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Review of Polling Finds International and American Support for World Order Based on International Law, Stronger UN

December 15, 2011

Digest of International Opinion on World Order
Digest of US Opinion on World Order
Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage

Newly updated digests of American and international public opinion polls reveal substantial consensus on concepts of world order. Large majorities support a world order based on international law and a stronger United Nations. American as well as international opinion favors the United States playing a less dominant but still active role in world affairs.

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and U.S. polls on the world's most pressing challenges -- and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of international polling on world order can be found here and the digest of U.S. polling here.

International Law

Most people around the world support an international order based on international law and treaties. In a 2009 WPO poll of 16 nations, in 14 a majority (including in the US) and in 2 a plurality said that international laws create obligations like domestic law, and believe that nations should feel obliged to abide by international law even when doing so is at odds with their national interest. Americans were among the most enthusiastic in endorsing this view, at 69 percent, slightly behind the Chinese at 74 percent.

Various polls have shown that Americans believe international law imposes constraints on the use of force and coercion. A 2006 WPO poll found 79 percent of Americans approved of "the international law that prohibits a nation from using military force against another nation except in self defense or to defend an ally." A 2006 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought that Central Intelligence Agency officers should be required to abide by the Geneva Conventions when questioning "suspects whom they believe have information about possible terror plots against the United States."

Americans show strong support for U.S. participation in a variety of international treaties. A 2010 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) found large majorities favoring U.S. participation in Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (82%), the Biological Weapons Convention (89%) the International Criminal Court (70%), and a new international treaty to combat climate change (67%, down from 76% in 2008). A large majority also favors having an international body, such as a court, to judge compliance with treaties to which the United States is party.

Role of the UN

Large majorities around the world endorse a stronger role for the United Nations. They support giving the UN a variety of expanded powers, including having a standing peacekeeping force, the authority to investigate human rights violations, and the power to regulate the international arms trade. National publics are more divided when it comes to giving the United Nations the capacity to impose a tax.

U.S. polling by CCGA in 2010 found majority American support for having a standing UN peacekeeping force (64%), giving the United Nations the authority to go into countries to investigate violations of human rights (72%), creating an international marshals service that could arrest leaders responsible for genocide (73%), giving the United Nations the power to regulate the international arms trade (55%), and having a "UN agency control access to all nuclear fuel in the world to ensure that none is used for weapons production"(64%). However, support for giving the United Nations the power to impose a small tax on such things as the international sale of arms or oil was just 44%.

Support for working through the United Nations is somewhat tempered, especially among smaller countries, when poll questions highlight the prospect of subordinating national policies to collective decision-making processes.

Large majorities around the world favor the United Nations having the right to authorize the use of military force for a wide range of contingencies. The approval of the UN Security Council plays a powerful--and in many cases a necessary--role in conferring legitimacy on the use of military force. Perhaps most dramatic, equally large majorities approve of the United Nations using military force to forcibly deliver urgent humanitarian aid if the relevant government tries to block the aid, and to protect people from severe human rights abuses even against the will of the government.

Publics in most nations say that when there are concerns about the fairness of elections, countries should be willing to have UN observers monitor the elections. Most countries polled, including developed democracies, say that their own country would benefit from such monitoring.

America's Role in the World

Large majorities in countries around the world, including the US, reject a dominant role for the United States, but do want the United States to participate in multilateral efforts to address international issues. Majorities, including among Americans, say that the US is playing too dominant a role.

In 2006, WPO and CCGA asked respondents in fifteen countries to choose the ideal role for the United States in world affairs. Presented three options, the least popular was, "As the sole remaining superpower, the United States should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems" with an average of only 11 percent choosing this option. However there was little support for the US to simply "withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems"--on average, just 24 percent favored this option.

By far the preferred option was that "the United States should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries." On average, 56 percent endorsed this position, which was the preferred position in thirteen of the fifteen nations.

CCGA polling of Americans in 2010 found Americans still largely in step with world opinion. Just 8 percent favored the US being the preeminent world leader, 19 percent favored U.S. disengagement, while 71 percent favored the US taking a cooperative approach.

Gallup has gotten similar results when it has asked Americans about "the role the United States should play in trying to solve international problems." Consistently, only small minorities have endorsed the option of the United States playing "the leading role," most recently 16 percent in 2011. At the same time, few Americans support the idea of playing only a "minor role" (25%) or "no role" (7%). The most popular option is for the United States to "take a major role, but not the leading one" (50% in 2011).

American and international opinion tend to agree that the US plays too dominant a role in the world. The 2010 CCGA poll found 79 percent agreed with the statement that "The U.S. is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be." When WPO/CCGA asked this question in 15 countries around the world in 2006, majorities in 13 of 15 countries polled agreed.


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