Immediately following this morning’s announcement that Palestine is now the newest official member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. State Department came out with an announcement of their own: United States funding would be cut to the organization. The $60M check that the U.S. had written up for the Paris-based organization is going right back into Hillary Clinton’s pockets.
The move isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s been watching the deliberations in the various organizations that fall under the United Nations’ umbrella. Aside from the General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO has been the body on the receiving end of the strongest diplomatic push by Palestine for recognition. Lawmakers on the right in the U.S. have been calling for defunding of any U.N. body that allowed Palestine as a full member since early September, and they unfortunately have the right of it. Under a U.S. law passed in 1994, funding is to be withheld from any part of the U.N. system that allows Palestine as a full member, written in such clear language that it would be difficult for the Obama organization to circumvent it. The part of the law that concerns us has been helpfully posted by the NY Times here:
“(a) Prohibition.--No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states. “(b) Transfer or reprogramming.--Funds subject to the prohibition contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes for which such funds were authorized.”
While the President’s hands were tied on this one, that doesn’t mean the international community has to like it. Even Israel didn’t really want Washington to cut off funding to Turtle Bay, as was pointed out by Zvika Kreiger in the Atlantic earlier this month. The United States has been helping Israel gain membership and influence on several U.N. bodies, including the UN Development Programme, and has been pushing for an initiative through UNESCO launch education efforts on the effects of Holocaust in various member states. With U.S. funding cut off, that goal may be a little bit further out of reach.
The less awful news is that the funding that the $60M won’t be stricken from the State Department’s budget, and can be used at the Secretary’s discretion to fulfill the job of UNESCO. And the United States’ membership in UNESCO remains intact, unlike under President Reagan back in the 1980s. But the job of UNESCO isn’t easily done by one state, nor should it be. The $60M could be used for any number of cultural agenda pieces, meant to bridge the divides between perception of America and reality in states that are hostile towards our policies, but coming directly from the US, rather than through an international organization, propaganda is a word that you’re going to hear thrown around a lot. Furthermore, it’s harder to push what many states sees as an unpopular pro-American agenda without the finances to back up your goals. The cultural dialogue promoted by UNESCO forms a key part to the smart power equation championed by the Obama Administration and HRC in particular.
Nobody is saying that participation in UNESCO is vital to the United States’ strategic national security needs. What I am saying quite strongly though is that taking part in UNESCO to the full extent certainly makes things easier for the United States. For example, as UN Dispatch just posted, one of the programs indirectly stripped of funding is designed to raise literacy in Afghanistan, especially among police officers. No worries though, I’m sure that having illiterate Afghan military and civilians serves our overall strategic goals there, so long as Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by anyone.
Further, as several commentators, including Senator Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation, pointed out, there’s a slippery slope involved. Should the law stand on the books in its present form, there is the real chance that Palestine continues its push, resulting in more U.S. withdrawal of funding from bodies in which membership more directly serves our interest. The World Intellectual Property Organization is next in the Palestinian’s sights, and as boring as I personally find IP issues, American companies love having an arena for redress with internet piracy on the rise. I guess Congress is pro-piracy now?
There’s a larger picture here than just UNESCO and what U.S. pulling funding means, and it concerns the overall standing of soft power in the Washington policy planning context. What it boils down to is that soft power is a stronger currency than many in Congress are willing to admit. Soft power doesn’t win wars, but it does prevent them, but it would seem that doesn’t make for as good a campaign slogan as “friend of Israel”, even when we’re really doing Israel no favors. In the complex world we reside in, withdrawing a tool from our diplomatic arsenal is handicapping United States success in nipping issues in the bud before kinetic action is even necessary. Recognition of this fact is crucial for America to prosper in this century, that our defense industry can and should remain strong while giving diplomacy its full range of options. One less microphone for the U.S. to share its vision of the world is one more potential flare-up that we’ll have to address with force in the future. Our annual $80M, 22% of UNESCO’s budget, could have bought us a lot of influence in the world. Instead, we have traded it away for a symbol that means less than nothing. That $60M saved can be re-appropriated in the next budget to buy a couple of missiles, though. I’m sure that will benefit us more in the long run.