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24 June 2019
A Challenge to David Brooks and UNA Members

by A. Edward Elmendorf and Richard Seifman

In his June 13,2019  New York Times article entitled "Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink", the Times’ senior columnist David Brooks wrote that " Americans simply want the US to look after itself", and not continue a  global leadership role in  the United Nations, the World Bank, and NATO, all  institutions created in the aftermath of World War II.  It is too bad that Brooks failed to reflect the views of more future voters in his article, nor examine wider public opinion in the United States on the United Nations.

Evidence suggests that, in emphasizing the situation today, Brooks ignored future voters:  Future voters want the US to do more than look after itself. The Eurasia Group Foundation survey cited by Brooks found that over one-third of American young people favor UN intervention in human rights abuses overseas. Promoting human rights is the most important foreign policy priority cited in the 2019 Harvard Institute of Politics poll of American youth. If Brooks had  attended  the  United Nations Association Global Engagement Summit in February 2019 attended by 1,800 people – largely youth - from across the country held in the United Nations General Assembly hall, with active participation by UN Secretary General Guterres, he would have understood that there is deep seated, growing conviction among young people that we as a country must actively engage in building positive collective international effort, whether with respect to climate change, containing infectious disease, promoting human rights, gender equality, decent treatment of those seeking asylum, or avoiding another world war.  On a more micro level, similar views were virtually universal among participants in the 2019 UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows Program. It brought together graduate students from the Washington DC area for a deep dive into UN issues ranging from threats to peace in Syria, to ravages of human rights in Myanmar/Burma, to actions in support of the UN’s Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.  

The views of young people are not alone in believing the US must do more than look after itself. Nationwide polling sponsored by the UN Foundation’s “Better World Campaign” (BWC) just found  (June 2019) that more than two-thirds of voters have a favorable image of the United Nations, versus less than one quarter unfavorable-- the highest favorable rating of the United Nations since BWC started its tracking in 2009.  Concretely, widespread UN support is reflected in the fact that Trump Administration budget proposals calling for major reductions in US contributions to the United Nations have been reversed by Congressional action – a striking inversion of roles which for many years had seen the Executive branch UN funding proposals substantially cut on Capitol Hill.  

While public opinion is positive overall, supporters of the United Nations cannot be complacent.   In the 1970s, popular support weakened following UN decisions unfavorable to US policies, reflected in a 1972 poll which showed respect for the United Nations significantly declining. This downward trend was reversed in part with rising optimism built on the ending of the Cold War and democracy on the ascendancy. Indeed, a poll showed respect for the United Nations growing, with a nearly 20 percent rise in support for increased US participation in the UN, from 1989 to 1991.  Nonetheless, in his 1999 book Mixed Messages, former UNA-USA CEO Ed Luck found support for the UN among the American people may be as shallow as it is wide.  

Now is a critical time for voices to be heard across the country in support for the UN.  In June 2019 the UNA-USA June 2019 Global Leadership Summit brought together 500 advocates from all 50 states for a record-breaking 322 Congressional meetings. This -is an example of how support can be garnered and demonstrated. But the message needs repeating on Capitol Hill, in Congressional offices, with local media outlets, and in social media, all across the country.