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The UN’s approval ratings– better than Congress

My friend and colleague, Erik Voeten posts over at The Monkey Cage:

A new Gallup World Affairs Poll shows that thirty-one percent of Americans say the United Nations is doing a good job of solving the problems it has had to face. This is a slight improvement over last year’s numbers but still low. Over at Opinio Juris, there is a debate on whether these low approval numbers reflect the ignorance of Americans about what the UN actually does. Perhaps, although it is important to put these numbers in some context. For example, only 18% of Americans gives Congress a favorable approval rating. More importantly, the temporal fluctuations in approval ratings are quite sensible.


Approval first dipped in the 1970s when the Cold War produced a stalemate that led to what legendary political scientist Erns Haas labeled “regime decay” at the UN. Just to give some numbers: between 1977 and the start of the Gulf War, the UN Security Council adopted only two resolutions under Chapter VII (resolutions that are binding and used to authorize sanctions and force).

This changed rather dramatically after the success of the first Persian Gulf War. Between 1990 and 1998, the Council approved 145 Chapter VII resolutions. Yet, some of those authorized missions didn’t turn out so well. One can hardly blame Americans for lowering their faith in the ability of the UN to solve problems after what happened in Srebrenica and Rwanda in the mid 1990s. Richard Holbrooke likes to say that:

blaming the U.N. for Rwanda is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly

Yet, this is not very persuasive as the UN itself acknowledged in the Brahimi report and its Srebrenica report. Surely, the UN bureaucrats can’t stop genocide by themselves but bureaucratic dysfunctionality didn’t help matters either, as Michael Barnett points out in Eyewitness to a Genocide.Approval then went up again around September 11, when the UN did act decisively, and dropped during the Iraq war controversy. We don’t know, of course, whether Americans lost their faith in the UN because it failed to authorize the war in Iraq or because it failed to prevent the U.S. from launching the invasion. There is probably some of each going on and both seem reasonable inferences depending on ones ideological starting point. In the aggregate, then, these data don’t give much reason to believe that the “public” is any more or less unreasonable in its judgments of UN job approval rates than it is in evaluating Congress or other institutions.

I think Erik’s analysis makes a lot of sense. But I do think that many Americans don’t really understand the actual nature and role of the United Nations. Of course, I am not sure the ratings would be any higher if they did. The UN does so many different things– Dr. Jose Sorzano, who was Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN from the US in the 1980s, used to say, there were several “UN’s”– the UN of the Security Council, the UN of the Specialized Agencies, the UN of the General Assembly, etc.  How somebody would rate “the UN,” would depend upon which of these “UN’s” that person had in mind.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.