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Americans Say UN Is Needed, but Doubt Its Effectiveness

Americans Say UN Is Needed, but Doubt Its Effectiveness

by Jeffrey M. Jones and Nathan Wendt

PRINCETON, NJ -- Two-thirds of Americans believe the United Nations plays a necessary role in the world today, unchanged from the last measurement in 2005 but lower than what Gallup found in 1997, when the U.N. was conducting weapons inspections in Iraq.

Trend: In your view, does the United Nations play a necessary role in the world today, or not?

The new data are from a Feb. 25-26 Gallup survey. While the United States remains an active member of the United Nations, in recent years it appears as if the United Nations has taken a less prominent role in U.S. foreign policy than in the past. Much of that may date back to the 2003 U.S. decision to invade Iraq, for which the U.S. sought U.N. approval but went ahead without it.

Nevertheless, the American public does still see the United Nations as being relevant on the world stage. This is the case even though Americans are not highly positive about the job the United Nations is doing. The poll finds 35% of Americans saying the United Nations is "doing a good job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face." Though low in an absolute sense, Americans' views of the United Nations have been trending more positive since hitting a historical low of 26% in 2009.

Trend: Do you think the United Nations is doing a good job or a poor job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face?

Gallup first asked this question about the United Nations in 1953. Typically, less than half of Americans have said the United Nations has done a good job, with 39% the historical average.

There have been times, however, when a majority of Americans did give the United Nations a positive review, usually around times of war or international crisis, including during the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars. The all-time high rating of the United Nations, 58%, came shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Americans' opinions of the United Nations' job dropped sharply in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and have stayed low since.

Republicans, Older Americans Less Charitable in Their Views of the UN

Opinions of the United Nations vary most significantly by party and age. Specifically, Republicans are much less likely to say the United Nations is doing a good job, and to believe the U.N. has a necessary role in the world, than are Democrats. Younger Americans are much more positive toward the U.N. in both respects than are older Americans.

Opinions of the United Nations, by Political Party and Age, February 2013

These patterns of age and party differences have been typical over time.


The United Nations has a role as a galvanizing force for nations in confronting global challenges such as peacekeeping operations, climate change, or setting international frameworks. However, the fact that it can act only by forging consensus among sovereign nations means it can be slow to respond and that lines of accountability for actions it takes can be unclear.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Americans tend to be positive about the United Nations in a general sense, but have been more critical of the job it is doing of addressing the problems it has been charged with solving. That may speak to the difficulty of these challenges, which in some of the more prominent examples involve getting a generally uncooperative nation to do something it is firmly opposed to doing.

Americans may also have mixed feelings about the U.N., given that United States pays a disproportionate share -- nearly one-quarter -- of the U.N.'s operating budget. The dues have been a source of controversy and several times in recent years, Congress has withheld U.S. dues.

Any negativity Americans seem to have toward the U.N. is not shared worldwide, as Gallup World Poll data show that in most countries around the world, citizens have a more positive than negative view of U.N. leadership.

Thus, it may be that Americans have an internal conflict between recognizing the benefits of an international organization that fosters cooperation among countries and wanting the U.S., as one of the most powerful nations in the world, to be able to decide its own courses of action on international matters that directly affect it.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 25-26, 2013, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 1,017 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cellphones numbers are selected using random digit dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, cellphone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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