11 April 1996

Press Briefing



Even as United States Government representatives were choosing not to support the United Nations, public opinion trends in the country were ever more favourable towards the Organization, according to survey results announced today at a press conference by the United Nations Association of the United States (UN-USA).

At the press conference, which was sponsored by the United States Mission, UN-USA Chairman John C. Whitehead said lack of support for the United Nations could be a significant factor in the presidential and congressional elections in November. The poll revealed that, all other things being equal, if one candidate for President wanted to weaken the United Nations and another wanted to strengthen it, 71 percent of Americans would vote for the one who wanted to strengthen it.

Even as the United States was $1.6 billion behind in payment of its United Nations dues and falling behind further all the time, Mr. Whitehead said 64 per cent of the Americans polled believed that the United States should always pay its full dues to the United Nations on time and should not withhold dues as a way of pressuring the United Nations to change its practices. "These are very large margins", he said, demonstrating that "there is almost overwhelming support of the United Nations from the American public".

The survey also found that 72 per cent of the respondents said they favoured a small charge on international oil sales to fund United Nations environment programmes, 71 per cent favoured a charge on international tobacco sales to fund disease-control programmes and 67 per cent favoured a charge on arms sales to fund peace-keeping, according to the UN-USA press release handed out at the press conference. By a two-to-one margin, however, the respondents opposed a charge on airline tickets dedicated to United Nations activities in general.

Mr. Whitehead, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, said UN-USA was a grass-roots organization of people, organized in 175 chapters across the United States, who believe in the United Nations and in stronger United States support for the United Nations. In particular, the organization believes the United States should pay its United Nations assessments.

The poll was conducted by the Wirthlin Group, which, Mr. Whitehead said, made its reputation doing polls for Mr. Reagan and other conservatives. It was an independent poll, but if it was at all biased, it was biased towards conservative attitudes.

Describing the poll's methodology the Wirthlin Group's Cindy Cox said that between 2 and 4 April it had surveyed by telephone 1,000 Americans 18 or older who lived in the continental United States. The survey had a 3 per cent margin of error.

The UN-USA Executive Director, Policy Studies, Jeffrey Laurenti, reviewed the responses to the survey's 14 questions. Forty-nine percent of Americans now thought the United Nations was doing a good job, and 38 per cent thought it was doing a poor job. That was a less favourable rating than had been found in the UN-USA's December 1995 survey, when the percentages were 54 and 35 respectively. However, he said, Americans were still giving the United Nations higher ratings than they were giving the Congress or the President.

As compared to a 1992 survey (conducted in the aftermath of the Gulf War), Americans were much less supportive of United Nations Member States, including the United States, making standing commitments to provide military units for use as a United Nations force. Only 22 per cent favoured such arrangements, with 72 per cent agreeing that "countries should decided on a case-by-case basis". (In 1992 the percentages were 42 and 45 respectively.)

In one question, the surveyed were told that the United States now spends about $270 billion on defense, while its share for United Nations peace-keeping operations was about $1 billion. Asked with which view they tended to agree -- that "United Nations peace-keeping helps preserve peace at an affordable price, or that it imposes burdens that contribute little to our security" -- 45 per cent of the respondents said United Nations peace-keeping helped preserve peace, and 45 per cent said it imposed burdens.

A correspondent asked how the apparent mismatch between American policy and American public opinion could be explained. Mr. Laurenti said part of the reason was that American foreign policy elites had tended to see the United Nations as less important than the "hard-security institutions". A 1995 Chicago Council of Foreign Relations survey had showed that strengthening the United Nations ranked among the top foreign-policy priorities of the American public, moving way up in the rankings since the Council's previous survey, done five years earlier. But in both the 1995 and 1990 surveys, only 20 per cent of the American foreign policy elites considered it a top priority.

"Much more of the inside the Beltway establishment is deeply invested in some of those hard-security institutions, and so you have almost a sacrosanct treatment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example, by individuals who disparage the United Nations", he said. "The public at large is much more willing to entrust to the United Nations management of international problems, whereas Washington is a very Washington-focused community."

Asked what might happen in the event Senator Robert Dole was elected President, Mr. Whitehead described himself as a "good Republican", but added

UN-USA Press Conference - 3 - 11 April 1996

he was strongly opposed to Senator Dole's views on the United Nations. Mr. Laurenti said that during the first Reagan Administration, a number of officials were openly derisive towards the United Nations, and a massive public relations campaign was conducted against the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in particular. The American public's ratings of the United Nations job performance dropped, but its support of the Organization remained strong.

A correspondent said that the poll was not reliable, since the American public had no idea what the United Nations did and that the 45 to 45 split regarding peace-keeping indicated lack of American support. Mr. Whitehead said the United Nations did a great deal more than peace-keeping. However, its performance in peace-keeping had not been universally favourable and, therefore, the polls showed less enthusiasm for peace-keeping than for United Nations work in other areas, such as protecting the environment, human rights and eliminating nuclear weapons.

Mr. Laurenti said a Gallup Poll in October 1995 had asked Americans about 20 institutions. The questions concerned whether each of them had too much power, the right amount or needed more power. The institution considered by the most respondents to have too much power was the Internal Revenue Service, followed by the American advertising industry and the American federal government. Of those institutions thought to need more power, the United Nations was number one, with organized religion and the local police following the United Nations on the list.

Asked if the Wirthlin Group's survey results held true in United States Senator Jesse Helms home state of North Carolina and if the UN-USA had tried to talk with Senator Helms, Mr. Laurenti said the results had not been tabulated by state, but there were no significant regional differences. Mr. Whitehead said that when he was Deputy Secretary of State he had talked frequently with Senator Helms, without a great deal of success.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.