The United Nations has never been America’s most popular institution, and it has received its worst ratings on record in the past decade. It’s derided as giving a platform for two-bit dictators and being a useless, inefficient bureaucracy — see John Bolton’s famous quote (“The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”). To make matters worse, the United Nations is often tasked with the remit of solving the world’s most intractable problems — from ending poverty to stopping wars.
Today, the United Nations is grappling with the daunting task of winding down the ongoing violence in Syria. In addition to ending a human rights catastrophe, a successful mission could repair the United Nation’s precarious standing among the U.S. public, which took a major downturn in the run-up to the Iraq war and has yet to recover.
Nearly six in 10 Americans in February 2002 — 58 percent — said the United Nations was doing a good job, tying a record high in Gallup polls since 1953. But just over a year later, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found the opposite result — 58 percent said the United Nations was doing a poor job. Ratings of the United Nations failed to bounce back, bottoming out at 26 percent in 2009 even though Americans had soured on the Iraq war.
The falloff is meticulously catalogued in an article (paywalled) in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly by Gregory Holyk, now a research analyst with Langer Research Associates. (Disclosure: Langer Research manages the ABC side of the Washington Post-ABC News poll.)
As Holyk notes, while Americans have given the United Nations overwhelmingly negative assessments on its achievements since the run-up to the Iraq war, there’s much higher support for its goals and even for giving it more authority.
Nearly six in 10 agreed that the United States should cooperate with the United Nations in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, up slightly from 2009 and the majority sentiment for more than three decades. More than seven in 10 supported the idea of a standing U.N. peacekeeping force “selected, trained, and commanded by the United Nations” in a 2006 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Knowledge Networks.
Curiously, lower job approval ratings for the United Nations in the mid-2000s were accompanied with a desire for a more hands-off role for the United States in international conflicts. Nearly six in 10 Americans said other countries and the United Nations should take the lead over America in solving international crises and conflicts, according to a 2006 CBS News/New York Times poll. In September 2002, as George W. Bush pressed the United Nations for a stronger stance against Iraq, the public split about evenly on whether the United States should or shouldn’t take the lead in foreign conflicts.
The desire to play second fiddle was on display in 2006, when upwards of seven in 10 Americans wanted the United Nations to take the lead in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program; only roughly two in 10 wanted the United States to take charge, according to Pew polls.
One possible reason for this sentiment is the generally low priority Americans place on human rights issues, at least in comparison to other national and international problems. Fewer than one in four said protecting human rights abroad was a top foreign policy priority for the United States in a 2011 Pew poll — far behind protecting jobs for U.S. workers, terrorism, reducing energy imports, and cutting down on military commitments. And a 2011 CBS News poll found a split verdict (39 percent on each side) on whether the United States should use military force to stop governments who are attacking their own citizens.
Americans’ reluctance to go to war over human rights abuses leaves an opening for the United Nations to take on the task. Job ratings aside, American support for the United Nations’s role is not in question.
Foreign policy poll watcher: Most weeks we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.