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Who Speaks for the Public on Attitudes Toward the UN?

Paper prepared by Frank Bourne, LWVDC IR Committee, May 1998

Disconnect between Public Opinion and Congressional Voting: For many years there have been appearances of a disconnect between public attitudes toward the UN as expressed in public opinion polls and congressional voting behavior on UN-related questions. Numerous polls have been conducted on attitudes toward the UN and US-UN relations, most of them producing outcomes favorable to the UN. Surprisingly, although interest in and knowledge about the UN have been low, approval and trust in it have been high, surpassing trust in our own Congress. Most significantly, public sentiment for US withdrawal from the UN has never been substantial, ranging between just 5% and 20% in the last 50 years. Currently it stands at 17%.

PIPA Study: To throw light on the discrepancy between public sentiment and recent Congressional voting relating to the UN, an innovative two-year study entitled "The Foreign Policy Gap: How Policymakers Misread the Public" was conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. Results of the study were released in October 1997; these were updated in April 1998 to focus on attitudes about our dues payments to the UN.

Reveals Misinformation: The study was designed primarily to check the perceptions of policy makers and media representatives regarding the general public's level of support for the UN. It uncovered a surprising degree of misinformation on the part of all groups involved. Public support for the UN was greatly underestimated by all, especially by the legislators. At the same time, the public greatly overestimated the amount of money the US was contributing to the UN and was prepared to contribute more when they learned the true amount.

Congressional Ignorance: The study also directly challenged the views of anti-UN Congressmen that they spoke for their constituents. For example, PIPA interviewed the Administrative Assistants of four Congressmen who, believing their constituents supported withdrawing from the UN, sponsored bills calling for US withdrawal The AAs were shown the questions which, on a national survey, produced pro- UN responses; they were then asked to suggest alternate wording for the questions. The resultant questions were then employed in sample surveys of substantial size conducted in the districts of their Congressmen, yet the new questions did not significantly alter the proportion of pro-UN responses.

Key Findings: Some key findings from the April 1998 PIPA study follow:

  1. 60% of respondents favored paying UN dues in full, with only 27% opposed, a 2% increase above the opinion registered in June 1996. This suggests that Congressional opposition to the UN appears to have little effect on the public's readiness to pay what the US owes to the UN.
  2. 68% favored paying dues in full after exposure to arguments both for and against such payment.
  3. 58% support paying dues and oppose an abortion-related amendment.

Interpretation of Polling Re UN: In interpreting the differences between polled opinion and leadership action on the UN, it must be kept in mind that on a subject such as the UN, where mass public interest and information are relatively limited, the poll-expressed sentiments cannot be viewed as demanding action. Rather they indicate sufficient support to permit legislators and policy-makers to take pro-UN positions with minimal political risk. Further, the poll results challenge UN supporters in the non- governmental community to translate the invisible polling support into visible measures that the legislators and policy makers can endorse.

Media Attention: It is significant that this particular survey of opinion on the UN has attracted more attention on the part of the media as well as relevant governmental and nongovernmental organizations than any UN attitudes survey in recent memory. It drew front page coverage in The Chicago Tribune and was the subject of lead editorials in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor.

Major Public Support: Another indication that evidence of public support for the UN is now being taken more seriously than previously by opinion leaders is suggested by a two page “Open Letter to the Congress of the United States”, printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post on February 11, 1998. Headed “A time for American Leadership on Key Global Issues”, the letter was signed by one of the most distinguished bi-partisan collections of former government leaders and corporate CEOs (88) ever assembled. The list included two former Presidents and four former Secretaries of State, two from each party.

Among its points, the “open letter” includes the statement that “the vast majority of Americans support the use of the UN to address global problems. Non-payment of our dues simply reinforces a growing worldwide perception that the US is willing to go it alone and walk away from critical multilateral institutions. This is not in our self-interest.”

Some of the contents of the PIPA study were used to brief LWVDC Unit Meetings on the UN in November 1997, at which time considerable interest was expressed in using the study as a lobbying tool in gaining support for the UN. An Executive Summary of the study may be obtained from PIPA’s website:

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