American Views of the United Nations

By Dina Smeltz, senior fellow, public opinion and foreign policy, and Craig Kafura, senior program officer, studies

The 69th session of United Nations General Assembly will be held against the backdrop of international crises that include the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, ISIS military gains in Iraq and Syria, and continuing negotiations with Iran. While majorities of Americans are confident in the UN’s ability to carry out humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping missions, they are more skeptical of the UN’s effectiveness when it comes to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, resolving international conflicts, and sanctioning countries that violate international law.

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Americans support going along with UN policy even if not first choice for US

In every Chicago Council Survey since 2004, majorities of Americans have agreed that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the UN even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice, and the 2014 survey is no different (currently at 59%, returning to 2006 levels). Two in three Americans also say that strengthening the United Nations is an effective approach to achieving US foreign policy goals (64%).

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United Nations rated highest on peacekeeping, humanitarian, and cultural activities

The 2014 Chicago Council survey finds that Americans rate the United Nation’s peacekeeping, cultural and humanitarian efforts as more effective than UN approaches toward more hard-hitting threats. About six in ten think the United Nations is doing a good job at sending peacekeeping troops to conflict zones (61%), protecting the cultural heritage of the world (61%), leading international efforts to combat hunger (57%), and protecting and supporting refugees around the world (57%). In a separate question, a majority also supports working through the United Nations to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them (78%).

But the public is more divided on whether the United Nation is doing a good or bad job at authorizing the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security (51% good, 45% bad), preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons (50% good, 47% bad), imposing sanctions to punish countries that violate international law (50% good, 46% bad) and resolving international conflicts through negotiations (50% good, 46% bad).

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Strengthening the UN not a high foreign policy priority

However, strengthening the United Nations does not rate as a top goal for Americans. From 1974 to 2002, about half said that strengthening the United Nations was a very important goal. Since 2004, however, no more than four in ten say that strengthening the United Nations is a very important goal. This may partly reflect a partisan divide that emerged in the wake of the Iraq War, which was hotly debated in the UN Security Council before its start in 2003. Since in 2004, fewer Republicans and Independents consider strengthening the United Nations a very important goal, while the percentage of Democrats who favor doing so has remained more or less constant over the past decade.

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On another question, a much smaller majority now than in 1974 says that the US role in the founding of the United Nations was “a proud moment” in US history (59% versus 81% in 1974), though many say it is neither a proud nor dark moment (12% in 2014) or that they are unsure (12% in 2014). Of course, the 40-year time difference could account for this change. But when asked the same question about the US role in World War II, an identical percentage today as in 1974 say the US role in WWII is a proud moment in American history (68% a proud moment for both 1974 and 2014).