By Bill Miller
If someone in America listened to right-wing talk radio, Fox News, the Heritage Foundation or the isolationist wings of various political parties, one might erroneously surmise that the United Nations is useless, ineffective and is usurping US sovereignty, none of which would be correct. A recent poll indicates that those myths are not accepted by the bulk of the American public.
A recent public opinion poll was sponsored by the Better World Campaign (BWC), a sister organization of the UN Foundation, and conducted by two independent professional pollsters: Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates. The poll found that overall the UN's popularity is at an all-time high.
One finding was that respondents overwhelmingly believe the United Nations has important roles to play in Syria, and that the United States should be supportive of these UN roles. A whopping 92% believe that the UN should oversee the collection and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and should provide humanitarian aid, relief, and shelter to Syria’s refugees.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), established in 1997 and coordinating closely with the UN, has taken the lead to eliminate the weapons before the end of the year. In regards to humanitarian assistance, the UN agencies dealing with food, human rights, refugees, education, sanitation and other services are on the ground assisting the Syrians.
Arguably, one of the reasons for this extraordinarily high support is probably due to the fact that there is no magic bullet or effective solution to end the intractable Syrian civil war. Recent polls show that the majority of Americans do not want the US military involved, do not support targeted bombing, and are supportive of letting the UN attempt to broker peace and eliminate the chemical weapons.
Part of that stratospheric approval for the UN in Syria apparently carried over to the UN's image. In fact, according to BWC, an incredible 88 percent of Americans believe it’s important for the U.S. to maintain an active role in the United Nations. Additionally, the UN’s favorability rating rose 10 points from this time last year with 60% favorable, 9% neutral and 28% unfavorable.
Often, the UN's popularity can shift in a manner of a few days or weeks. For example, when the Security Council approved a 'no-fly' resolution that gave NATO political cover to restrict Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan jets from strafing civilians, the UN was viewed as being more effective and working cooperatively. On the other hand, when the Security Council was temporarily paralyzed because Russia and China threatened to veto a binding resolution against Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, it was perceived as ineffective and weak.
An ancillary issue that has sparked heated debate in some sectors, especially with a few members of the US Congress, has been the dues the U.S. pays to the UN and to support peacekeeping missions. The UN relies on dues from its 193 member states to cover its expenses, given that it is not a one-world government that can initiate taxes or levies.
Regarding the financial payback, various studies over the past several years indicate that the US earns about $1.66 for every $1.00 invested in the UN. The 16 UN peacekeeping missions are vital to the US because they bring stability to war-torn areas, keep US troops out of harm’s way, and are cheaper (according to the US Government Accountability Office) in that they may cost one-eighth of that of a US Peacekeeping Mission.
Poll respondents believe the United Nations supports America’s goals and objectives around the world with 63% supportive and 32% not supportive. The US and the UN System, although not always in agreement, have consistently had similar goals, such as rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, encouraging human rights, promoting economic and social development, reducing conflicts, combating terrorism, and many more. Some areas of cooperation are seldom reported on, such as working to move aircraft, ships, mail and weather information around the world.
Other BWC poll findings showed that significant majorities of Americans believe the United States should be supportive of the following UN programs and functions and view these as important roles of the UN:
-- 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.
-- Improving the health of women and children in poor, developing countries by making sure they have access to vaccines and maternal health care.
-- Promoting gender equality, women’s rights, and the advancement of women and girls around the world.
-- Helping eradicate extreme poverty and hunger around the world.
-- Building peace in countries emerging from conflict.
-- Taking the lead in efforts to address climate change.
Since the founding of the UN in 1945, various polls such as Roper, Wirthlin and Gallup to mention just a few, have determined that Americans generally support the UN anywhere from 45-85%, depending upon the issue and topic polled. Although the vast majority of the people support the UN, they do not understand the UN. This dichotomy is quite reasonable when one looks at the prevailing headwinds battering the UN’s image.
First, everyday there are major activities being confronted by UN agencies that deal with war and peace, refugees, genocide, health, international trade, drugs, piracy, only to mention a few. Although these are important issues, American media coverage of the UN generally is mediocre and, at times, hostile, which means the American public is not getting a complete picture of the various programs, both with their strengths and weaknesses.
Second, often when the media do report about a UN activity, they will say that an “international conference” was held, rather than the UN sponsored a conference on AIDS or some other issue. To compound the confusion, many UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, are not identified by the media as affiliated with the UN.
Third, large segments of the media will grab onto a problem in the UN, such as the transgressions by a small number of UN peacekeepers (out of a total of 120,0000) who may violate both the Military Code and people's human rights by trading sex for food or abusing someone under their protectorate. Although the UN has a Zero Tolerance Policy that automatically removes the perpetrator, that is often not reported in detail by the media.
Fourth, the virulent UN bashers provide a constant stream of nonsensical myths about how the UN is usurping American sovereignty, is draining the US's financial coffers, is undermining US foreign policy, and is totally corrupt. Much of this misinformation comes from a large number of radio talk show hosts who are both anti-UN and do not understand how the UN operates.
Public opinion polls are helpful to gauge the level of support for the UN and to point out where the media and the general public need to focus their attention to learn more about an organization that, although it is far from perfect, is necessary. This poll highlights that the UN is viewed as vital by the vast majority of Americans, and it should be used more aggressively to deal with thorny international problems that no one country, no matter how powerful, can defeat. The ideal situation would be for the American public to learn more about the UN's strengths and weaknesses, as well as contributing to making the organization more effective and efficient. As the maxim goes, “If the UN did not exist today, we would have to create it tomorrow.”
Bill Miller, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”