Gallup also asked Americans if they believed the United Nations was still playing a necessary role in world affairs. And here, a strong majority responded favorably. This data largely corresponds with periodic polling of likely American voters, conducted by a bi-partisan polling firm on behalf of the Better World Campaign, which most recently found that 65% of likely voters have a favorable view of the United Nations
What Accounts for this Spike in Approval for the United Nations?
The most recent big movement in American’s perception of the United Nations was between 2002 and 2008. The spike in 2002 most likely reflects Americans’ reaction to the outpouring of global solidarity for the United States after the September 11th attacks. The steady decline in the years that followed is likely a result of the Bush administration squandering that global goodwill by launching an ill-conceived invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United Nations Security Council did not authorize this intervention and the UN Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, was critical of the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq. The Bush administration and its supporters in the media turned sharply critical of the UN and sought to demonize Kofi Annan, likely resulting in the plunge in approval ratings.
The UN’s approval ratings rose steadily during the Obama administration, which sought a more collaborative approach to working with the United Nations.
The experiences of the Bush and Obama administration suggest that how a US president approaches foreign affairs in general, and the United Nations in particular, can influence Americans’ perceptions of the UN. The Bush administration was sharply critical of the UN, whereas the Obama administration was conciliatory. This reflected a general propensity toward multilateralism by the Obama administration and (at least during the first term) a dismissive attitude toward multi-lateral cooperation by the Bush administration. The UN’s favorability ratings adjusted accordingly.
But that begs the question: Why the spike in UN’s approval ratings in 2019?
The Trump administration has touted a foreign policy slogan of “America First,” though Donald Trump has personally not directed too much vitriol against the UN in particular. Still, Americans likely perceive Trump to be hostile to the United Nations — and that perception may perversely be helping the UN’s favorability.
This could be because Donald Trump is an historically unpopular president. More Americans disapprove of his job performance than any other president of the modern era. In the minds of Americans, rejecting Trump may include rejecting his “America First” brand and the perception that it stands in opposition to global cooperation, as represented by the United Nations
The Gallup Organization suggests as much in their concluding summary of the polling data, which included questions about NATO
Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has led many NATO allies to question the future of the alliance. A substantial majority of Americans remain in support of the alliance. Even among his own party, there is clear majority support for NATO, likely complicating any effort Trump might make to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance.
When it comes to the U.N., a clear majority of Americans still see the organization as necessary. Americans’ belief that the U.N. is necessary has not shifted much for over a decade, but is less prevalent than in the late 1990s. The continued support for both the U.N. and NATO indicates that even in the era of America First, Americans see the value of multilateral institutions around the globe. (Emphasis Added)
For the first time since 2003, the UN’s approval ratings have exceeded 40%, which may reflect Americans overall rejection of Trumpism and “America First.”