For the second time in 2013, the Better World Campaign (BWC) has released polling results that purport to show Americans strongly support the United Nations. The most recent poll, conducted October 5–10, finds that “the UN’s image is the highest it has been since April 2010 with a comfortable majority [60%] of voters saying they have a favorable opinion of the United Nations.”
This conclusion by the BWC, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening U.S. ties with the U.N., seems at odds with other polls. The most recent Gallup poll, conducted February 25–26, finds that Americans see the U.N. as “relevant on the world stage,” but “Americans are not highly positive about the job the United Nations is doing.”
When 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 35 percent of Americans said the U.N. is doing a “good job,” compared with 50 percent who said it’s doing a “poor job.”
This poll is consistent with long-term U.S. opinion. In the 35 Gallup polls posing that question, since 1953, respondents who answered that the U.N. was doing a poor job outnumbered those who thought it was doing a good job, by an average of 50 percent to 39 percent.
So why the difference between the BWC findings and Gallup’s? The polls are asking different questions. The BWC poll asks if Americans have a generally favorable view of the organization. This is a far cry from asking whether the U.N. is doing a good job or if Americans believe it needs reform.
The difference is critical because the BWC is using the poll to persuade Congress that Americans strongly support providing full and prompt funding for U.N. organizations without any conditions (the U.S. has withheld its dues and attached conditions in the past). Specifically, the poll reports: “Majorities of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats support the U.S. paying our UN peacekeeping dues on time and in full.”
This is hardly shocking. Most Americans are taught to honor their commitments and be personally responsible.
The poll informs people that U.N. “dues are based on a member‐nation’s capacity to pay or its share of world income” and that the U.S. pays 22 percent of the budget and represents 26 percent of world income. While that’s accurate, consider the sheer disparities: The U.S. pays more than 178 other U.N. member states combined and 22,000 times more than the least assessed countries. The U.S. was assessed nearly $600 million in regular budget dues in 2013, while the least assessed countries were charged roughly $27,000. The gap is even wider for peacekeeping, with the U.S. paying over $2 billion and the least assessed countries paying less than $8,000 per year.
No wonder a September 2013 Rasmussen poll found that only 23 percent of likely American voters thought that the U.S. should be the U.N.’s largest financial contributor.
Moreover, those polled by BWC are never informed why the U.S. has withheld its dues in the past. Americans would likely have a different opinion about withholding if they knew that lawmakers were trying to leverage U.S. financial support to encourage the U.N. to improve performance, enhance oversight and transparency, hold peacekeepers to account for their crimes, and end its gross bias against Israel.
Meanwhile, BWC exults in extremely strong support for certain U.N. functions. It asks how supportive the United States should be of the United Nations in “improving the health of women and children in poor, developing countries by making sure they have access to vaccines and maternal health care” and “working to better the lives of adolescent girls around the world by helping assure girls have access to quality education and health care, adequate livelihoods, and freedom from violence and harmful practices,” and “helping to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger around the world.”
Who doesn’t support those things? The surprising part isn’t that 90-plus percent thought that these efforts were important, but that the number wasn’t 100 percent.
The BWC was established to bolster U.S. support for the U.N. as part of Ted Turner’s “historic $1 billion gift in 1998 to support UN causes.” Along with its partner, the United Nations Foundation, it focuses on promoting U.N. priorities to the U.S. government — especially making sure the money keeps flowing.
You can hardly blame the BWC for trying to use polls to flack for the U.N. But Congress needs to understand the group’s agenda and view its message through that prism.
Congress has a responsibility to be a good steward of U.S. taxpayer dollars, not to please the U.N. Fraud and mismanagement remain troublingly common in the U.N. system. Its efforts to address terrorism, human trafficking, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have been weak, ineffectual, or counterproductive.
Congress has an obligation to ask: Is the U.N. is the best option available to advance various U.S. goals? Are American taxpayers getting value for their money? What can be done to make the U.N. more accountable and effective?
Americans generally 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 the gap between those aspirations and reality is wide. Congress can serve the interests of American voters by forcing the U.N. and its associated organizations to improve, not by funding them heedlessly.
— Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for International Studies.