What Americans Want from the United Nations

Surveys during the past decade show consistent support among Americans for the UN’s role in the world order but also worry about its dysfunctions. CFR’s Stewart Patrick says President Barack Obama should echo these sentiments in his UN address.

September 22, 2009
11:32 am (EST)

Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

Americans would never cede power to global institutions. They savor their independence, guard their sovereignty, and sidestep efforts to curb their freedom of action. They are wary that the United Nations might impose its will within their sacred borders. And in the face of U.S. ambivalence, they believe the UN can never be more than a global talk shop. Most U.S. pundits can agree on that much.

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But this conventional wisdom may be wrong. As President Barack Obama prepares to address the UN General Assembly, it makes sense to ask: What do Americans think about the United Nations? With the help of WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO), the Council on Foreign Relations will soon release a comprehensive digest of existing polling of the U.S. public (and world public) from the past ten years  on issues of global governance. The results are surprising. Contrary to common assumptions, Americans have been consistently internationalist in outlook--and see the UN as a cornerstone of world order.

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Surveys taken over the past decade show that a majority of Americans have considered traditional ideas about national sovereignty outdated, no longer appropriate to a world of global challenges. Most respondents have said they want the United Nations--rather than the United States--to take the lead on international issues like refugees, peacekeeping, human rights, and nuclear proliferation. For instance, in a soon-to-be-released poll from WPO, 60 percent of respondents said U.S. officials should work more within the United Nations, even if doing so means the United States has to compromise its own policies. In the forthcoming 2009 WPO poll, 69 percent of Americans agreed that: "Our nation should consistently follow international laws. It is wrong to violate international laws, just as it is wrong to violate laws within a country."

Polls have shown that most Americans believe the United Nations should be able to authorize force in a wide range of cases, including defending nations under attack, stopping countries from supporting terrorism, and restoring deposed democratic governments. In a WPO poll from 2007, almost three-quarters of Americans said the UN Security Council has the responsibility to protect people from severe human rights violations, such as genocide, as in Darfur.

But despite Americans’ support for the UN’s mission, they are dissatisfied with the UN’s actual performance. Since 2003, majorities in the United States have said the United Nations is doing a "poor job"--a view held by 65 percent in a February 2009 Gallup poll. Americans’ frustration seems to stem from a variety of sources, including the Security Council’s inability to deal with major issues, including Iran, North Korea, and Sudan, and the failure of the UN Human Rights Council to hold major abusers to account. Although large majorities of Americans have consistently expressed support for the UN’s mandate, they criticize the institution for falling short of its own ideals.

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Most Americans therefore encourage reforms that would make the UN more effective. A majority of Americans in recent years, for instance, have favored expanding the UN’s powers to investigate human rights violations, to regulate the international arms trade, and even to select, train, and command its own peacekeeping force.

Not only have Americans wanted the United Nations to be more effective, but they have wanted it to be more legitimate, which would require introducing new voices into the anachronistic body. Seventy percent (PDF) of Americans answering a March 2005 survey by the international polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes said they supported additional countries becoming permanent members of the Security Council, expressing the most support for new German, Japanese, Indian, and Brazilian seats.

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Many of these statistics are counterintuitive, and they raise important questions about the tenacity of the respondents’ views. Are Americans actually convinced they need a more powerful United Nations, or would they renege if they saw real U.S. power diminish? And does it even matter what the majority of Americans want if a vocal minority is willing to mobilize in opposition to pro-UN policies? These questions are legitimate and deserve further discussion. But so do the polls, which defy almost every stereotype of American isolationism and unilateralism.

Contrary to popular thought, Americans see the United Nations as a critical pillar of world order. They believe in multilateralism--and they criticize their own government not for cooperating too much, but too little. Their dissatisfaction with the UN reflects not disdain but disappointment that the world body has fallen short of its ideals, and they seek reforms to improve its performance.

These findings should cheer Barack Obama as he travels to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly. The president has described the United Nations as "flawed but indispensable." His fellow citizens clearly agree. The president can harness this public support in his address to the assembled UN delegates. His speech should echo the public’s sentiment that:

  • Americans are committed to multilateralism, willing to pull their own weight, and ready to make compromises for effective international cooperation;
  • The United Nations must embrace a global leadership role on critical international issues from emergency relief to peacekeeping, nonproliferation to human rights;
  • Continued American support for the United Nations depends on the world body, and its member states, living up to the ideals on which the UN was founded, such as real human rights monitoring;
  • To better fulfill its mandate, the UN Security Council needs to better represent the geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century, by adjusting its membership to include emerging powers.


Editor’s Note: This expert brief foreshadowed the launch of Public Opinion on Global Issues, which is now available at www.cfr.org/public_opinion.

CFR research associate Preeti Bhattacharji contributed to this brief.


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