Americans Remain Critical of the United Nations

by Lydia Saad

Nevertheless, most want the organization to have a meaningful function

PRINCETON, NJ -- For the seventh straight year, about 6 in 10 Americans -- now 65% -- say the United Nations is doing a poor job of solving the problems under its care. Only 26% believe it is doing a good job.


Republicans are more critical of the United Nations than are Democrats; older Americans are more critical than younger adults; and college graduates more so than those with no college education. However, the majority of these groups say the organization is doing a poor job.


Gallup measures the American public's attitudes about the United Nations each year as part of its February World Affairs survey. This year's update was conducted Feb. 9-12.

Though this year's 26% positive score is just one percentage point lower than last year's 27%, it is technically the worst job rating for the United Nations since Gallup began polling on the subject in 1953. It is also well below the U.N.'s peak ratings of 50% or more, obtained at various points over the years, including a 58% rating in 2002.

Americans have viewed the United Nations critically in the past. Gallup found just over half believing the organization was doing a poor job in August 1995, August 1985, October 1983, September 1980, and November 1975. And there was a particularly long spell, from 1971 through at least 1985, when Americans' U.N. ratings were typically more negative than positive. There is a gap in Gallup trends from 1985 to 1990, but in 1990, public approval of the United Nations finally improved during the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.

More recently, from May 2000 to February 2002 -- both before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- the United Nations received some of its best performance ratings. However, U.S. public perceptions of the United Nations turned sharply negative in 2003, when the organization rebuffed the United States' request for authorization to use military force in Iraq. Its "good job" rating fell from 50% in January 2003 to 37% in March 2003, and -- with several subsequent years of bad publicity surrounding U.N. mismanagement of the Iraqi Oil for Food program, sexual abuse charges against U.N. peacekeepers in Africa and other places, and various financial corruption scandals -- the U.N.'s image has yet to recover.

Down, but Not Out

Despite the seven-year stretch of negative evaluations of the United Nations, Americans continue to believe the organization should have an important role in world affairs.

Given three options for what kind of function it should have, nearly two-thirds of Americans either say the United Nations should have a leading role in world affairs, in which all countries are required to follow its policies (26%), or say it should have a major role whereby it establishes policies but nations can still act separately when they disagree with it (38%).

Only 31% would narrow the U.N.'s role to nothing more than a forum for communication among countries. This includes 30% saying the United Nations should have a minor role of this kind, and 1% volunteering that the organization should not exist.


From 2001 through 2008, the total percentage of Americans favoring a leading or major role for the United Nations varied mainly between 68% and 69%, with a slightly higher 75% recorded in 2007. Today's 64% is thus a notch lower than the recent norm.


Although Republicans are less likely than Democrats to advocate a significant role for the United Nations, a majority of Republicans nevertheless think it should play a leading or major role -- resulting in broad partisan agreement on this issue.


Bottom Line

U.S. public perceptions of the United Nations became quite negative in 2003, when the international body failed to back the United States' intervention in Iraq, and that has turned into a seven-year slump. Not only has the United Nations had no major achievement to tout since then to restore its image among Americans, but it has been weighed down by bad publicity over financial and other problems. If the history of public opinion toward the United Nations is any guide, attitudes could rebound, but that would most likely result from an international military event of some kind in which the United Nations is seen as a partner to the United States.

Notwithstanding the low esteem in which Americans now hold the United Nations, the international organization maintains its general appeal as an instrument for bringing nations together and even establishing policies for individual countries to follow.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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