How has UNESCO fared in the three years since Palestine’s entrance and the accompanying halt in US funding? What has been the impact on institutional reform? On US interests?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a tragic flaw, a more acute version of one which afflicts the UN system as a whole: its mission is to advance high ideals for global governance in a world of Machiavellian actors and distributional politics. It often scurries for new methods and funds as it implements plans to address ambitious challenges for humanity.
Two membership episodes in the early twenty-first century provide a leitmotif for the organization’s Wagnerian internal struggles, external pressures, and constraints for the future: the return of the United States to the organization in October 2003; and the vote on 31 October 2011 that admitted Palestine as the 195th member.
Washington’s re-entry was the heralded return of the hero whose ideals informed the organization’s creation, but also revealed the great power’s strategic interest in twenty-first century UNESCO. Eight years later, the Palestinian vote at UNESCO’s General Conference was 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions. The vote drew condemnation from the US and resulted in an immediate cut-off in funding. The US budgetary share was about 22 percent; it had not been paid in 2011, so the arrears now extend to four years.
The bookends provided by the entry of the United States and Palestine to UNESCO are analyzed in this paper in the context of the organization’s dramatic past, which suggest two intriguing scenarios: the dysfunctional dystopia of global governance; or this is as good as it gets.
The United States is straightforward, perhaps even brazen, in pursuing its national interests through UNESCO; indeed, recent calls for refunding have been framed in terms of US security interests. The US cited anti-US and Israel advocacy, corruption within UNESCO, and UNESCO’s New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) in withdrawing from the organization in 1984, which lasted for 18 years. Two reasons were paramount in re-joining in 2003: Hollywood’s pressures to dilute a UNESCO convention on cultural diversity that would have enabled restrictions on cultural exports from the US, and pressures within the George W. Bush administration to put its best multilateral foot forward in the post 9/11 era.
By most accounts, the US return both shook up and revived UNESCO. Besides budgetary contributions, the US sought to reform the organization from within while bringing support from important external actors. Old politics persisted. In 2005, a 148-2 vote (only the US and Israel against) approved the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. But, Washington managed to dilute many provisions. As a developing country ambassador once said: “Hollywood is an emergency!”
The Palestine issue returned in October 2011 and resulted in halting US funding and the accompanying loss of its vote. Despite these developments, the US continues to play an important role in the organization, for now. UNESCO insiders claim that the director-general continues to listen closely; and despite losing its vote, the US serves on the 58-member Executive Board that meets every six months and is the key body for the organization’s everyday functioning.
The interests of the US are best served through staying in UNESCO. Since 2003, using its funding and partnership leverage, Washington had refocused on UNESCO’s ideals while strategically advancing its own priorities. However, while the US has supplied legions of experts and intellectuals and helped mobilize international networks, when non-state actors (PLO) or networks (media supporting NWICO) are mobilized that they do not approve of, the country has withdrawn funding (2011) or altogether (1986-2003).
What Is Governed?
UNESCO’s elevated and idealistic sense of purpose—constructing “defenses of peace” in human minds—often does not translate well into a pragmatic set of goals and strategies, and some argue that the UN’s most colorful battles often land on UNESCO’s doorstep.
US re-engagement has featured pressures to make UNESCO’s agenda both practical and streamlined. Both directors-general Kochïro Matsuura (1999-2009) and Irina Bokova (2009-) are credited with initiating widespread reform. In 2009, the General Conference authorized a comprehensive audit to explore: “How should UNESCO position itself to address the challenges of the 21st century and make the most of prospective opportunities?” In January-July 2010, an 11-member international team conducted an Independent External Evaluation and its September report found UNESCO’s mandate to be unwieldy and hard to achieve without field presence. Over half of UNESCO’s 2,100 staff were based in Paris while the other half were spread out over 58 field offices.
How Is It Governed?
The timing of Palestinian membership was unfortunate because reform was barely under way when the cut-off in US funding forced the organization into crisis mode, which left it scrambling for funds.
The termination of US funding has led to a complicated budgetary process by which the organization passes two budgets: one assumes that the US is a dues-paying member, but the second reflects actual staff and program appropriations. UNESCO’s annual reports continue to list US contributions though they are unpaid. UNESCO had a $188 million shortfall in its $653 million biennial budget (2011-13) and made up this shortfall through cuts for travel, consultants, and contracts.
The director-general has spent considerable time before the US Congress unsuccessfully lobbying for renewed funding. Privately, insiders note that the funding might have been restored if Hilary Clinton had remained secretary of state. This is hard to validate but does point toward political solutions.
UNESCO’s importance to the world arises counter-intuitively from its two chief shortcomings. First, its vague norms on many of world’s most-important issues are a reminder of humanity’s strengths and limits in uplifting the mind through education, science and culture. Second, its knowledge is often unimplemented or not implementable, but as the preceding analysis shows, UNESCO has made great strides in this direction in the past decade. Now is not the time to stop funding UNESCO.
David Killion, US ambassador (2009-14), recently stated that engagement with UNESCO is critical, but: “The US President should decide where we engage in the UN system, not Mahmood Abbas.” Reform processes at UNESCO had begun long before the Palestine vote that derailed them. The US return in 2003 brought energy and enthusiasm, whereas the funding cut-off in 2011 had the opposite effect.
The United States remains a powerful player in UNESCO. However, its leverage is diminishing, and UNESCO has not been brought to its knees.
The question is simple: will Washington, or Palestine, determine US engagement with UNESCO or the UN?
Despite Wagnerian mischief, UNESCO is not headed toward Götterdämmerung. UNESCO will survive as a trimmed and restructured organization.
J. P. Singh is Professor of Global Affairs and Cultural Studies at George Mason University. Singh has authored four monographs, edited two books, and published dozens of scholarly articles. His books include UNESCO: Creating Norms for a Complex World (Routledge, 2011). Singh has advised international organizations such as UNESCO, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, and played a leadership role in several professional organizations.