Sunday, December 19, 2010

A 4th priority for IO

Esther Brimmer, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO), organized her talk at the UN Foundation on Friday around three priorities of IO: Peace and Security, Development and Human Rights. She did not mention Economics, although security and economics are normally the major priorities of the State Department worldwide.

At the meeting a booklet published by the Foundation's Better World Campaign was distributed. The booklet, titled "The United Nations: Benefiting the U.S. Economy" describes the money that U.N. organizations and their employees spend in the United States, such as that for operation of the U.N. headquarters in New York, or the for the purchase of computers, routers and software from companies headquartered in the United States. Indeed, the U.N. agencies do spend a lot in the United States, and as a result the real marginal cost to the United States of our participation in the organizations is minimal.

The booklet does mention U.N. agencies such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Civil Aviation Union, the International Maritime Union and the United Nations Universal Postal Union which influence international travel and communications. These organizations and their standards making have economic importance to the United States. The spectrum allocation of the ITU alone influences billions of dollars for the U.S. in terms of its impact on the markets for U.S. telecom products and services.

There are things that one ought to understand about Dr. Brimmer's omission of Economics. While IO is focused on U.S. participation in multinational organizations, it does not take the lead role with all of them. The Department of the Treasury has traditionally led U.S. relations with international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative takes the lead with organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Thus the responsibility of IO does not extend to lead functions for these agencies which have obvious economic importance for the United States.

I would hope that IO officials understand that the development agenda of the United Nations has great economic importance for the United States. We learned from the Marshall Plan that helping poor countries improve their economies helps the U.S. economy. It was estimated that the growth of exports to European countries recovering from World War II added several percent per year to U.S. economic growth in the post-war years. So too can the growth of economies in Africa and Asia increase U.S. trade, both providing jobs and profits through increased exports and consumer benefits through low cost imports. It is the system of comparative advantages that allows international trade to benefit countries both from their exports and their imports.

So too, of course, does peace and security benefit the United States economy. Think of the peace dividend that boosted the economy when the Cold War ended, and think of how much better our economy would be if we had not been involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past nine years.

There are important economic benefits that come from other functions of the United Nations system. Consider the World Health Organization. Its earliest component, the Inter American Sanitary Bureau was created more than a century ago with the purpose of reducing the health barriers to trade in the Americas. Perhaps more obvious is that the United States saves tens of millions of dollars a year since it no longer needs to deal with Smallpox since the WHO campaign eradicated the disease worldwide. If, as is expected in the next few years, the WHO campaign succeeds in eradicating polio worldwide, the United States will save tens of millions of dollars more per year on that disease. So too, the efforts of WHO to detect other communicable diseases early and to limit their transmission has economic as well as health benefits for the United States.

UNESCO, an organization that I study seriously, brings tourists to the United States by publicizing our World Heritage sites. By encouraging education in developing nations it stimulates demand of students from these nations for higher education in the United States, and the more than 600,000 foreign students in this country "help keep our universities green". The graduates in science and technology who stay here have contributed greatly to our economy. UNESCO's science programs contribute to our knowledge of the oceans, geology, and biodiversity -- in each case bringing economic benefits to the United States.

I could go on, to discuss economic benefits to the United States from the work of the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the International Labor Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, the World Food Program, etc. but you get the idea.

I certainly hope that the Foreign Service Officers in IO manage our affairs with multilateral organizations to benefit our economic interests as well as other interests, and that they understand these interests in the United Nations family of organizations well enough to explain them to the Congress and the American public.

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