Order from chaos: is the UN a friend or foe?
Many Republicans believe that the UN curbs America’s interests, but people in the global South often view the UN as a tool of the United States. Why?
As the annual United Nations General Assembly convened in September in New York, anxiety over relations with the United States under President Trump loomed. The United States is the most powerful member and largest contributor to the UN. UN officials had worried the president would engage in another round of world-body bashing, but wound up relieved by his faint praise for UN peacekeeping and refugee assistance.
However, Trump’s calls for state-centered sovereignty echoed long-standing conservative skepticism of global organizations. According to a 2016 Pew survey, a majority of Republicans believe the United States should not let its interests be affected by the UN or other multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization. In this view, the UN is a tool used by other countries, including America’s enemies, to curb US interests.
The Trump administration has taken up the banner of ensuring that the U.N. serves the United States and its security imperatives.
But do other countries see the UN this way? What do people around the world think of the UN and the Unites States? In conjunction with the UN General Assembly, we examined our survey data of 8,885 people from six countries in all regions of the global South. The polls took place from 2012 to 2016, and were representative either of countries (Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador) or of major cities and their rural environs (Lagos, Mumbai, Rabat, and Casablanca). We used established local survey companies to conduct these interviews face-to-face.
Surprisingly, the publics we polled all have middling to negative views of the UN. On a scale of 0 (no trust) to 1 (a lot of trust), Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Nigeria fall ever so slightly on the trusting side of the midpoint (.5), ranging between .54 and .56. Mumbai is slightly distrustful (.46) and Rabat/Casablanca are highly skeptical (.29) (see Graph 1).
These low trust scores are hardly the ringing endorsement we would expect if—as American conservatives sometimes argue—weaker countries and enemies of America use the UN to enhance their power, secure international aid, and curtail U.S. sovereignty. Our findings are also surprising since some other polls, notably one by Pew Research Center in 2013, found that publics viewed the UN more positively. That poll drew from seven Latin American countries and six African countries, finding that people had a “favorable” view of the UN.
Our polls include more recent opinions, and find a slightly less positive view of the United Nations.
Perhaps less surprisingly, publics in these locales have slightly negative views of the US government, with trust averaging between .43 and .49 (again, on the 0-1 scale) in India, Mexico, and Ecuador. Morocco weighed in at a negative .24. These polls were all carried out before the election of Donald Trump, whose speech at the UN. reinforced an “America First” perspective that has dismayed allies and reinforced detractors’ suspicions. Other polls have shown plummeting support for the United States during 2017. In our surveys, even backing from people in pro-US countries was lukewarm (Colombia, .53, Nigeria, .59).
"The more people mistrust the US government, we found, the more they also mistrust the UN, controlling for a wide variety of factors."
Our most interesting finding, however, is a strong, statistically significant link between trust in the United States and trust in the UN. The more people mistrust the US government, we found, the more they also mistrust the UN, controlling for a wide variety of factors. The reverse is also true, logically: the more people trust the US government, the more they trust the UN.
Graph 2 shows the magnitude of this linkage via regression analysis. Trust in the US government and UN are both scored on the same 0 (no trust) to 1 (a lot of trust) scale. Across all six countries/cities, when respondents trust the United States a lot (the scale is at its maximum of 1, to the right of the graph), trust in the UN is .62. When trust in Washington falls to the minimum of “no trust” (0, to the left of the graph), respondents mistrust the UN (average of .45)—a whopping decrease of 17 percentage points—even controlling for a wide range of attitudinal and socio-demographic factors.
This result is surprising given the American public’s understandings of the UN. Whereas many Americans view the UN as opposing or constraining US power, our poll suggests that people in developing countries think otherwise. We can infer that many people in the global South see the UN and the United States as advancing a common agenda. What’s good for America is good for the UN, and vice versa.
Why are distrust in the UN and US government linked? For starters, it seems likely that attitudes toward US authorities are influencing attitudes toward the UN, rather than the other way around; the United States is clearly far more important and visible on the world stage.
It is possible, however, that mistrust in the UN and US government are both driven by a general mistrust in international actors. To investigate, we included measures of respondents’ mistrust in the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in our statistical analysis.
Both the EU and IMF are more popular than either the UN or the US government in our countries of interest. Regression analysis, moreover, shows that the inclusion of attitudes toward the EU and IMF does not wash out the effects of distrust in the United States on distrust in the UN. Respondent distrust in the UN, in other words, may be driven by distrust in the US government, over and above any feelings respondents might have for multilateral institutions in general.
It is also possible that distrust toward the UN is driven by fear of unwanted human rights scrutiny, most likely by the US State Department under prior administrations. One could certainly imagine this being the case in war-weary Colombia and Nigeria. Our survey, however, shows that respondents generally have positive trust in local human rights organizations, contrasting their disposition toward the UN. When we include “trust in local human rights organizations” in our regressions, moreover, the association of distrust in the US government with distrust in the UN remains.
The UN-US association, we believe, is driven by respondents’ view of the UN as a tool of intervention by its dominant member, the United States. Given the UN’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq in the prior decade, and its growing role in global counterterrorism, people across the global South see the UN as reflecting colonial-style intervention, despite the UN’s prominent role in advancing decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s.
This finding of an association between UN-US distrust is remarkable, insofar as it cuts against the prevalent perception among conservative politicians in the United States that the UN acts against US interests and in favor of its global critics, especially in the global South. Thus, our sampling of the rest of the world suggests a perspective that the UN is advancing US interests, not undermining them.
The Trump administration has taken up the banner of ensuring that the U.N. serves the United States and its security imperatives, a theme invoked in Trump’s inaugural address to the body on September 19. It may also wish to ensure that the U.N. is not perceived even further to be a tool of Washington in order to enhance the global body’s legitimacy. The U.N., which should enjoy a modicum of public support, must work to improve its mediocre or outright negative reputation.
This article was first published by the Brookings Institution.
David Crow is an associate professor of international studies at CIDE and the former director of the Americas and the World survey project.
James Ron is the Harold E. Stassen Chair of International Affairs at the University of Minnesota and an associated professor at CIDE.