Keanan Beatty; Alisha Bak; Justin Hansen; and Akanksha Mishra

The United Nations (U.N.) has been a part of United States history since the summer of 1945, when its predecessor (the League of Nations) failed to prevent World War II andPresident Franklin Roosevelt created a framework to establish the new alliance. This vision included the U.S., the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China, and later France, working together to provide global leadership (Bureau, 2005). These five nations—known as the “P5 nations”—hold permanent spots in the U.N. Security Council, with the ability to veto where other nations cannot. With each passing decade new generations arise around the globe,  raising questions as to the relevance of the U.N. and if it should remain a part of United States foreign policy.

While it’s interesting to dive into what the U.N. does, where American money goes towards, and what importance the U.N. may or may not have, this chapter is about something else—this chapter pertains to differences in preference for economic power and military power. Economic power, often referred to as “soft power,” is the ability to apply sanctions on another nation, have trade leverage, or representing a large foreign investor. Military power, in contrast, is “hard power.” The U.N. is often considered an outlet for nations to exercise soft power. By gaining consensus in the general assembly for a resolution, or getting new branches of the U.N. established to address a specific need of various nation states, the U.N. doesn’t often use its military might. Through the U.N. Security Council, military force can be applied, but it is rare due to the veto power of any single P5 nation. the P5.

This chapter pursues the following research question: How do Americans’ preferences for economic (soft) or military (hard) power relate to how they feel towards the effectiveness of U.S. policy towards the U.N.? To answer the question, we analyze large-n survey data from the year 2016. The analysis took the form of crosstabs, a chi-square test of independence, and a two-sided t-test. Our findings suggest that Americans who prefer economic strength (soft power) over military strength (hard power) are more likely to support the U.S. strengthening the U.N.

Literature Review

The U.N. is a rather polarizing topic nowadays in the eyes of the U.S. populace. Overall, 59% of Americans have a favorable view of the U.N. (Fagan & Huang, 2020). Data and research provided by the Pew Research Center show that there is a significant partisan divide as of 2019 between Republicans and Democrats regarding support of the U.N. Something interesting to note is that it was not until 2001 that the partisan gap began to widen significantly. Between 1990 and 2000, support for the U.N. remained generally favorable amongst Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, enjoying a favorability rating above 50% from Republicans and upwards of 75% from Democrats (Fagan & Huang, 2020). Fast forward almost 20 years, and data from 2019 shows that only 36% of Republicans had a favorable view of the U.N., while Democrats favored the U.N. at 77%. Independents remained relatively constant, at a 60% approval rating in 2019 (Fagan & Huang, 2020).

Central to understanding the purpose of this study is a basic knowledge of two primary international relations (IR) theories that underpinned the research question. These two prominent theories are related to the questions of preference for military (hard) power and economic (soft) power. The first of these theories is that of “Realism.” Realists recognize that nation states exist in perpetual competition and seek to maximize power in an anarchic world. This power maximization is more often than not done with military force to assert dominance over potential or perceived rivals and secure their position in the international order (Mearsheimer, 2001). Realists are often split into two camps, one being the “defensive” realist, which would support the idea that states maximize security to balance against external threats. The is the “offensive” realist, supporting the notion that states seek to maximize power to become a regional hegemon (Mearsheimer, 2001). For the purposes of this study, we assume those who favor maximizing U.S. military power would most likely fall into the camp of the realists and thus be more supportive of hard power, as opposed to strengthening the U.N.

The second relevant IR theory is “liberalism” (one of the other primary schools of thought in IR). Key to liberal IR theory are three specific factors that are argued as essential in promoting cooperation and peace between states. First, the presence of international institutions, and more specifically the U.N.,  are imperative to ensure peaceful resolution of disputes between states. These international institutions provide a place for states to address grievances and resolve conflict without resorting to war or other forms of violence (Shiraev, 2014). Second is the integration of various world economies through international trade. Liberals will argue that the more interdependent economies are, the less likely two states are to go to war (Shiraev, 2014). Finally, many liberals are proponents of the democratic peace theory. This theory in the liberal school of thought posits that democracies are less likely to go to war with one another. For this particular study, those who prefer maximizing soft power—both economic and diplomatic—fall in the camp of liberals.

Our study incorporates respondent sex to examine gender as a possible confounding factor between preferred power type and perceived effectiveness of U.S. support for the U.N. Gender, as it pertains to support of hard (military) or soft (economic) power, has some subtle differences and implications. Eichenberg’s (2016) findings mirror much of the previous work done on this topic—that women on average tend to show less enthusiasm for military power. Men, on the other hand, tend to have higher levels of support for conflict and military intervention. Something interesting to note is that in this study, there was a decent amount of variation regarding the circumstances in which hard power was utilized. For example, women tend to support neutral peacekeeping operations using a multi-national force, whereas men have a tendency to have lower levels of support for such actions (Eichenberg, 2016). Women also tend to be more likely to support military operations if they are done in conjunction with a multinational coalition. A final note regarding the author’s conclusion is that there’s a decent amount of variation at the individual level as it pertains to certain circumstances, and thus it can be tricky to utilize a blanket statement showing whether or not there is a gender difference in all circumstances as it pertains to the utilization of hard (military) power versus soft (economic) power. When it comes to gender and the difference between how much men and women support the U.N., one study found that women are 9% more likely to support the U.N. than men (Bell et al., 2021).

We seek to understand how Americans’ preferences for economic (soft) or military (hard) power relate to how they feel towards the effectiveness of U.S. policy towards the U.N. The U.N. is almost certainly a pinnacle of soft power, especially when coupled with economic integration of its member nations. Understanding this question is valuable knowledge to any political science scholar, public official, or member of congress.

Research Design

To answer our research question, we examine quantitative data through a positivist lens. Using secondary data originally collected by the Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy in the year 2016 (Smelts et al., 2018), accessed through ICPSR (University of Michigan). The data were collected to be representative of the U.S. population, using a web-based application called KnowledgePanel and probability indicators to get a sample representative of the U.S. population, overall. The median amount of time taken to complete the survey was 20 minutes and the survey had a total response rate of 67% (Smeltz et al., 2018).

This study aims to determine how Americans’ favoring of economic strength (soft power) or military strength (hard power) is associated with their support for strengthening of U.S. support to the U.N. Data for the independent variable—preference for soft or hard power—came from a question which asked: “Which of the following do you think is more important in determining a country’s overall power and influence in the world—a country’s economic strength, or its military strength?” A total of 1,452 respondents favored economic strength, while 582 respondents indicated military strength.

The dependent variable was Americans’ perceptions of U.S. policy towards the U.N. Data came from the question: “And how effective do you think each of the following approaches is to achieving the foreign policy goals of the U.S…. Strengthening the United Nations?” The question gained 2,061 responses with 22 refusing to answer the question. The response options were “Very Effective” (498 respondents), “Somewhat Effective” (826), “Not Very Effective” (460) and “Not Effective at All” (255).

We also included data from two control variables were added to test whether a third factor had influence on the relationship between our independent and dependent variables. The first of those two variables was gender, operationalized dichotomously as men (1,029 respondents) and women (1,032). The second was political affiliation as Republican (635 respondents), Democrat (688), Independent (570), and Other (134).

We analyzed the data in R Studio, using three methods of examining the relationship between the independent and dependent variables: The first was crosstabs (Table 1) displaying the percentage breakdown of how those that answered whether they favored economic or military strength answered and how they felt about the U.S. supporting the U.N. The second was a chi-square test of independence which displays whether the outcome of how someone answered the U.N. question was dependent on their grouping (i.e. economic or military). The third was an independent means t-test to determine the statistical significance of our results. For both the chi-square test of independence and the t-test we set our p-value level threshold of statistical significance at 0.05. Additional testing was performed to see whether gender or political affiliation changed our findings, using multi-level crosstabs.


On the logic of the literature outlined above, the hypotheses our analyses test are:

H0: There is no relationship between Americans’ preferences for economic (soft) or military (hard) power and their perceived effectiveness of increased U.S. support for the U.N.

H1: Americans who favor economic (soft) power are more likely to perceive increasing U.S. support for the U.N. as an effective policy that their counterparts that favor military (hard) power.

Upon examining the relationship between the independent variable and the dependent variable in Table 1 there is a slight difference in the percentages based on how those that favor economic or military power answered how they feel about the U.S. supporting the U.N. While the “very effective” column is almost identical between the two, when examining the “somewhat effective” and the “not very effective” columns the difference bears out. In total, those that favored economic power somewhat and strongly agreed with the U.S. supporting the U.N. at 68.35% while those that favored military power were at 58.6% in agreeing to support the U.S. strengthening the U.N. It shows a near 10% difference gave us confidence that this is a meaningful difference. A chi-square test of independence on the Table 1 crosstabs indicated a p-value of 6.03e^-5 (well below the threshold of 0.05), indicating that how respondents perceive increasing U.S. support for the U.N. is very likely related to whether they favor economic or military strength.


Table 1. Respondents’ perceptions of U.S. support for the U.N. by preference for power type
Very effective Somewhat effective Not very effective Not effective at all
Economic (soft) power 25.00% 43.35% 21.36% 10.58%
Military (hard) power 24.00% 34.60% 25.61% 16.26%

Next, an independent two-tailed t-test to examine the difference of means between the two groups indicated similar results. The t-test came back with a p-value of 2.2e^-16 which is also much lower than the 0.05 probability threshold. This indicates that it is unlikely that the relationship was arrived at by random chance, and suggests a relationship between respondents’ preference for hard or soft power and their support for strengthening the U.N.

Our several analyses show that the independent variable has influenced the outcome of the dependent variable. The alternative hypothesis (H1) can be accepted and confirmed that if one favors economic or soft power then they are more likely to support the U.N. over those that favor military or hard power. This of course may not be much of a shock in international relations theory, as liberals are more in favor of international institutions and cooperation over Realists.

Next we tested for the confounding effects of two possible variables. Based on the literature, it seemed that women would be more in favor of cooperation versus men, and therefore more likely to support the U.N. Secondly, it was assumed that political parties determined one’s desire for the U.S. to support the U.N. Over the last decade, Republicans have been more against international organizations and in favor of unilateralism when the U.S. makes foreign policy decisions (Busby & Monten, 2012). Democrats tend to favor international cooperation and are not as favorable towards the recent military conflicts the U.S. has engaged in (although military engagement is unfavorable across the board for a war-fatigued nation; Krieg, 2016).

When examining Table 2 and the breakdown of gender among those that favor economic (soft) versus military (hard) power, some interesting indicators appear. Women that favor economic power overwhelmingly agree that the U.S. should support the U.N. at 76.69% while men that favored economic power only agreed at 58.94%. This was about an 18% difference. There was only a 7% difference between women that favored military power and men that favored military power. When gender is taken into account it seems to display that women seem to support strengthening the U.N. more than men do but it’s a much starker contrast from the women that favored economic power compared to the men that did. After this analysis with the gender variable it shows that our main finding of those that favor economic (soft) power supporting the U.N. has not changed. However, it has been broken down further and displays that gender matters to some extent.


Table 2. Findings by respondent sex
Very effective Somewhat effective Not very effective Not effective at all
Economic power 28.63% 33.59% 25.95% 11.83%
Military power 31.30% 45.39% 17.21% 6.10%
Economic power 19.30% 35.44% 25.32% 19.94%
Military power 17.74% 41.20% 25.75% 15.31%

Finally, political affiliation was examined (Table 3). An overwhelming 83.21% of Democrats that favored economic power and 85.42% of Democrats that favored military power support the U.S. strengthening the U.N. Meanwhile, only 52.58% of Republicans that favor economic power and 48.83% of Republicans that favor military power support the U.S. strengthening the U.N. The differences are vast and suggest that political party affiliation might have more bearing on whether an American supports strengthening the U.N. than whether they favor economic or military power. After this analysis with the political affiliation variable it shows that our main finding of those that favor economic (soft) power supporting the U.N. has not changed. However, it has been broken down further and displays that political party affiliation matters to a great extent.


Table 3. Findings by political party affiliation
Very effective Somewhat effective Not very effective Not effective at all
Economic power 15.72% 36.86% 28.46% 18.97%
Military power 17.00% 30.83% 29.25% 22.92%
Economic power 34.70% 48.51% 14.55% 2.24%
Military power 36.11% 49.31% 11.11% 3.47%
Economic power 20.92% 41.36% 24.33% 13.38%
Military power 20.83% 28.47% 33.33% 17.36%
Economic power 16.49% 47.42% 23.71% 12.37%
Military power 31.25% 25.00% 25.00% 18.75%



While they may be abstract theories to many people, the tenets of Realism and Liberalism are still present in Americans foreign policy thinking. Do Americans favor military intervention? Cooperation or peace? Do people view economic strength as real power, or is it about the military might your state has? We aimed in this study to see if there was a linkage between whether people favored soft or hard power and if that influenced their feeling of whether the U.S. should strengthen the U.N. We relied on the answers from our large-n survey data and statistically analyzed it in accordance with what we were researching.

We are unaware of any existing study that has tested this theoretical relationship. It has always been assumed that if you favor economic cooperation or soft power, then you are more likely to favor international organizations and institutions such as the U.N. It is a basic aspect of the theory. Realism is a little more complicated. While Realists typically favor military power or hard power, they are also not eager to use it unless necessary. They favor isolation unless a state needs to fight for its survival. Based on our findings there was a statistically significant relationship between whether people supported economic or military strength and if they agreed that the U.S. should support the U.N. Table 1, an unpaired two-sided t-test, a chi-square test of independence all confirmed that there is a statistically significant relationship between the two groups. Americans that favor economic, or soft power, agree that the U.S. should strengthen the U.N. more than those that favor military or hard power. This would fit in line with the theories of Realism and Liberalism.

Our literature review noted that men have a higher tendency to be in favor of military intervention or conflict than women. Women are more willing to engage in cooperation. Our data supported this notion. Women were overwhelmingly more likely to agree that the U.S. should strengthen the U.N. over their male counterparts, regardless of whether they favored military or economic strength. Although the chasm was most notably different between women that supported economic strength and men that supported economic strength (18% difference).

The literature also noted the massive divide between how Republicans, Independents, and Democrats feel about the U.N. Especially how this divide has deepened over the last 20 years. In our data, we found that regardless of how an individual feels about economic or military power, that political affiliation is in sync across the board. Table 3 displays not much difference between how Democrats (support the U.N.) or Republicans (not as supportive of the U.N.) feel about the U.S. strengthening the U.N. based on favoring economic or military power. Independents and Other party affiliations have much more of a divide based on favoring economic or military strength.

Notably, it was found that regardless of gender, or political ideology, Americans favor the U.N. This has made the U.N. a staple in American foreign policy as the U.N embodies essential American ideals of government, relationships between governments, relationships between human individuals, and government and society. The U.N. is especially valued in matters of global or multilateral significance, as this allows the U.S. to approach situations universally while remaining free (Executive, 1950). Thus, the U.S. has become one of the largest contributors to the U.N. and secured one of five permanent seats among the U.N.

Real-world implications of our study include the potential for policymakers and political leaders to tailor their messaging to the particular sort of constituent they aim to represent. This would allow a more granular understanding of how and why the U.S. population supports the U.N., and in what circumstances they do not. A Republican candidate, for example, may not be too terribly inclined to make overt statements of support for the U.N., while a Democratic candidate would likely benefit from such statements. Without such understanding, policymakers would potentially be operating in the dark in a needless fashion.

This study is not without its limitations. The raw data and survey sampling we pulled from was collected responsibly and professionally but the questions were not necessarily directly related to what we were studying. Overall our dependent variable could have better been supported with a simpler question “Do you support the U.N.?” Instead of the ordinal framework, the study’s question was asked. The independent variable would have been more to the point if it was asked, “Do you support hard or soft power?” We see the differences. Additionally, we found much more support from demographic indicators answering our hypothesis than the independent variable we chose. We could have looked more into other demographic indicators such as age, religion, education, income, and race. Feeding off of that last point we acknowledge that there is a more statistically sophisticated way of analyzing our data that could have included all of those control variables. A linear regression model may have been a better tool of analysis. While we tried to ethically use data to make a generalization based on certain factors we understand that surveys in general always come with limitations and no concrete statements can be drawn from our analyses.

Recommendations for future study include studying how American’s might subscribe to international theories such as Realism or Liberalism. Why women are more in favor of cooperation over men. Why do Democrats favor the U.N. so greatly over Republicans regardless of whether they favor economic or military power? Additional future studies could be done to determine exactly what Americans know about the U.N. and its functions.


Throughout this paper we have attempted to answer the question, does Americans’ desire for soft (economic) power or hard (military) power affect how they feel about the U.S. strengthening the U.N.? We attempted to answer this by analyzing over 2,000 responses from the Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy. We analyzed Americans’ perceptions towards foreign policy through the theoretical lenses of Liberalism and Realism. The independent variable asked whether respondents favored economic (soft) or military (hard) power and this was tested against our dependent variable in how Americans feel towards the U.S. strengthening the U.N. Using various statistical analyses we showed that Americans that preferred economic power were more supportive of the U.N. Thus, the hypothesis H1 is accepted, and H0 is rejected. When we tested for control variables such as Gender and Political Affiliation, we discovered they matter a great deal and have significant influence over how Americans feel about strengthening the U.N. We suggest for future study, researchers should look into why demographic factors have so much influence over the perception of the U.N. Lastly, we find that our study is important for policymakers, researchers, politicians, or just the American public in general. Knowing which Americans support the U.N. and why they support the U.N. is extremely valuable in understanding how to frame foreign policy discussions going forward. The U.S. continues to rely on the U.N. to maintain a “universal” appearance for the U.S., but this also allows the U.S. to maintain its free status when they deem fit.


Bell, J., Poushter, J., Fagan, M., Kent, N., & Moncus, J. J. (2021, May 10). How 14 Countries View International Cooperation as UN turns 75. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/21/international-cooperation-welcomed-across-14-advanced-economies/.

Brenan, M. (2020). Majority in U.S. Still Say United Nations Doing a Poor Job. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/288329/majority-say-united-nations-doing-poor-job.aspx

Bureau of Public Affairs. (2005, October). The United States and the Founding of the United Nations, August 1941 – October 1945. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/pubs/fs/55407.htm.

Busby, J. W., & Monten, J. (2012). Republican elites and foreign policy attitudes. Political Science Quarterly, 127(1), 105-142.

Eichenberg, R. C. (2016). Gender Difference in American Public Opinion on the Use of Military Force, 1982–2013. International Studies Quarterly, 60(1), 138–148.

Executive Secretariat Files, Lot 57 D 649. (1950, September 18). Department of State Policy Statement Regarding the United Nations. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1950v02/d13.

Fagan, M., Huang, C. (2020). United Nations gets mostly positive marks from people around the world. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/23/united-nations-gets-mostly-positive-marks-from-people-around-the-world/

Hart Research Associates. (2021). Index of Public Opinion on the United Nations and U.S./UN Relations. Better World Campaign. https://betterworldcampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/US-UN-Poll-Press-Memo-September-21.pdf

Holyk, G. (2010). Trends: U.S. public support for the United Nations. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 74(1), 168–189.

​​Krieg, A. (2016). Externalizing the burden of war: the Obama Doctrine and US foreign policy in the Middle East. International Affairs, 92(1), 97-113.

Mearsheimer, J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton.

Shiraev, E. (2014). International Relations. New York: Oxford University Presses

Smeltz, D., Friedhoff, K., Kafura, C. J., Holyk, G., & Busby, J. W. (2018, April 13). 2016 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy. University of Michigan: ICPSR.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Inquiry of the Public Sort, Volume 2 Copyright © 2021 by Keanan Beatty; Alisha Bak; Justin Hansen; and Akanksha Mishra is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book