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Inspecting the Inspectors: Public Rates U.N.

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

The United Nations has walked a fine line regarding the Iraq situation, alternately playing the roles of peacekeeper and enforcer. The U.N. Security Council has been responsible for sending weapons inspectors into Iraq and for setting deadlines for Iraqi compliance with disarmament resolutions. Countries opposed to war have used their statuses within the organization to block U.S. efforts to begin military action in Iraq.

How do Americans feel about the role the United Nations has played? The most recent reading, from a Jan. 23-25 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll*, found that half of the American public (50%) said the United Nations was doing a good job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face, while 42% said it was doing a poor job. At that time, the American public was also positive about the job U.N. weapons inspectors were doing in Iraq.

History of U.S. Satisfaction With the United Nations

Gallup has been measuring U.S. opinion of the United Nations since the 1950s, and public sentiment regarding its ability to solve problems has varied dramatically during this 50-year period. Though Americans originally held the young organization in high regard, positive opinion of the United Nations dipped rather low in the 1970s and 1980s, bottoming out at 28% in 1985. With the exception of a weak period in 1995, perceptions of the United Nations have generally been positive since 1990.

The percentage of Americans rating the U.N.'s problem-solving abilities positively rebounded in January from a reading in the fall. In October 2002, only 43% of Americans thought the United Nations was doing a good job of solving its problems, down 15 percentage points from 58% in February 2002.

The most recent data show that opinion of the U.N.'s ability to solve problems varied dramatically by political party identification. While 65% of Democrats said they think the United Nations does a good job, little more than a third of Republicans (36%) said so. This probably reflects the more aggressive Republican stance regarding the use of military force in Iraq that President Bush advocates.

Although public opinion on whether the United Nations is doing a good job has varied significantly over the last half-century, Gallup historical data show that Americans have always been supportive of the United States remaining in the United Nations. Several times since 1951, Gallup has asked the public, "Do you think the United States should give up its membership in the United Nations, or not?" In January 1951, 14% of Americans thought the United States should give up its membership, while a strong majority (72%) felt it should not. This question was subsequently asked seven more times between 1951 and 1997, and the percentage believing that the United States should give up its U.N. membership never reached above 11%. (In 1997, the last time the question was asked, only 9% of Americans felt that the United States should give up its membership.)

Public to Hans Blix: Good Job

Americans may have had mixed opinions of the U.N.'s overall performance, but in the January poll, the public did give a very positive rating to the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. About three-quarters of Americans (76%) said the U.N. inspectors had been doing a good job. Just 17% said they had been doing a poor job.

Bottom Line

Public sentiment regarding the U.N.'s ability to solve problems has varied dramatically over the last five decades, and is somewhat reflective of the state of world affairs at any given time. Despite the difficult international issues facing the United Nations, as recently as January, Americans were somewhat positive about the U.N.'s problem-solving abilities.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, conducted Jan. 23-25, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.


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