33%.[19]

Empowering UN-Affiliated International Courts

Americans show substantial support for empowering UN-affiliated international courts including the International Criminal Court or World Court and the recently created International Criminal Court.

In June 2004 the Chicago Council found a majority favored granting compulsory jurisdiction to the World Court. The question read as follows:

The World Court is part of the United Nations. It makes rulings on disputes between countries based on treaties the countries have signed. There is a debate about whether countries should give the World Court more power by making a general commitment to accept the decisions of the World Court or restrict the power of the Court by deciding on a case-by-case basis whether they will accept the Court's decisions. Do you think the US should or should not make the general commitment to accept the decisions of the World Court?

Fifty-seven percent said that it should, while 35% said that it should not. A similar question was asked by PIPA in 1999 and found 53% support. [20]

Americans also show strong support for the International Criminal Court. In the April 2006 WPO/KN poll, 74 percent said the US should "participate in the International Criminal Court that can try individuals for war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity if their own country won't try them"; 21% were opposed. This result is basically unchanged from a survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that asked the same.

This support was sustained, even when the US argument against doing so was spelled out in the question in the 2002 Chicago Council poll. Only 29% said that "the US should not support the proposed Court because trumped up charges may be brought against Americans, for example, US soldiers who use force in the course of a peacekeeping operation." Sixty-six percent agreed that "the US should support such a court because the world needs a better way to prosecute war criminals, many of whom go unpunished today." [21]

The US Working Through the UN

A rather robust majority of Americans favors the US working through the UN more than it does, even when reminded of the potential costs involved. In June 2004 and July 2006 the Chicago Council found that 66% and 60% respectively agreed with the statement that "When dealing with international problems, the U.S. should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice." PIPA found 61% agreement in October 2006. A PIPA poll in December 2004 found 63% saying that the Bush administration should "be more willing to make decisions within the UN" (should not 34%), though only 22% thought that it would.[22]

A CBS/New York Times poll in July 2006 found a preference to have the UN rather than the US take the lead in solving international problems. Presented two statements, only 31% preferred the one that said "the United States should take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts" while 59% preferred the one that said, "the United States should let other countries and the United Nations take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts."[23]

Several polls have found support for cooperating with the UN. A Public Agenda poll asked respondents in September 2006 how much they thought "closer cooperation with the UN" would "enhance our security" 76% said a great deal (36%) or somewhat (40%). Just 21% said not at all. Similar responses were found in January 2006 and June 2005. Pew found 57% agreeing that, "The United States should cooperate fully with the United Nations" in December 2006, consistent with opinion in recent years.[24] In a September 2000 PIPA poll, 81% said it was extremely (41%) or somewhat (40%) important "for the United States to cooperate with other countries by working through the United Nations," "now that the Cold War has ended." Only 17% said it was "not so" (7%) or "not at all" (10%) important.[25]

When asked to weigh the pragmatic benefits of acting unilaterally against the legitimacy derived from working through the UN, the latter is widely endorsed. Asked in a September 2005 Chicago Council/PIPA poll which was the better approach for the US pursue in promoting democracy, just 25% chose "acting on its own because the US can act more decisively and effectively," while 68% chose "working through the UN because such efforts will be seen as more legitimate."[26]

Americans are very responsive to the argument that participation in UN efforts ultimately serves US interests. In the October 1999 PIPA poll, an overwhelming 78% agreed with the argument that:

Because the world is so interconnected today, the US should participate in UN efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve US interests because they help create a more stable world that is less apt to have wars and is better for the growth of trade and other US goals.

Only 39% agreed with a counterargument that:

...the world is so big and complex that such [UN] efforts only make a minimal difference with little benefit to the US. Therefore it is not really in the US interest to participate in them.[27]

Varying Levels of Satisfaction With UN Performance

Although large majorities of Americans have consistently expressed support for the purpose and mission of the UN, satisfaction with the UN's performance has varied dramatically over the years. A question that has been asked regularly since 1990 is whether "the United Nations is doing a good job or a poor job in trying to solve the problems is has had to face?" As noted in the trendline graph, answers to this question have gone through many swings. Since 2003, when the UN Security failed to come to a consensus on how to deal with Iraq, majorities have been saying that Iraq is doing a poor job. Most recently Gallup found in February 2007 66% saying that it is doing a poor job.[28]

Other recent polls have shown this dissatisfaction with UN performance has persisted. Fox News in March 2005 asked respondents whether they "approve or disapprove of the job the United Nations is doing?" Just 32% approved, while 46% disapproved and a remarkably large 22% said they did not know.[29] Asked twice in 2005 by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, how much confidence they have in the UN, in May 65% said they had not very much confidence (44%) or not confidence at all (21%), while in September 67% expressed took these positions (not very much 47%, no confidence 20%). Public Agenda found in June 2005 that 64% worried a lot (27%) or somewhat (37%) that "The UN may be ineffective."[30]

The ups and downs of approval of the UN's performance do track events at the time. The highest level of approval occurred in 1991 with the Gulf War when the Security Council was acting in highly concerted fashion. In August 1993, as the Somalia operation appeared to be going well, approval was also high. But when Somalia operation hit problems, followed by the UN Security Council failing to act effectively on Bosnia, approval plunged sharply. In the late 1990s approval recovered to a majority position and reached another high point after 9/11, when the UN Security Council rallied behind the US and took concerted action in Afghanistan. In November 2001, as the war on terrorism got under way, the public's job approval rating of the UN approval rose to 63%, a level last seen in the early 1990s (CBS). As mentioned, the failure to find common ground on Iraq, though, appears to have created an extended slump in performance evaluations. Asked in November 2003 about "how countries have been working together in the U.N. lately," 53% of respondents said they felt the results have been "unsatisfactory."[31]

Net Evaluations Lukewarm and Unstable

When respondents are simply asked for their net evaluation of the UN as an institution, in recent years responses have been on the whole lukewarm, but also erratic in some cases. This is presumably due to ongoing tensions and complex interactions between positive aspirations for the UN and the ups and downs of its perceived performance.

The clearest case is the question of whether respondents have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the United Nations. During the 1990s views were quite stable, with the percentage giving a favorable rating ranging from the low 60s to mid 70s. After the failure of the UN Security Council to find consensus in the run-up to the Iraq war, ratings began to slip: in 2003 and 2004 the percentage giving favorable ratings bobbed between the high 50s and mid 60s. Then in 2005 they oscillated between a low of 43% in February 2005 (Gallup), up to 58% the next month (Pew), even higher to 62% in May (GMF), then back down to 48% in October (Pew), 51% in May 2006 (Pew) back up to 61% in June (GMF), and down to 53% in July (Pew) However, throughout this fluctuation, those giving an unfavorable rating remained in the 32-39% range, showing far less movement; the numbers declining to answer varied instead. Thus reluctance to give a favorable judgment did not always mean an unfavorable judgment.[32]

Lukewarm feelings, with a possible downward trend, have also been found in polls that have asked respondents to rate their feelings toward the UN using a thermometer scale ranging from a very cold 0 degrees to a very warm 100 degrees. The most recent Chicago Council poll in July 2006 found a mean of 55 degrees, down only slightly from 2004, when they found a mean of 57 degrees. The Quinnipiac University poll found cooler mean ratings in November 2006 (50 degrees), August 2006 (49 degrees), May 2006 (50 degrees) and February 2006 (51 degrees). Also, Democracy Corps polls found ratings of 48 degrees in August 2006 and 50 degrees in January 2006, with similar ratings in numerous previous polls.[33]

Views tend to be a bit more positive when asked whether the UN is having a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world. In the November 2005 poll, results were lukewarm, with 52% saying it was mainly positive, 36% saying mainly negative, and 12% not answering either way.In the WPO/KN December 2006 poll, though, two in three (64%) said that the UN has a mainly positive influence, while just 27% said it had a mainly negative influence.[34]

In July 2005 Gallup International asked the 73% of respondents that said they were familiar with the United Nations whether they had a positive, negative, or neutral view of the UN. Once again views were lukewarm. The largest number (38%) gave a neutral rating, but more gave a positive rating (35%) than a negative rating (26%).[35]



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