Clinton's UNESCO faux pas

The granting of Palestinian full membership at UNESCO, triggered among other laws, a 1994 law (see appendix to 22 USC 287e) supported unanimously by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, which stated that funding will be barred for “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”  The law is pragmatic and helps maintain the credibility of the international system. However, the champion of so-called “Smart Diplomacy” is now in the process of trying to change the rules to sidestep the law her husband ironically enacted fifteen years earlier now that the outcome is not to the liking of a vocal minority. Secretary Clinton and the State Department are being lured by sob stories and false premises from Hollywood activists and UNESCO bureaucrats, who are trying to reinstitute the 22 percent of UNESCO’s funding ($80 million per year) that the U.S. has now halted as a result of the Palestinian Authority membership.
 

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Award winning American musician and newly instated UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of Intercultural Dialogue, Herbie Hancock, is among those Hollywood activists trying to paint a doomsday scenario of U.S. disengagement with UNESCO. He opens his December 2, 2011 Washington Post op-ed with the hyperbolic line “I cannot imagine a world without music, art, film, dance, theater and books.”  Thus creating the impression of UNESCO as the source of all culture and creativity in the world. He further cites some of the praiseworthy flagship UNESCO international programs on basic education, literacy, and free press that UNESCO says will be cut if it cannot get the U.S.’s money. I appreciate Mr. Hancock’s passion, I agree with him on the importance of these and other impactful UNESCO programs (for example, Tsunami warning system, World Heritage Program, and potable water research), I envy his musical talent, and I especially thank him for his efforts to try to share the great American story that is jazz. However, he and others fervently writing articles on why the U.S. needs to continue funding UNESCO are naive about Realpolitik international diplomacy and the organization of UNESCO. As the former executive director of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, who was part of the team that helped reestablish the U.S. at UNESCO, I am one of the foremost experts in the United States on the organization, and I sincerely hope that UNESCO can one day achieve its full potential.
 
While Secretary Clinton continues to dither, I will layout to you what should be done to resolve this issue in a manner that respects the international system, results in a more credible and efficient UNESCO, and ensures U.S. national security interests.
 
Firstly, even though the U.S. can stay as a full member for up to two years without paying our dues, the U.S. needs to immediately announce its departure from UNESCO. America’s allies and foes both recognize how much the U.S. brings not only in financial wealth but in knowledge and credibility to international organizations. This decisive action would send a strong message to other UN specialized and technical agencies that rely chiefly on U.S. expertise and financing (e.g. World Health Organization, World Food Program, etc). Their leaders and voting members will therefore understand that they should not overstep their organizations’ important but limited mandates by getting prematurely involved with the political Palestinian issue.
 
Secondly, behind the scenes the U.S. would inform UNESCO that there is a path back for the U.S. but the organization is essentially on probation.  UNESCO, for now, will need to make due with a decreased budget and use the situation as an opportunity to prioritize and consolidate programs.  UNESCO currently operates with the same mismanagement, scare tactic philosophy that President Obama exhibited during the debt ceiling debate. Just as the retirement checks to the wounded U.S. veterans would still have been able to be sent out, the UNESCO program training teachers in rural Africa won’t halt without U.S. dues. Having read the latest UNESCO two-year program and budget for 2012-2013, I found plenty of programs that could be put on the chopping block such that the priority ones can continue. For example, UNESCO could cut the $14 million spent on climate change education, the $7 million spent promoting a cultural legal convention of which the U.S. is not even a signatory, or some of its Paris-based staff costs that average annually over $200,000 per employee.
 
Thirdly, after a year or two, if other UN organizations have not been used as a charade by the Palestinians, the U.S. would then opt for Observer status at UNESCO, which provides a voice but no vote nor required dues. Instead of Congress funding the annual $80 million to the UNESCO General Fund -- which is spent in whatever ways 195 other countries decide – the U.S. government would put $20 million per year back into the U.S. Treasury to pay down the debt and $60 million to be gifted to UNESCO as Conditional Extra-Budgetary Funding. UNESCO permits Extra-Budgetary Funding to be earmarked to whatever programs the nation desires. The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO comprised of 100 experts and non-governmental organizations would remain as an active federal advisory committee advising the State Department on which UNESCO programs Extra-Budgetary Funds from the U.S. should support.
 
If overtime the organization becomes less political, less anti-American, less anti-Semitic, then the U.S. could consider again rejoining as a full member.   But in the meantime, if Mrs. Clinton wanted to exhibit smart diplomacy, she would read this article and implement its course of action.


Zemek is the former executive director of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.