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Transcript - Episode 35: Conversation - James Bell on pubic perception of global cooperation

by Karen Lee on 2020-11-13T09:00:00+01:00 in Politics and International Relations, United Nations | 0 Comments


Karen Lee: Hi everyone, my name is Karen and welcome to The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Geneva Library & Archives.

In a world where our every waking moment is seemingly bombarded by information from an only increasing number of channels, we are seeing the heightened importance of reliable, credible, and unbiased research. In today’s episode, we are joined by James Bell, vice president of global strategy at the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., where he guides international research, designs survey projects, develops questionnaires, and analyzes data.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him to learn more about one of the Center’s most recent research projects in which 14 different countries were asked about their opinions on international cooperation, and more specifically, the United Nations. We explored the various trends and themes drawn from the research, with specific focus on different global issues, the translation of opinion into action, and the way in which the younger generation perceived multilateral efforts.

A very fascinating conversation on the importance of data, we hope this episode offers you a fresh perspective on research and all of its findings.

Let’s go.

– Jingle –

Karen Lee: Hi everyone, welcome to The Next Page. Today we have a very special guest on our podcast, Mr. James Bell. He is the vice president of Global Strategy at Pew Research Center. So, hi James, how are you?

James Bell: I'm well, how are you doing?

Karen Lee: Good, thank you. So, you're joining us all the way from the States.

James Bell: Yeah, Washington DC on Election Day.

Karen Lee: Yes, that's true. Very important day today. Thank you so much for joining us.

James Bell: Sure.

Karen Lee: So, before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to dedicate your work to research, data, and analysis, and what motivates you to work in this field?

James Bell: Yes. I think, you know, everyone has different paths to their current jobs and their careers. For me, a very consistent theme has been a focus on trying to understand citizens, how they think, what they care about, and how they engage with the political process. And that includes what they expect of their elected officials and institutions in their society.

And I kind of see my career as having, you know, going through a series of concentric circles, if you will. I really began this path in the early 1990s in Russia, studying urban social movements in Moscow doing ethnographic research which gave me a very up close and very personal understanding of how citizens are trying to make their voices heard at that time, at least in Russia, as it was democratizing. It was very enriching, very powerful research for myself in terms of what I learned, but I remained curious about how do those particular voices connect with the wider society, the wider body of citizens in Russia.

So, I expanded to surveys and opinion research first in Russia, and then my next concentric circle was to expand to Eurasia, trying to compare across countries attitudes towards democracy. And then when I joined the US State Department where I was for about a decade, it expanded further, the concentric circles got larger to look at international affairs first in Europe and Eurasia, and then globally. And when I joined the Pew Research Center, what's been really gratifying is that I've maintained a focus on the politics of public opinion, but we also look at social values, cultural change, and really the big questions like globalization, and global challenges like climate change. So, it's been for me, a fascinating career and the consistent thread is being very focused on understanding what citizens think, what they care about and really what they want from the future.

Karen Lee: That's so amazing. I think increasingly, we are seeing the importance of data and just how much people really seek and want to know the truth in whatever circumstance. And the power of research is, I think, only becoming increasingly prevalent and relevant in our society today.

James Bell: I think the importance of data and having data to inform public dialogue, as I think you're suggesting, is hugely valuable and that's a core component of the Pew Research Center where I work, our mission. It's the belief that if you have informed public dialogue, you're going to be in a better position, better able to identify solutions that are effective and enduring. So yeah, I agree with your point.

Karen Lee: Exactly. So, just this past summer, you, along with a team of researchers, completed an extensive study serving over 14,000 people across 14 different countries on their opinions and perceptions on global cooperation. So, could you tell us a little bit more about this project?

James Bell: Sure, so this is actually, the latest wave of what we call the “Global Attitudes Project”, something that we've been conducting on an annual basis, a survey of multiple countries since 2002. And some years were in dozens of countries, this year were in 14 countries. And I can say a little bit about that in a moment. Two things really made this distinctive in terms of the research that we conducted. One is that we cooperated in partnership with the UN and the UN 75 initiative to develop a set of questions. A series of questions really trying to illuminate public attitudes towards, as you were mentioning, international cooperation and to understand what publics are most concerned about when it comes to global challenges. So that made this year different.

The second factor that made this year different was, and as it's made many of our lives different, is the COVID-19 pandemic. We pride ourselves at the Pew Research Center on conducting nationally representative surveys when we do our international comparative research. In emerging and developing economies, we continue to rely on face-to-face surveys to achieve those nationally representative surveys. In the conditions of the pandemic, ethically, morally even, we could not proceed with face-to-face surveys. It was too much of a risk to the people that actually conduct interviews, as well as the people in these countries taking the interviews. We didn't want to be a reason that this virus was spreading. So, we stopped to all face-to-face polling as the pandemic started to gain momentum and instead, we focused on the 14 countries that we did this summer where we could do all our polling by telephone.

Karen Lee: Right, it's so true that the pandemic and all of its implications have obviously affected so many aspects of our lives, but I never thought of the way that it must affect the way research is conducted.

James Bell: Yes, it's disrupted a tremendous amount of opinion research, survey-based face to face research, not just for us but for others. Again, in countries where that is the predominant mode still of conducting surveys, so it's not the case that all countries have been affected to the same degree.

In some countries in Europe and North America, you can actually conduct polls via the Internet, online, and in other countries, as mentioned, telephones are very viable. But in much of the world actually, face-to-face is still the best way to get that national representation of what citizens think, not just the portion of the population with the income to purchase expensive goods, you want to understand what all voters are thinking, for example.

Karen Lee: Very true. So, I know you briefly mentioned this, but to dive into a bit more there were 14 countries chosen to be pulled and surveyed this time: the US, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, Japan and South Korea. So, how were these countries chosen?

James Bell: So, as I mentioned one of the key considerations was whether we could conduct nationally representative surveys by telephone, so that's one criterion. But it's not the only one and really from a research point of view, it's not the most important when it was important to us was to identify set of countries where yes, we could do high quality research, but also, where we had a universe of population within each country and across countries that was meaningful.

And what we did in choosing these countries was to focus on 14 of the top UN donor countries. And our thinking is, here are a set of publics, a group of citizens who, in terms of their support and their attitudes towards the United Nations, towards international cooperation, are very influential on their national governments, in terms of how much those governments are going to back, participate in, and support multilateral efforts. And that's really what is shaping this election of 14 countries.

Karen Lee: This is very intentional. There's always so much detail and thought that goes behind these things.

James Bell: Yes.

Karen Lee: This research presented us with a highly detailed and thorough look at what the general public thought of international cooperation and multilateral governance, and I think that is something that is always timely but especially timely, I think, during these times.

But even in such a large-scale survey, there are always recurring themes and maybe even some anomalies. What could you tell us more about this?

James Bell: Yeah, I would love to get into some of the specific findings, absolutely, and I think you know there are some interesting discoveries through this particular project. I would point out first that to your point about recurring themes, we've been asking about international cooperation, even asking about attitudes towards the United Nations for more than a decade in many countries. So, one of the things we have as an advantage is, we have those long-term trends. I mean, why this year we wanted to return some of those questions and develop new questions about international cooperation was because of the opportunity to work with the UN and to be part of a global conversation.

Sort of, you know, we're part of that conversation right now about multilateralism... that was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. So, we wanted to get back to looking at these questions that we looked at in the past. You know, in terms of key themes then really, this question of international cooperation, I think, is the broadest theme that we are looking at this year.

And one of the big takeaways from the survey for myself and one that I would highlight for you and listeners of this podcast, is that despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we are not seeing a deterioration or a decline in support for international cooperation.

And I think, given the circumstances, I think that is a notable finding. Roughly 6 in 10, in terms of a median, a middle score across the 14 countries that we polled, say that you know a greater, not less, a greater international cooperation would have reduced the impact of COVID-19. So, they're actually telling us, if anything this was a case where we needed more international cooperation, not less. And I think that kind of finding, coupled with the fact that many say the World Health Organization... a very similar share, 6 in 10 say it did a good job handling the coronavirus pandemic. That is, as a result worth mulling about and taking note of.

Karen Lee: Yeah, definitely. I think it is kind of difficult nowadays, especially with our news being so saturated with so many different opinions and events that are happening around the world... it's difficult to even imagine a truly multilateral and globally cooperative world. But it is very encouraging to hear that many people are still in fact having positive perspectives and perceptions on this topic.

James Bell: Yeah, I like the way you just framed this question, because another finding from our study would seem on the surface to point in a very similar direction... and that is we asked a very specific question, a very I think important illuminating question about whether citizens felt their country should pursue its own interests, even if other countries disagree or in addressing international problems, should their country cooperate with other countries, even if it means compromising and not putting their own countries interests first. And there, the overall trend again is in favor of cooperation, in favor of compromise. That's a very real and important finding.

At the same time, I think it's notable that we're talking about substantial minorities in many of these countries in terms of the share of the population, saying, “No, our country's interests have to come first”. So, I think you're pointing out something important. There's a desire consistently in our polling for a community of nations cooperating.

But there are serious and significant questions about how one's own country's interests get reflected in that community of nations. So, I think you're pointing out something very important.

Karen Lee: Yeah, for sure. I mean the spirit of multilateralism is that everyone has this place at the table and not just, you know, big states, big powers, but all the more, the smaller, lesser heard, if I might say, countries and states really need to be part of that. And I want to echo what you just said.

Looking over these findings, it was very interesting... and I also love the way that you portrayed and visualize this data. It was beautifully presented, just wanted to say so.

James Bell: Thank you. In this day and age, I think you're maybe alluding to this, it's very important to visualize things for people.

Karen Lee: Yes, definitely. Especially big data like this.

And so, I couldn't help but notice that one of the main findings of this report was that younger adults were those mainly showing support or strong support for international cooperation and multilateral governance. And specifically, young people and those with a college education were more likely to hold favorable opinions of the United Nations.

So, why do you believe that is the case and is this a new trend or something that you've been seeing in the past years?

James Bell: Yeah, I'd like to begin with, actually the second part of your question: is this a new trend? And the answer is no. In our polling on attitudes towards international cooperation, engagement with the global economy, just generally engagement with international affairs, young people – and in our polls those are 18-to-29-year-olds, young adults – they tend to be consistently more open, more optimistic or positive about global engagement. So, it's not a new trend in terms of what we're seeing, which is the same thing in this survey.

You know, why is that the case? I think that's a really important question, one that we've started to dig into, but I'm not going to pretend that we have the answer. But the way we have thought about it is, it's a task of trying to understand whether this is about a life cycle, meaning, as people are young, they're more open, but as they get older, and their life's circumstances may change that they change their attitudes. Or is it a generational change? Meaning that we're actually seeing something different, and that this may last through the lifetime of younger generations. I will note in the United States, where we've been able to look at this more closely, we do see evidence that there is a generational shift, potentially around some of these issues. So, it's something that we want to look into more closely going forward.

Karen Lee: Very interesting. Definitely, we see these days... the younger generation, really, you know, just taking the reins and I think as well, that's because of the way that culture and technology especially has changed so much during the course of our lifetimes, as the younger generation. And we really have at our fingertips, different tools that previous generations just simply didn't have. And so, it's just a different way of expressing ourselves and I think showing up, speaking out, and really getting our voices heard.

James Bell: Yeah no, I appreciate you sharing that. I will admit I have three children of different ages – as old as 24, as young as 13. They span maybe many generations, but they all share, as you're pointing out, a different set of assumptions about how to communicate and a different level of... I would say facility with modes of communication, so I think you're making a good point there.

Karen Lee: Right, so what do you believe is the role of young people in such discussions? I think, just like we mentioned, and we just spoke about right now, it is increasingly clear that younger people, young adults are more vocal, more open, maybe like you mentioned about different issues, and especially as we are increasingly faced with very pressing global issues, which we will come to in a little bit, what do you believe is the role of young people in these kinds of discussions?

James Bell: Well, I will leave to you and your colleagues to make a decision about what is the role, I think that's in many ways, a political decision. I will say that our surveys, much as you just indicated, make clear that young people do have opinions and they do value their voices being heard.

So, I think the findings underscore that this group, this generation maybe, at least this age cohort is one that merits attention from institutions like the UN and other multilateral organizations.

Karen Lee: Very true. So then how can, in your opinion, international organizations support this inclusion of the voice of young people? Is there a specific method of communication or are there some questions that you have to phrase in a specific way to get young people thinking and supporting and advocating for what they care about?

James Bell: I think you're touching on several, I think, are really important aspects when we're talking about research among citizens in an effort to be representative, not just nationally representative, but I think now we're talking about representative across different age cohorts or generations. So, a few thoughts.

One, you know, just basic survey practice, best practice demands that you ask questions that are meaningful to people, so you take the time to test questions – we do, before we actually field them in an actual, you know, live survey, so to speak. You want to make sure people understand them, that the question is not distracting and causing people spend most of their time thinking about “what do you mean?” by that question. You'd rather have people reflect on what their opinion is or what their level of knowledge it was, for example, so that's just good practice when designing a survey.

But I think you're touching on something broader. One of the things, kind of tied to what you were saying before, I think is notable about what we did this year in support of UN 75... we were part of several data streams. Those data streams include analysis of an online survey the UN conducted itself, and I point that out in part because being online and asking people what they think online, well as I think we're suggesting, a lot of people live online. So, you have to meet people where they are at.

Another dimension, another data stream, was analysis of social media and you know, in this case, we weren't directly analyzing that, but I respect the decision to look at social media, we do it, particularly in the United States ourselves. It's another source of trying to understand people's opinions and what they care about.

Again, I think meeting people where they're at... and that’s a very key thing to do. I think that you know that's whether it's through a survey, or through analysis of social media, the act of listening is the unifying feature. And as far as what you ask, besides designing good questions, one of the things that we value at the Pew Research Center is the kind of conversation you and I are having. We need to also listen before we ask the question, so we know what is on people's minds and so that we can actually get better, deeper understanding of what people care about.

Karen Lee: Thank you for that. So, I spoke about this just a few minutes ago about the various global issues that are very pressing right now and there are a lot, but I think two are very important. The first being the pandemic, obviously so. And you also mentioned this a little bit before about how in most countries pulled those age 18 to 29 were actually more likely than those 50 and older to say that more cooperation with other countries would have reduced the number of domestic COVID cases. And so, we see once again here, the younger demographic expressing support for global cooperation in the specific context of a global crisis like the pandemic. I think that's very interesting and something worthy to note. So, could you share more on this?

James Bell: Well, again, I think you know this is not new that the younger generation or younger age cohort to be more supportive of global engagement, more favorable towards an organization like the United Nations. I think what I would underscore is that you know before the pandemic when we polled in 12 of the same 14 countries, there was a high level of support and it really didn't vary as much by age for international cooperation, for the idea of a community of nations. And then we have 2020, in the advent of COVID-19 pandemic.

And there's many ways to look at the pandemic, but I think in this context, in the context of this research, and in the context of UN 75 initiative, I think it can be seen as somewhat of a test of the commitment to international cooperation. So, I appreciate you highlighting that finding, I can't stress enough that is one of the findings that really impresses me from this whole set of data that when tested by a global crisis – and that's what the pandemic has been – it hasn't sapped support for international cooperation. And as you're pointing out among younger people in our survey, they’re more positive about international cooperation, including this idea that if only we had more international cooperation, we collectively in our own particular countries too, would have been better off in combatting the pandemic.

Karen Lee: I think that's a very interesting point you bring up about this commitment to global cooperation, especially when we are faced with a challenge like a global pandemic. It really is something that is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime occurrence that we live through, and even in the face of such an impactful and often devastating global issue, we are seeing continued and ongoing support for this global cooperation.

James Bell: Yes, and I think earlier you mentioned anomalies. I might call them outliers. I mean, we're talking mostly about general trends in our findings, but we do in the report from which we're drawing a lot of these references to particular results that was released September 21st and is publicly available in our website, you'll see a case study of Japan. And the Japanese public actually is an outlier or an anomaly, so to speak, from the general trend... more so than any other public that we surveyed this year in. Specifically, in being much more negative about the WHO and its handling of the pandemic, really experiencing a dramatic shift in a negative direction towards in terms of attitudes towards the UN. And also, really standing out as the one country more than any other that has a very low percentage of the population believing the United Nations takes its countries interest into account.

And I share all that, not to, you know, focus just on Japan, but just to stress that we should always in our surveys and research in general, and this year included, look at the general trends and look at the outliers, and I think the story of Japan as an outlier, in this case, at the very least, is a reminder that publics didn't have to have a positive attitude. It's not just you know, a nice thing. It's a global crisis, and the fact that you see generally positive marks for the WHO, and generally positive marks for the UN... again, I think is notable in this year.

Karen Lee: Yes, absolutely. So, the second topic that I wanted to explore was that of climate change and this is really such an important issue that of course the entire world is facing. But I think especially is important to the younger generation as we are inheriting this earth and we are thinking of our future and the future of our own families. And so, in the context of climate change, as well as tackling infectious disease, majorities in most countries surveyed agreed that the UN was effective in handling these issues. However, there were some exceptions and outliers like you mentioned, so could you tell us a little bit more about this?

James Bell: Sure, first I want to say, I shared your reaction to these findings. One of the more surprising results for me as a researcher who's been looking at some of these issues again for a number of years is that climate change, which over the past decade has emerged as more and more a global top concern did not fade in significance in this year of COVID-19. COVID-19 is basically equal in prominence to climate change, but climate change is right there still as a top concern, so I appreciate you highlighting that... I also remarked in that as I looked at the findings. You're also pointing out that when it comes to UN and its role on climate change, the overall finding is that across these countries, about 6 in 10 say that they UN does promote action on climate change, but behind that is some variation and different opinions. So, you have a country like Germany where only 46% of the public agrees that the UN promotes action on climate change.

Now you ask a tough question which is, you know, what explains that difference in Germany compared to other countries, for example. And the first thing I would say is you have to admit that societies, and public opinion included, are open systems, so you know it's not always possible to disentangle or identify this one factor.

But a couple of things I would say just from our survey this year that are notable with regard to Germany is that overall, Germans seem to be a bit more critical of the UN. So, there are, you know, favorable scores toward the UN, and its activities are a bit lower than some of the other countries, including in Europe in particular.

At the same time, I would point out that Germans are very clear that climate change is their top concern, which I think you know, one could arguably say that that suggests that they want to see action on it, and maybe you know their expectations are such that they haven't seen enough action, but I would be cautious to presume that we know the answer from this data alone.

I think that, you know, I look at the United States and what we've seen is that if you look at the overall figures, you might just take one story away, which is that Americans are more concerned about climate change than they were in the past. You would see that a majority think it's a top issue for the globe and for their country, but behind that overall number for what Americans think, you wouldn't know unless you look beneath it that there's a huge partisan political divide among Republicans and Democrats... and that it's growing. You know it's that kind of “inside the country”, what's happening and who's thinking what that, I think is something we should all be always be mindful of and it's one of the reasons we like to talk to experts about particular countries because often they know more about what's happening in a country than we do. As we look across the globe, we can always look as deeply as some people inside these countries.

Karen Lee: Right, there really are so many different factors that influence the varied opinions and experiences of different citizens in different countries. And I think what you note about Germany having climate change as one of their top priorities is very telling of the results of the survey. It makes sense that they may be a little bit more critical in this lens, because that's just how much value they put on this topic.

James Bell: I would say, you know, all our data is publicly available on our website. Anyone on this podcast listening, please dig into that data and especially if you know more about some of these countries, I think you're going to get even more out of this data in terms of understanding what's happening in a particular country.

Karen Lee: Yes, it's so interesting and the different nuances of this data and because of the wide variety of countries polled, it's very enriching.

James Bell: I'm glad to hear that, I feel the same way.

Karen Lee: So again, like I mentioned, it really is so fascinating to see all this data visualized, analyzed and presented in such a clear and concise way. And as we have spoken about, the general conclusion was that favorable views of the UN were still stable in most countries and many of those polled expressed positive sentiments to international cooperation. Yet we are seeing an increased friction between nations, arguably further amplified due to the current pandemic issues of climate change, like we mentioned, and much more. And actually, in a recent episode here at our podcast, we spoke with Historian Margaret MacMillan, who actually spoke about public opinion, and she pointed out that throughout history, it has often been unreliable and inconsistent. She actually said that oftentimes, the public doesn't really even know what they want... and so I wanted to ask you this question as well. What are your thoughts on this? On public opinion in the way that it evolves, it comes in waves, it changes throughout the years, especially from your role as a researcher.

James Bell: Uh-huh, well, I'll have to listen to that podcast. Sounds interesting.

I think it's fair to describe public opinion as changeable. Sometimes it changes very sharply and very immediately with an event.

I mean if you were to look at... if any listeners look at our report, they'll see again in the case of Japan, a very strong reaction this year, whether that's a long-term trend we don't know yet. But the same Japanese public in 2011 also reacted very sharply to international support in the wake of their terrible earthquake crisis at Fukushima. So, there it moved in a positive direction, and then it became more consistent with past trends. After that, it subsided in terms of the positive, maybe the negative will subside this time around and we'll get back to more of a steady state. So, it does change sometimes with events and it changes overtime. We see social attitudes, for example, in the United States changing and globally towards same sex marriage, and that happens slowly overtime. I think people have strong opinions.

Do they always have strong knowledge and when you're asking them in a survey, have they really thought through an issue? Perhaps not always, but I think their opinions matter and perceptions matter. Much of what happens in the political realm is about opinion and perception, but I will acknowledge that, you know surveys, for example, are only one instrument to understand the attitudes of publics, attitudes of citizens. We talked about some of the other ways that we might understand citizens and I think I'm just a fan of engagement in general and we do think that surveys are important, especially ones that can be representative because they give people that voice. And they give people that equality of opportunity to have a voice too, if a survey is designed properly. So, I do see a role for surveys, I do think public opinion matters. In fact, I think over recent years, it's shown to matter even more. And I think there are even more questions today, among leaders among elected officials about what is on the minds of citizens of all generations.

Karen Lee: Yeah, very true and very interesting about the way that opinion... informs knowledge, I don't know, that's just kind of what I'm thinking about right now. That's true many times, not everyone has the same amount of knowledge. Also, our interests defer depending on the person and personality we are. But really, opinion is something that everyone has and holds, and it's true that opinion is formed because we are passionate, and we believe in that opinion.

James Bell: Right yeah, well and I think you know, our research in the United States has gone deeper into these issues and I think what you're mentioning there is true. I think it's the intersection of what we think we know, what we think, and also where we get our information from.

All these things are combined and in different and changing ways, especially with changes in technologies that we're talking about earlier.

Karen Lee: Yeah, exactly.

Now almost to wrap up, we were talking about a lot of this data and just everything on paper and charts and visualized... lots of data! But do you see this data and these numbers being translated into action? I think it's something really important to note that of course, we have this very valuable research and data in front of us, but how can we see this become tangible in our society today and how can we better leverage it for positive change and to make maybe even informed policy decisions?

James Bell: So, this is, you know, a very important consideration and what we're clear about at the Pew Research Center is that our role is to provide the tools for listening and to represent as accurately as possible what citizens are thinking, what they care about. And then our next responsibility is to communicate that effectively. So, you reference the charts and the other ways that we're communicating, including this podcast, where we're fully committed to communicating those results and helping you or others, you know people listening to this podcast, understand those results. Acting on those results is the responsibility of others who are in a position to really influence decisio

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