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UN Controlled by US?

Updated: Mar 10

According to our polls, members of the public in some middle and low income countries view the U.N. and U.S. as tightly linked. This blogpost was written by Azimuth advisors Charles Call, David Crow and James Ron.

When people think of the U.N., do they see an institution that is independent of the world's most militarily powerful country, or do they see an extension of the U.S. government?

To find out, we re-examined our survey data of 8,885 people from six countries in all regions of the global South. Our colleagues and we ran these polls from 2012 to 2016; they were representative either of entire 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.

We found a strong, statistically significant link between trust in the United States and trust in the U.N. The more people mistrust the U.S. government, the more they also mistrust the U.N., controlling for a wide variety of factors. The reverse is also true, logically: The more people trust the U.S. government, the more they trust the U.N.

This result is surprising given the American public’s understandings of the U.N. Whereas many Americans view the U.N. as opposing or constraining U.S. power, our poll suggests that people in developing countries think otherwise. We can infer that many people in the global South see the U.N. and the United States as advancing a common agenda. What’s good for America is good for the U.N., and vice versa.

Why are distrust in the U.N. and U.S. government linked? For starters, it seems likely that attitudes toward U.S. authorities are influencing attitudes toward the U.N., rather than the other way around; the U.S. is clearly far more important and visible on the world stage.

The U.N.-U.S. association, we believe, is driven by respondents’ view of the U.N. as a tool of intervention by its dominant member, the United States.

Given the U.N.’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq in the prior decade, and its growing role in global counterterrorism, people across the global South see the U.N. as reflecting colonial-style intervention, despite the U.N.’s prominent role in advancing decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s.

This finding of an association between U.N.-U.S. distrust is remarkable, insofar as it cuts against the prevalent perception among conservative politicians in the United States that the U.N. acts against U.S. 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 U.N. is advancing U.S. interests, not undermining them.


An earlier version of this blogpost appeared on the Brookings Institution website.