Why UNESCO? The Case Against Rejoining


Why UNESCO? The Case Against Rejoining

Sep 25, 2002 4 min read
Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

In his remarkably frank and persuasive speech to the United Nations on September 12, President George W. Bush earned applause only once. It erupted when he stated, "As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United State will return to UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. This organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning."

But as the applause fades, the question arises, "Why UNESCO?" or even "What is UNESCO?" since many Americans have not heard of the organization since the U.S. withdrew in 1984. UNESCO was created in 1946 to: <_o3a_p>

contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world.


As a founding member, the United States supported UNESCO for three decades when its activities closely adhered to the goals outlined in its charter-for example, promoting literacy and education and furthering the exchange of scientific ideas.


The United States withdrew from UNESCO 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" to counter an alleged pro-Western bias in global news agencies. Specifically, the organization sought to license journalists, create an international code of press ethics, and increase government control over the media.


It is true that today's UNESCO is substantially improved from the deplorable state that spurred America to leave the organization. Many of the problems that prompted the U.S. to withdraw in 1984 have been addressed-if not outright rectified-under the leadership of UNESCO's new Director-General, Koichiro Matsuura of Japan. And Matsuura 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 oversight.


But do these changes merit U.S. membership? The number of director-level positions has fallen from 110 to 103 over the past four years according to UNESCO budgets. It has trimmed just 40 of the 782 positions it budgeted in 1998. And even today, some 60 percent of the $544 million biennial budget goes to personnel, while programs receive only 40 percent.


And UNESCO still suffers from a lack of focus-the question is not "what does UNESCO do?" as much as "what doesn't UNESCO claim to do?" The broad listing of activities (education, communications and information, culture, natural sciences, and social and human sciences) does not adequately demonstrate the organizations scattershot approach. Its educational mission alone has programs to: promote early childhood/family education; educational facilities; "e-learning"; emergency assistance; girls/women in Africa; higher education; inclusive education; non-violence; poverty eradication; primary education; secondary education; science and technology; street/working children; studying abroad; sustainable development; and technical/vocational education. Much of this programming overlaps that of other U.N. organizations and private-sector initiatives.


What 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 being merely one of over 150 votes.


There is some appeal to the argument that UNESCO could help in the long-term strategy to fight terrorism by promoting freedom, democracy, and understanding. But these goals could be bolstered at a much lower price through voluntary contributions to UNESCO and complementary support through bilateral efforts of America's aid and public diplomacy programs and other international institutions like the World Bank.


Based on its merits, the U.S. should not rejoin UNESCO-certainly not at an annual cost of approximately $60 million (22 percent of the $544 million biennial budget). But, like so many other political decisions, the issue of rejoining UNESCO does not exist in a vacuum. The announcement was made immediately prior to the President's presentation of evidence for action in Iraq. This timing cannot be accidental. The Administration must have determined that such an action would help diffuse accusations of "unilateralism" or was part of a deal for support of America's position in the United Nations.   


This is unlikely. If Saddam Hussein's record is insufficient to convince UN member states of the need for action, rejoining UNESCO is unlikely to tip the balance. Already France, where UNESCO is headquartered, seems to be moderating its support of the United State following Iraq's announcement that it would allow weapons inspectors to return.


If rejoining UNESCO is the price of UN support for ending the threat Saddam Hussein poses to international peace and security, $60 million is a bargain. But hoping that membership in UNESCO will tip the scales in favor of America's position is a poor bet at long odds. Far better for the U.S. make such a decision on the merits of membership rather than as an ineffective sweetener for a higher priority.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.


Originally published by The American Enterprise at <a href="http://www.theamericanenterprise.org/hotflash020925.htm">http://www.theamericanenterprise.org/hotflash020925.htm</a>