What Americans Think When they Think of the United Nations

The release last week of polling data on Americans’ attitudes toward the United Nations has caused some handwringing and head scratching at the right-wing National Review. The poll, commissioned by the Better World Campaign and conducted by the bi-partisan team of Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies, shows that 60% of respondents have a favorable opinion of the United Nations and 38% have an unfavorable opinion.

UN critic Brett Schaefer disparages this poll, and cites this longstanding Gallup Poll that has been measuring Americans’ views on the United Nations since 1953. The BWC poll, by contrast, has only be conducting polling since 1999.

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The results between the Gallup and BWC poll are vastly different because they ask different questions. The BWC poll asks people if they have a favorable view of the UN, and a majority does–though the BWC poll shows that self-identified Democrats are more favorable of the UN than Republicans. The Gallup Poll asks respondents if they think the UN is doing a good job in trying to solve the problems it faces.

The the closest the BWC poll comes to asking a same question as is asked by the Gallup survey is this:  Thinking about the United Nations overall as an organization, do you think it is an organization that is still needed  today or it is an organization that has outlived its usefulness? 71% say it is still useful and only 23% say it’s “outlived its usefulness.”

Compare this to results from a Gallup survey in February. The results are comparable, though the BWC poll is about 5 points higher, possibly because it was conducted shortly after a UN Summit that yielded the Syria chemical weapons deal.

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Still, Schaefer is not convinced that Americans are generally positively disposed to the UN, and he goes on to question the validity of the results concerning Americans’ views of whether or not the USA should pay its dues to the UN and UN Peacekeeping on time and in full.

The poll informs people that U.N. “dues are based on a member‐nation’s capacity to pay or its share of world income” and that the U.S. pays 22 percent of the budget and represents 26 percent of world income. While that’s accurate, consider the sheer disparities: The U.S. pays more than 178 other U.N. member states combined and 22,000 times more than the least assessed countries. The U.S. was assessed nearly $600 million in regular budget dues in 2013, while the least assessed countries were charged roughly $27,000. The gap is even wider for peacekeeping, with the U.S. paying over $2 billion and the least assessed countries paying less than $8,000 per year.

No wonder a September 2013 Rasmussen poll found that only 23 percent of likely American voters thought that the U.S. should be the U.N.’s largest financial contributor.

It is true that the USA pays orders of magnitudes more in dues than, say, Bangladesh. But it is also true that many of the “least assessed” countries that Schaefer dismisses are among the largest troop contributors to UN Peacekeeping operations. The USA has fewer than 100, representing about 0.01% of personnel in peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh contributes 8000 troops, which is about 8% of the total;  Ethiopia contributes 6,500 troops, or about 6.5%  of the total. Rwanda contributes 4,500, or about 4.5%.

Different countries contribute in different ways. The USA is a wealthy country that is generally wary about contributing troops directly to UN peacekeeping, so it underwrites significant portions of these missions while other countries put boots on the ground. This nuance is lost in Rasmussen poll, which is to be expected. Still, that same Rasmussen poll (which tends to lean Republican) also gives the UN a favorable/unfavorable score of 46%/45%. That poll was taken about a month prior to the BWC poll, and before the big UN summit in New York which yielded the Syria chemical weapons deal and direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

Americans’ are generally favorably disposed to the United Nations.  What this tells us is that the sport of UN bashing is not terribly politically profitable. More Americans like the UN and want it to work, than dislike the UN and want it abolished.