New Polling Data About the UN May Surprise You

Americans rather like the United Nations.

In fact, roughly eight out of ten Americans believe that it is in the United States’ best interest to actively support the United Nations. When discussing certain UN agencies that number jumps even higher, to more than 90% for the World Health Organization.

These are the top conclusions of a new poll released today by the Better World Campaign. The poll was conducted by the bi-partisan polling team of Geoff Garin, Bill McInturff and Elizabeth Harrington of Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies. In a press conference call this morning, Peter Yeo, the executive director of the Better World Campaign, stressed that the polling data comes at an important time as over 90 new members of congress take their seats and President Obama’s new national security team takes shape.  “A lot of important deliberations will occur over the next year over not only what foreign policy priorities are most important, but also which elements of the national security and diplomatic tool box will be used — including our relationship with multilateral institutions,” said Yeo. “This is an exciting time to be working on foreign policy.”

Data shows that support for the United Nations crosses party lines.  72% of respondents agreed that the United Nations is still needed today and substantial majorities agreed that the USA should demonstrate its support for the United Nations by paying its dues on time and in full. Though you would not suspect it based on how party leadership sometimes characterizes the United Nations, a majority of Republicans polled agreed with these sentiments.

The data also shows an American affinity for the World Health Organization, World Food Program and UNESCO. They tested very highly in the polls after a brief description of each agency was given. This finding comes at an important time. In October 2011, the United States was forced to withdraw support and funding for UNESCO after UNESCO members admitted Palestine. That precipitated a crisis of American leadership at UNESCO, because legislation on the books from the mid-1990s prohibits American funding for any UN entity that admits Palestine as a full member. The USA has cut off funds to UNESCO until congress amends this law. American support for WFP and WHO could be undermined unless these laws are amended.

Two other data points worth highlighting. First, the poll posed an open ended question asking respondents to state their foreign policy priorities. The top answer was by far related to bringing troops home from Afghanistan.

Second, the poll found very little support for decreasing United States’ spending on international health programs.  This is surprising given that in recent weeks some members of congress have proposed zeroing out all foreign aid as part of the fiscal cliff talks. Voters are not so convinced. Only 27% say the amount of money the US spends on international health say should be decreased. The balance of the sample says it should be held constant or even increased.

Deeper still, prior polling suggests that voters believe that the USA spends much more of its budget on foreign aid than it does in reality. “When you introduce the fact that less than 1% of the US budget goes to supporting international health and development, the percentage of people who say spending on public health should be decreased declines to 17%; and the share that says it should be increased to 33%,” said pollster Geoff Garin on a conference call with reporters this morning.

I strongly encourage folks interested in learning more about how American voters perceive the United Nations and America’s global obligations take a peek at the poll. There are some interesting nuggets in there and the data may surprise you.