U.S. Opinion on General Principles of World Order
from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

U.S. Opinion on General Principles of World Order

September 4, 2009 3:30 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This page is part of Public Opinion on Global Issues.

More From Our Experts

This publication is now archived.

International Law

More on:

United States

Global Governance

Polls and Public Opinion

Americans support an international order based on international law. A majority believes that international laws create normative obligations like domestic law and rejects the view that nations should not feel obliged to abide by international law when doing so is at odds with their national interest. However, U.S. respondents tend to underestimate the extent to which their fellow citizens feel such an obligation. They also express readiness to contribute military forces to uphold international law. Asked about specific international laws, a large majority endorses the international law prohibiting the use of military force except in self-defense or defense of an ally, and a substantial majority believes that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should abide by the Geneva Conventions when questioning suspects who may have information about terrorist plots against the United States.

International Treaties

Large majorities of Americans support U.S. participation in a variety of international treaties. A large majority also favors having an international body, such as a court, judge compliance with treaties to which the United States is party.

International Criminal Court

A large majority of Americans favor U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court even after hearing U.S. government objections.

More From Our Experts

Multilateralism and the International Order

Americans favor a world order either based on a balance of regional powers or led by the United Nations, rather than a system based on hegemony or bipolarity. Large majorities reject a hegemonic role for the United States, but do want the United States to participate in multilateral efforts to address international issues.

Strengthening the United Nations

Americans favor the broad principle of having a stronger United Nations and having the United Nations, rather than the United States, take the lead on a variety of international issues. Majorities favor giving the United Nations expanded powers, including having a standing peacekeeping force, investigating human rights violations, and regulating the international arms trade. However, a slight plurality opposes giving the United Nations the capacity to impose a tax.

More on:

United States

Global Governance

Polls and Public Opinion

Multilateralism and the Use of Military Force

Among U.S. respondents, large majorities favor the United Nations having the right to authorize the use of military force for a wide range of contingencies. U.S. responses indicated that approval of the UN Security Council is seen as playing a powerful and, in many cases, necessary role in conferring legitimacy on the use of military force. Approval by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) does provide some legitimacy for military action in the U.S. public’s eyes, but generally by smaller margins than does UN approval.

Intervention in Internal Affairs

A robust majority of Americans approve of the United Nations intervening in the internal affairs of states to investigate human rights abuses and to promote human rights in member states. An equally large majority approves of the United Nations using military force to deliver urgent humanitarian aid if the government tries to block the aid and to protect people from severe human rights abuses, even against the will of the government. Majorities also support the idea that the UN has not only the right, but the “responsibility to protect” in the event of severe human rights violations.

UN Monitoring of Elections

The U.S. public generally believes that when there are concerns about the fairness of an election, countries should be willing to have UN observers monitor it. Less than a majority of Americans, however, think the United States itself would benefit from such monitoring.

When the United Nations Should Take the Lead

Asked whether the United Nations, national governments, or regional organizations should take the lead in dealing with various issues, U.S. responses varied according to the issue. The most common view was that the United Nations should take the leading role in addressing aid for economic development and dealing with refugees and international peacekeeping, whereas national governments should take the lead on protection of the environment. U.S. views were more mixed on human rights, but most said either the United Nations or a regional organization should take the lead. Large majorities have said that the United Nations rather than the United States should take the lead in dealing with international conflicts in general, and specifically in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and working toward a peace agreement after the 2006 Lebanon War. However, most balk at having the United Nations take the lead in combating climate change.

National and International Identity

A large majority of Americans perceive themselves as citizens of the world as well as of their nation, but national identity is still stronger than global identity.

International Cooperation

As a general principle, a majority of Americans think the U.S. government should be more cooperative than it is. A large majority of the U.S. public believes that Americans have enough common values with Europeans for transatlantic cooperation on international problems, and an overwhelming majority thinks that it is critical for the United States to act together with its closest allies on national security issues.


Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*