On May 2, the House International Relations
Committee approved an amendment to the State Department
reauthorization bill that requires President Bush to take "all
necessary steps" to renew U.S. membership in the United Nations
Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In a
remarkable show of indifference on an issue that previously raised
serious U.S. concerns, 12 committee members (10 Republicans and two
Democrats) did not vote, enabling the measure to pass by a vote of
23 to 14. Renewing membership in UNESCO should be considered only
after the organization has reformed. There are promising signs that
UNESCO may reform, but until reforms can be verified, Congress
should not consider the committee's call to rejoin.
UNESCO's Opposition to Reform
The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 to protest the
organization's growing politicization and anti-Western bias,
rampant budgetary mismanagement, and advocacy of policies that
undermine freedom of the press and free markets. A particularly
divisive issue was UNESCO's advocacy of a "new world information
order" (NWIO) to counter an alleged pro-Western bias in global news
agencies; specifically, the organization sought the licensing of
journalists, the creation of an international code of press ethics,
and increasing government control over the media.
After more than 16 years without U.S.
membership, UNESCO finally appears willing to pay more than lip
service to the issue of reform. It has abandoned many of its more
controversial policies, including the NWIO, and proponents cite
this as a principal reason the United States should rejoin the
organization. UNESCO's new Director-General, Koichiro Matsuura of
Japan, has promised to address the many remaining problems,
admitting that UNESCO's mission and programs are too broad and that
many duplicate those of other international organizations. Matsuura
also has cut some top-level posts and initiated greater budget
Nevertheless, reform is "not moving far
enough fast enough," in the words of one unidentified Western
diplomat quoted in a November 2000 issue of The Christian
Science Monitor. In the end, the desires of the
Director-General may be irrelevant. As a UNESCO staffer remarked to
The Guardian (London) in 1999, no "one person can change
UNESCO.... They should just cut everyone's salary to $30,000 a
year, and see who was left. Those would be the people worth
Matsuura faces stiff opposition from
developing countries and from his staff. Developing countries are
concerned that reforms will scale back expenditures on projects
they favor and close field offices that spend four times as much on
overhead as on projects. The UNESCO staff staged a hunger strike in
January 2000 to protest Matsuura's suspension of appointments and
promotions of unqualified individuals or those who failed to meet
the organization's standards for fair competition. David Malone,
President of the International Peace Academy in New York and a
former Canadian Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations
with international agencies, sums up the problem: "Matsuura faces
an uphill battle in turning around an organization which is deeply
scarred.... [S]uccessive heads have turned it into a personal
patronage machine, neglecting programs and bloating the
History demonstrates that UNESCO is
difficult to reform. Previous calls for the United States to rejoin
after a few reforms were implemented under a new Director-General
in 1987 were premature, as mismanagement continued to plague the
agency. That Matsuura is still fighting to reform UNESCO nearly two
decades after America originally issued its demands for reform
merely illustrates the severity of the problem.
The United States should not rush to restore its
membership in UNESCO; instead, it should proceed cautiously and
consider membership on its merits rather than as a reward for
reform. The question of whether UNESCO membership harms or benefits
Americans and the nation must be asked and then answered clearly
and convincingly. As Malone notes, "We used to all know what the
UNESCO objectives were. Now nobody knows what UNESCO does beyond
the World Heritage sites. The important work is on literacy,
education, key cultural monuments and themes, and serving as a
forum for the promotion of high scientific standards. Who ever
consults UNESCO now on science?"
few UNESCO programs that have coherent and admirable objectives,
even when their merits and necessity are questionable, can be
supported without U.S. membership. The World Heritage program is
one example. Indeed, despite lacking membership, the United States
provided $2.25 million in support of UNESCO's programs in FY 2000
alone, according to the State Department. America is able to
support specific programs it likes without supporting those that
are inimical to its interests or simply wasteful.
does the United States sacrifice by not being a member of UNESCO?
Very little. Even though the U.S. voice in UNESCO is slight, few
UNESCO declarations are given credence internationally without U.S.
support or concurrence. America has no say in the agency's
budgetary decisions, but even when the U.S. was a member, it
enjoyed only marginal influence because it held merely one of over
150 votes. The lack of influence was one reason the United States
chose to withdraw. UNESCO had passed a budget over U.S. objections
even though the United States paid 25 percent of the budget, and
America's demand that large financial contributors be given more
weight in budgetary matters was rebuffed and remains unresolved.
Moreover, UNESCO has had little real impact on its priority issues:
education, dissemination of scientific knowledge, and the free flow
of information. The World Bank and individual nations spend more to
promote education in poor countries, and the Internet facilitates
the spread of knowledge and information.
UNESCO is much closer to U.S. positions after 16 years of
American non-membership than it was in 1984. Although its goals
have some merit, the organization simply does not offer enough
benefit to the United States to justify the expense of membership.
Washington should consider rejoining only after UNESCO has
implemented the reforms long demanded by the United States and
after those reforms have been verified through independent audits.
Foreign policy should be guided by national interests. Until UNESCO
can prove that it has reformed, rejoining the organization does not
meet this core principle.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham
Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for
International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.