Behind the Numbers

The New, New World Order

Do Americans still hate the United Nations?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

The United Nations has never been America's most popular institution, and it has received it's worst ratings on record in the past decade. It's derided as giving a platform to two-bit dictators and for 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 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 U.N.'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 since.

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 U.N. was doing a poor job. Ratings of the U.N. 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, thoughAmericans have given the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. 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 that 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 U.N. 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 U.N.'s role is not in question.

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Behind the Numbers

Politics at the Pump

Why do domestic politicians pay the price for a global problem?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog

Gas price spikes at home have the potential to focus American voters on global issues like limited oil supply, potential conflicts in the Middle East, and economic growth in China and India. Indeed, economists point to all three of these as key factors in gas prices.

But foreign policy has taken a backseat in the debate over gas prices, which continue to flirt near $4 a gallon, and polls show Americans blame domestic culprits just as much as global factors for higher pump prices.

Part of the domestic focus can be chalked up to the belief that the federal government is capable of solving the problem: 50 percent of Americans in a March Washington Post-ABC News poll said the Obama administration can "reasonably" do something to reduce gas prices, and 54 percent in a CBS News/New York Times poll said Obama "can do a lot about" gas prices.

From the street level, the way Americans experience gas price hikes doesn't lend itself to an international outlook. Drivers fill up at their local station, wince as they swipe their cards or dig deeper into their wallet to pay the cashiers, and drive away with less money. No part of that experience reminds drivers of an unstable Middle East, global oil markets, or the world's limited petroleum supply.

Political gamesmanship also may feed the idea that Washington can temper the ups and downs of gas prices. Public opinion isn't formed in a vacuum, and voters may be taking cues from their leaders that government is responsible for gyrations at the pump. Republicans have attacked Obama for high gas prices this year, just as President George W. Bush took heat when he was in office. Obama's presidential campaign has taken aim at likely challenger Mitt Romney, accusing him of supporting tax breaks for big oil companies. Polls show plenty of evidence of partisan assessments: Two-thirds of Republicans in the March Post-ABC poll said the Obama administration is capable of reducing gas prices, a view shared by just one-third of Democrats. Those positions were flipped when George W. Bush, a Republican, was in power.

Complexity of the issue is yet another factor. While a violent conflict in an oil-producing nation is sometimes an obvious cause of a gas price increase, the causes are much less clear on other occasions, like this year. One in four Americans in a February Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll did not name anyone as the main culprit for the recent rise in gas prices.

Despite the focus on domestic bogeymen, some of the public is connecting the dots between rising prices and international demand or conflict. More than eight in 10 Americans in a recent CNN/ORC poll said foreign oil-producing countries deserve at least some blame for increases in gas prices. In the Post-Pew poll, just over one in 10 Americans named Iran, Middle East unrest, and the threat of war together as the No. 1 culprit for rising gas prices, ranking third in an open-ended survey question. Some respondents also named China, India, or global demand.

And as long as the public debate and public opinion are focused domestic causes to heightened gas prices, few will look for foreign policy remedies.

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