TWO announcements in recent weeks highlight a sharp divergence between official United States policy and US public attitudes on America's role in the community of nations. They suggest that while Washington has in recent years acted to marginalize the United Nations and isolate the US within it, the American people are ready for imaginative initiatives to use the UN to solve major problems. The State Department has just released its annual report analyzing votes in last year's session of the UN General Assembly. This revealed that on divided votes the US was more isolated in 1988 than ever, joined in its positions by other nations only 15 percent of the time. A new Roper Organization poll, however, found that the US public gives the UN favorable job ratings for the first time since 1975 and supports giving the UN more power to deal with such diverse problems as arms control and the environment.
The voting report highlights controversial disputes and often obscures vital interests the US shares with other nations. After all, the report's dismal numbers for 1988 coincided with a string of striking UN successes. Yet right-wing critics cite it to support a strategy of unilateral assertiveness, adding to such past practices as funding withholdings, agency walkouts, and World Court repudiation.
Instead of restoring American credibility and leadership, Washington's truculence has weakened them. On divided votes in the General Assembly, even Western countries voted with the US only 54.7 percent of the time. In fact, on over half the resolutions the US decided to oppose, not one of its leading allies in the Group of Seven large industrialized democracies supported its position.
On a quarter of these, it is true, the question dealt with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Its special relationship with Israel at times places the US at variance with major allies. But most of the US estrangement from allies took place on other issues. Sometimes this reflected the Reagan administration's resistance to global action against apartheid and its suspicions about disarmament; many times it demonstrated an idiosyncratic conservatism.
The US was the only country to vote against a call to protect the human rights of migrant workers. It alone opposed endorsement of cooperation between the UN and the Organization of African Unity. It alone voted against consideration of naval disarmament and of multilateral verification of arms control agreements. Only Israel joined it in opposing a resolution calling for compliance with the World Court's ruling on Nicaragua; only Turkey in opposing the Law of the Sea.
To a remarkable degree many of these solitary positions, as well as the instinctive reflex to go it alone and eschew the UN machinery, contradict the sentiment of the public at large. The new Roper survey, done for the UN Association of the US, found that an overwhelming four-to-one majority of Americans believes the US should abide by adverse decisions of the World Court rather than ignore them. Support for respecting the Court's rulings is equally lopsided among self-identified conservatives, among Republicans, and even among those who rate the UN's overall performance poorly.
By a significant margin, Americans support giving the UN power to control the spread and manufacture of chemical weapons (49 to 33 percent), and even of nuclear weapons (46 to 36 percent).
Asked whether the US should intervene with its own forces in regional conflicts to produce a result advantageous to US interests, or support US intervention to produce some accommodation for all sides, Americans by a three-to-one margin support using the UN. This finding, with obvious implications for US policy choices this decade in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf, suggests that policymakers will find far more public backing for efforts to involve - rather than undercut - the UN as peacemaker. It should heighten administration and congressional interest in reviving UN proposals for an internal settlement in Afghanistan, now that hopes for a quick rebel military victory have vanished.
Americans reject the argument that environmental issues should be addressed in accord with the varying priorities of individual countries. They prefer, instead, giving the UN power to deal with environmental problems worldwide (56 to 27 percent). An even larger majority calls on the US and other governments to provide more tax money to UN agencies for environmental protection (58 percent, compared to 6 percent that want such support reduced).
By a four-to-one margin the American public calls for more government funding for UN population control programs. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Bush administration has reaffirmed the sectarian negativism of its predecessor.
Clearly the American public has a more ambitious vision for the UN than some of its recent leaders. The Bush administration should seize the moment to build on this support with bold initiatives at the General Assembly this fall. Americans, after all, see the US not as a gadfly naysayer in global forums, but as a vigorous shaper of a better world. It is time to reconcile often crabbed US policies with Americans' common-sense vision.