UN at 35: a pollster peers at a paradox

As the United Nations marks it 35th anniversary today (Oct. 24) more than two-thirds of Americans would either increase United States participation in it or continue US involvement undiminished. These are among the findings of a recent nationwide survey by our organization, commissioned by the United Nations Association of the USA. Yet the poll also revealed that more than half of adult Americans think the UN "is doing a poor job" and less than one-third think it is "doing a good job"

The feeling that the United Nations is doing a poor job -- yet should receive continued or increased support -- may seem inconsistent and contradictory. In my judgment, it is not.

These findings capsulize the American public's feelings about the UN. The majority who say it is doing a poor job are, for the most part, not condemning it. Rather they are expressing their disappointment that it is not more effective than it is in dealing with tough world problems. At the same time, they feel the UN is an essential vehicle or forum in today's troubled world even if it is doing a less than perfect job.

Asked which, if any, of five different things the US could handle better by working through the UN instead of acting on its own, only one in seven expressed a "go it alone" view by saying none of them. The top two items that people felt were more likely to be resolved by working through the UN were two tough issues where the United States has been singularly unsuccessful to date -- getting our hostages out of Iran and getting Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

The one-out-seven "go it alone" sentiment indicated by that question was echoed in another question which more directly asked people which of three courses the United States should take in dealing with world affairs. Seventeen percent, or one out of six, subscribe to the statement: "Rely on our own economic and political strength even if this creates economic problems for us and disagreement with out allies." The most subscribed to view was to "work closely with our friends and allies. . . . "Three out of four subscribe to one of these cooperative points of view rather than the "go it alone" appraoch.

The seeming inconsistency between thinking the UN is doing a poor job and feeling the United States should maintain or increase its participation in it is revealed by the answers to other survey questions. Two reasons that expressed the international "forum" nature of the UN were the top ones for favoring increased participation in its affairs. In a close third place was that "without the UN the danger of war is greater." This in turn was closely followed by a feeling that the independent agencies of the UN, such as WHO (World Health Organization) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) have been highly successful in their missions.

The chief negatives seen in the UN are that it is slow to act because of the number of countries involved and that it has too little power to enforce its decisions. Closely following this is that "the money we give to the UN is wasted on bureaucrats and too little reaches those who need it." Only about one in four are concerned about the US being outvoted or criticized by other countries, and only one in four think the US could be more effective in dealing directly with individual countries or groups of countries.

Despite real concerns about the UN's performance, this study, like other polls in the past, shows that the United Nations has a strong base of public support as it enters the next 35 years. If the survey contains a prescription for how to increase favorable attitudes towards the UN, it would seem to me to be to tell of the many successes of the organization -- particularly its specialized agencies -- as an offset to its highly visible failures on the tough ones.

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