Politics & Policy

Little American Love for the U.N.

(2012 Gallup, Inc.)
Contra some enthusiasts, Americans don’t broadly support the U.N.

Devotees of the United Nations are upset. The House Appropriations Committee recently approved spending “only” $3.5 billion on the U.N. and other international organizations — substantially less than the nearly $4 billion the White House had requested for FY 2013. Among the arguments raised against the committee’s decision, perhaps the least plausible is that the spending cut is “at odds with voters’ wishes.”

That’s the claim advanced by the United Nations Foundation, an independent U.N. “partner” that lobbies Congress and the president to support U.N.-backed positions and to maintain or increase U.S. funding for the U.N. American voters want Congress to fully fund the administration’s budget request for the U.N., the foundation insists. Its evidence? A poll in which more than eight in ten voters said the United States should maintain an “active role within the United Nations.”

It is hardly shocking that the U.N. Foundation would spin, to the U.N.’s advantage, a poll they commissioned to benefit the U.N. But why should U.S. policymakers pay attention to that poll rather than other, more impartial polls that show quite different results?

Gallup, for instance, which has tracked American opinion on the U.N. since 1953, notes that “Americans have never held the United Nations in particularly high esteem, with a historical average of 40% saying it is doing a good job.” In 2012 Gallup asked its standard question, “Do you think the United Nations is doing a good job or a poor job in trying to solve the problems it has to face?” Only 32 percent of Americans answered that the U.N. is doing a “good job,” compared with 61 percent who said it’s doing a “poor job.”

This is not news. In the 34 Gallup polls that posed the question over the past 40 years, respondents who answered that the U.N. was doing a poor job outnumbered those who thought it was doing a good job, by an aggregate score of 50 to 39 percent. And a Rasmussen poll conducted this month found that 49 percent of likely U.S. voters view the U.N. “at least somewhat unfavorably” versus 42 percent who view it “at least somewhat favorably.”

The U.N. Foundation reports that over 60 percent of Americans think the U.S. should pay its U.N. “dues” in full and on time. Is this outcome really surprising, though? Most Americans are taught to honor their commitments and be personally responsible.

But what about context? The poll never explains the reasoning behind the proposal that the U.S. withhold its dues until the U.N. demonstrates improved performance, better oversight, holding peacekeepers to account for their crimes, or other reforms.

The poll does, however, “push.” In asking whether U.S. membership in UNESCO is important, it supplies the following description of the agency:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, focuses on education, science and culture around the world. UNESCO helps prevent conflict and build peace around the world by promoting democracy, works to eradicate poverty, and supports education for all. They promote new and innovative ways to educate children in the developing world and help people learn how to provide for themselves.

The wording includes no mention of UNESCO undermining U.S. and Israeli interests by admitting the Palestinian Authority as a member state last year — and after the U.S. told them such action would trigger a suspension of U.S. funding. There is no mention that UNESCO is largely a facilitator, rather than an implementing agency, and that many of its functions could be performed by others. Could anyone doubt that the poll results would have been very different if that information had been presented?

Moreover, Americans might be happy to express support for the U.N. or a U.N. agency in the abstract, especially when told it performs a laudable-sounding mission, but they are much less pleased with other U.N. priorities. A recent Rasmussen poll found that just 5 percent of likely U.S. voters support a proposal that a U.N. agency regulate the Internet. Fully 80 percent oppose the idea.

Since the U.N.’s founding, the U.S. has been its largest financial supporter. Americans are currently charged with paying 22 percent of the regular budget and more than 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, although they are often disappointed by the U.N.’s inability to live up to its mission. The body’s inaction regarding Syria is but the latest example.

Fraud and mismanagement remain troublingly common. The organization’s oversight mechanisms remain inadequate, as a recent report by the U.N.’s own Joint Inspection Unit explains. Its efforts to address global problems such as terrorism, human trafficking, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have been weak, ineffectual, or counterproductive. Indeed, the U.N. cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism.

Many Americans support the founding principles of the U.N. Who doesn’t want to prevent war, promote fundamental human rights, or contribute to higher living standards? But Americans understand as well the bitterly disappointing reality of the U.N. and how far it falls short of those ideals.

American voters expect Congress to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, not a rubber stamp for the U.N. Our politicians should be vigilant, guarding against impropriety and waste at the U.N., and insisting that U.S. contributions to the U.N. advance U.S. interests.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.


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