The popularity of the United Nations is at a low ebb today -- an apparent holdover from 2003, when public approval of the United Nations plunged around the time of the Iraq war.
In early 2003, public displeasure with the United Nations over its failure to authorize the use of military force against Iraq was immediately evident in Gallup polling. The percentage of Americans saying the United Nations was doing a good job addressing the problems it has faced fell from 50% in January 2003 to 37% two months later. Today, according to a February 2004 poll*, that figure remains low at 36%.
The U.S.-U.N. rift over Iraq has exposed George W. Bush to the charge that he has isolated the country and weakened U.S. alliances around the globe. Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in December, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry indicated that as president, he would renew the United States' relationship with the United Nations. Kerry said that he would not "cede our security to any nation or institution," but he would place high importance on building multinational alliances and international cooperation.
In principle, Kerry's approach sounds reasonable, and Americans may be receptive to it. But Americans are also clear that the United States should be able to go it alone when necessary. In the most recent poll, only a quarter (24%) of the U.S. public told Gallup that the United Nations should play the leading role in world affairs and that all countries should be required to follow its policies.
The plurality of Americans, 45%, seem to agree with the Bush model: The United Nations should establish policies, but individual countries should still act separately when they disagree with the world body. Twenty-eight percent would prefer a minor role for the United Nations, in which it would have no policy-making role, but simply serve as a forum for communication among nations.
Gallup has only asked the above question twice -- once in February 2001 and again last month. Over this period, the percentage of Americans favoring a leading policy role for the United Nations rose slightly, from 19% to 24%. But the balance of opinion remains strongly against countries relinquishing their independence in foreign affairs to the United Nations.
There is little differentiation among demographic and political groups in the United States on this issue. The greatest differences exist by political party and ideology, but even these differences are only marginal. For instance, 30% of Democrats and 33% of people who define themselves as liberal say the United Nations should play the leading role in world affairs and all countries should be required to follow its policies. Just 18% of Republicans and 18% of self-defined conservatives say the same.
America's international role is bound to be the subject of considerable debate in this year's presidential campaign. Kerry has already staked out a more internationalist approach to U.S. foreign policy than the path Bush has followed during his presidency. But Gallup data suggest that Kerry is walking a fine line.
When push comes to shove, Americans want the United States to have the right to act unilaterally, and they loathe deferring to the United Nations when it seems to be against U.S. interests. The fact that public ratings of the United Nations remain as low today as they were a year ago suggests that, even in light of the United States' inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Americans have not reassessed their criticism of the United Nations over its failure to back military action.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,002 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.