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Global citizens want a stronger and more democratic United Nations

We surveyed people in Argentina, China, India, Russia, Spain and the U.S. to gauge public support for changes to the U.N. system

The United Nations headquarters in 2020. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited long-standing debates on changing the United Nations. In April, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted that “[t]he U.N. system must be reformed immediately so that the right of veto is not a right to kill” and to ensure “a fair representation of all regions of the world in the Security Council.” At the U.N. General Assembly in September, President Biden called for the U.N. to “become more inclusive so that it can better respond to the needs of today’s world.”

Political leaders, nongovernmental organizations and other advocates worldwide have similarly called for major changes at the U.N. for decades, but such initiatives have fallen short. Commentators and scholars typically seek to explain this outcome by highlighting the opposing strategic interests of dominant, declining and emerging powers. More recently, some observers claim that citizens are increasingly hostile to strengthening international institutions — instead, they want their leaders to protect national sovereignty.

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Our research, in contrast, found that most people indeed support increasing, or at least maintaining, U.N. authority over its members, and making U.N. structures more directly representative of citizens. While major obstacles stand in the way of making the U.N. stronger and more representative, widespread public hostility to such ideas doesn’t seem to be among them.

A new international survey on U.N. design

The U.N. Charter explicitly rests on the authority of “We the Peoples of the United Nations,” yet those peoples have rarely been consulted about the U.N.’s design. Our guiding question therefore has been: What do citizens think of the U.N. as it is, and how do they view proposals to transform it? Existing research offers limited insight. The World Values Survey, for example, enables researchers to study public trust in the U.N. across a wide range of countries — but captures attitudes toward the current U.N., absent any proposed changes. Other surveys provide valuable information on how much authority citizens would like international organizations to have, but not on how they want that authority to be exercised. On the whole, there’s been relatively little data about how citizens would like the U.N. to be organized and what powers they want it to have.

To address this gap, in 2019 we conducted an online survey of 7,610 people in six countries — Argentina, China, India, Russia, Spain and the United States. Our samples were drawn from opt-in panels and mirrored the age, gender and regional distribution of the general populations of these countries.

We wanted to find out people’s views on which U.N. bodies should decide on important matters, how delegates should be appointed, how votes should be distributed between countries and whether there should be veto rights for some members and special rights for democratic countries. We also explored public opinion on the share of votes needed to pass decisions, how binding U.N. decisions in different policy areas should be, how the U.N. should enforce its decisions and how it should acquire the resources it needs.

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Which of those dimensions matter for citizens, and how much do they matter compared to other features? We ran a “conjoint analysis” experiment — an approach first used in marketing research to gauge the individual effects of specific product features such as price or design on consumer decisions. Similarly, we asked each survey respondent to choose between “alternative United Nations” involving different combinations of options that would make the U.N. more powerful or representative, less powerful or maintain the current setup along the nine design dimensions.

Citizens want a stronger and more representative U.N.

We found that survey participants support strengthening or maintaining the U.N.’s current authority level. They also want more direct involvement of citizens in selecting delegates to the main body of the organization. Currently, U.N. decisions are binding on every member state only on matters of international peace and security. Respondents supported a wider scope, including binding decisions on important economic and environmental matters. In contrast, the option of making decisions binding only on members that voluntarily accept them was the most unpopular proposal for respondents across all survey countries.

We also examined whether people thought certain countries should have special rights to veto U.N. decisions. On average, respondents don’t favor the outright abolition of veto rights within the U.N. system. Not surprisingly, participants from the three veto power countries in our sample — China, Russia and the United States — tend to support their own governments’ privileged status as permanent U.N. Security Council members. Citizens from the other countries dislike that status quo. However, both groups support conferring veto rights to other major countries as well.

Participants also support more democratic representation. The highest U.N. decision-making bodies include only representatives from national executives. We showed two alternative proposals in addition to this current setup: a second chamber composed of directly elected representatives and one of national parliamentarians. Respondents rated both proposals more positively than the way the U.N. now operates, with strongest support for directly elected representatives.

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As expected, we found that political values may contribute to diverging views on some proposed changes. But we also found significant similarities across ideological divides. For instance, respondents with different opinions on same-sex relationships oppose the option of making U.N. decisions binding only on those countries that voluntarily accept them — but those with a permissive view of same-sex relationships are significantly more opposed than those with negative views.

Overall, we found public opinion in our survey countries leans toward the positions of those who advocate for the U.N. to be more representative and to govern over a broader range of global issues. Proposals advocating for weaker international authority and fewer constraints on national sovereignty resonated less. This is especially notable given that our sample included some of the most powerful countries in the world. If political leaders decided to take concrete steps to make the U.N. more representative and better able to address today’s global challenges, our study suggests that such leaders would receive significant popular support.

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Farsan Ghassim is the junior research fellow in politics at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

Mathias Koenig-Archibugi is associate professor of global politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Luis Cabrera is associate professor at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations.