September 21, 2009

Obama Addresses More Popular U.N.

Ratings Improved the Most in the U.S.

by Richard Wike, Associate Director and Jacob Poushter, Research Assistant, Pew Global Attitudes Project

In recent years, the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly has frequently produced controversy. In a 2006 speech to the Assembly, for example, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez famously referred to then President George W. Bush as “the devil.” For his part, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used his turns at the podium to speak strongly against Israel and the United States. But controversies aside, the United Nations remains a quite popular institution throughout much of the world. Indeed, its image has improved in many nations over the last couple of years. This is especially true in the United States, where attitudes toward the U.N. are more positive than they have been since early in this decade.

Most Rate U.N. Favorably

A 25-nation Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted in May and June of this year, found largely positive views toward the U.N. with majorities or pluralities in 19 of the 25 countries expressing a positive opinion. Moreover, ratings of the U.N. have grown more positive since 2007 in 12 of the 25 nations.

Europeans overwhelmingly give the U.N. favorable reviews. More than seven-in-ten in France (74%) and Poland (72%) offer a favorable opinion, as do majorities in Britain (67%), Germany (65%), Spain (61%) and Russia (56%).

The organization is also widely popular in the two African countries surveyed, Kenya (76% favorable) and Nigeria (71%), and to a lesser extent in two of the three Latin American nations included, Mexico (58%) and Brazil (52%). In Argentina, however, nearly half (45%) offer no opinion.

Many in Pakistan (42%) and India (27%) are also unable to give an opinion. Elsewhere in Asia, ratings are on balance positive, especially in South Korea and Indonesia both of which countries accord the U.N. a 79%-favorable rating, its highest marks on the survey.

In the Middle East, views are mixed. Most Lebanese give the organization positive ratings, although, as with many issues in Lebanon, opinions are sharply divided along religious lines, with 86% of Sunnis and 73% of Christians giving the U.N. a favorable rating, compared with only 19% of Shia Muslims.

Most Egyptians (56%) express a positive opinion. However, views in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories tend to be negative. Positive ratings for the U.N. have become much more common since 2007 in both Egypt (+12 percentage points) and Jordan (+12 percentage points).

American Views of the U.N.

In no country, however, have ratings improved as much as in the United States. Two years ago, 48% of Americans held a favorable view of the U.N., compared with 61% today, the highest U.S. rating the U.N. has received since 2001, when a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey found that 77% of Americans held a positive view of the organization.

The partisan differences that have characterized American public opinion on this topic for the last few years remain, although the U.N.’s image has improved across party lines.

Democrats continue to be the most positive, with 73% expressing a favorable view, compared with six-in-ten independents and about half of Republicans (49%).

There is also an age gap on this question. Fully 70% of 18-29 year-olds have a positive view, up from 56% two years ago. More than six-in-ten (65%) of those ages 30-49 have a favorable opinion, up steeply from 46% in 2007. Older Americans are more lukewarm – 54% have a positive impression of the U.N., a modest seven-percentage-point rise since 2007.

Opinions of U.N. Linked to Views of Major Nations

In the U.S., ratings for the U.N. are also linked to ratings for some other key players in the international arena. Americans who have positive opinions of China and Russia also tend to give the U.N. good reviews, while those with unfavorable opinions of these major powers also tend to see the international body in a negative light. For example, 81% of those expressing a favorable view of China also have a favorable view of the U.N., compared with just 44% among those expressing a negative opinion about China.

Elsewhere in the world, a similar pattern often holds — those who hold positive views about the major powers in the international system also tend to assign positive ratings to the world’s leading international institution. For instance, attitudes toward the U.N. are often linked to attitudes about the world’s most powerful nation, the United States. Overall, across the 24 nations (other than the U.S.) included in the Pew Global Attitudes poll, ratings for the U.N. and the U.S. are correlated at the .72 level, suggesting a close relationship between perceptions of the U.N. and its host country.