Friday, October 14, 2011

Thinking about the U.S. role in UNESCO in the future.

The current crisis in which Congress is threatening to withhold funds from UNESCO may presage a future in which U.S. diplomacy must change to retain influence in the Organization.

It has been suggested that the United States may withhold funding from UNESCO if in the next few weeks UNESCO admits Palestine as a member state. It has also been suggested that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations might step in and provide a replacement for the lost U.S. funds (presumably to support the Palestinian application for membership).

When UNESCO was created in the aftermath of World War II, the number of members was relatively small, based on the countries of the economic North, Latin America and a few African and Asian countries. The United States, which came out of the war with its economy repaired from the problems of the depression and producing about half of the world's goods and services and with great prestige for its role on the victorious side of the war, was able to exert great influence on UNESCO.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the break up of the empires that had been established by European powers and the emergence of large numbers of new states, especially in Africa. In the one-country, one-vote governing bodies of UNESCO, the poorer nations with their increasing numbers of UNESCO member states greatly increased their voting power and influence in governance.

On the other hand, the funding formula used by all the agencies in the United Nations system including UNESCO calls for the assessed contributions to UN bodies of each country to be related both to the portion of the country's GDP in the world GDP and to the per capita income in the country. Thus the  United States and the high-income European nations continued to pay the lion's share of the regular budget of UNESCO.

This situation was the antithesis of "he who pays the piper calls the tune". A small minority of rich countries were paying for UNESCO to carry out the program which was defined by the large majority of poor countries. The U.S. Congress and State Department officials aware of the situation tended not to be pleased.

Three decades ago, the U.S. Congress put a "poison pill" into U.S. legislation that would withhold U.S. funding from any UN family organization, including UNESCO, were it to admit Palestine to full membership before it was recognized as a nation state by the international community, that is before it had come to a peace treaty with Israel which established agreed borders and a recognized governing body for Palestine. This, in my opinion, was meant to pressure the governing bodies of the United Nations and its specialized agencies not to offer Palestine member status.

If now the Gulf states use their oil wealth to counterbalance this U.S. threat, supporting Palestine and opposing the Israeli position, we may be seeing a further diminution of U.S. influence in UNESCO. The soft power of the United States in UNESCO as elsewhere suffered under the Bush administration and has not been fully repaired by the Obama administration.

As globalization continues, and especially as newly emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, etc.) come to represent a larger portion of the global economy, the economic influence of the United States in UNESCO and other intergovernmental organizations is likely to be balanced by more assertive delegations from the emerging economies and the European Union.

It seems to me that we will need to change our foreign policy approaches if we are to be effective in the future. The best foreign policy is a strong argument based on facts and reason. There may also have to be more give and take, being willing to accommodate the initiatives of others in order to gain support for ours.

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