by Andrew Edwards
The U.S. lost a considerable amount of the positive influence it had concerning world affairs Friday as it was stripped of its voting rights in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. The agency acts as the cultural arm of the United Nations and works to preserve cultural sites, promote education, scientific research and press freedom in each of its 195 member states.
UNESCO’s decision to take away the country’s voting ability came as a result of the U.S. refusing to fund the agency, which it has not done since November 2011. The issue is not that the U.S. doesn’t have the money to pay its dues to UNESCO. Instead it came about as a result of the politics surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The problems started in 2011 when a vote was held to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO. The United States and Israel both opposed the measure, citing the fact that Palestine is not and official sovereign state, however, the vote was passed. This move was seen by the U.S. and Israel as promoting Palestinian statehood, which the two actively oppose in the U.N., so the two countries stopped funding the organization.
On top of that, the U.S. is legally prohibited from funding any body of the U.N. that recognizes Palestine as a sovereign state by a law passed more than 20 years ago.
The suspension of American funds, which accounted for around 20 percent of the organization’s budget, nearly forced UNESCO into a financial crisis and caused many American-led initiatives to be repealed or drastically scaled back.
In an era when the U.S. has a badly damaged image and reputation in the international community, the last thing we need is to stop funding programs that actually help people in disadvantaged areas of the world.
UNESCO was created in 1945 to try to re-unite a world that had been divided by two world wars in the same generation. The organization believes that political and economic agreements alone are not enough to build a lasting peace which requires humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity. To work towards that goal, the agency runs programs that support the arts, cultural preservation, press freedom, diversity and equality through education, especially in the underdeveloped regions of the world.
Essentially, UNESCO represents the highest ideals of the United Nations, which are identical to those of the U.S. Not having a say in how the organization is run deprives the U.S. of a great outlet to exert a positive influence internationally and peacefully advance its interests by improving the lives of people in less-advantaged parts of the world.
What better way is there to improve national security than by creating the image that the U.S. is a force of good in the world? The biggest security threat the U.S. faces today is not any country or government, but individuals who become radicalized or turn to crime as a result of a lack of education and the perception that American foreign policy is making life worse for those who live in undeveloped countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. Military action and targeted killings in these areas have done little to actually improve American security. This has to be done by treating the root causes of radicalization and terrorism.
Lack of education is the primary source of many problems worldwide, including poverty and inequality. In parts of the world where there is no way to attend school for free, or even at all, UNESCO works with many different NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, to make education possible and more easily accessible. An educated populace is much less susceptible to backwards ways of thinking, and UNESCO programs also work to promote equality for women and religious tolerance in areas where these are prevalent issues.
It is clear that the goals of the organization are in line with the ideals of the U.S., but without the ability to vote on resolutions proposed by the agency, the country effectively has no control over the direction it takes. That leaves a big power vacuum that could be filled by other international powers, such as China or Russia, who might not be as committed to the causes of tolerance or promoting human rights as the U.S. has been in the past.
The U.S. has instead moved towards further alienating the international community by taking an uncompromising stance on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, which is perhaps the biggest problem with its image in the Middle East.
The move to defund UNESCO because of its recognition of Palestine as a state goes against the most recent efforts of U.S. in the Middle East peace process. President Obama has expressed support for a two-state solution to the conflict in Israel, which at some point will involve recognizing the Palestinian people as comprising a sovereign nation. The outdated law that helped cause this situation makes it seem like the U.S. is not actually committed to its own policy.
Efforts are underway to restore American funding to UNESCO, which the country sorely needs to reestablish itself as a force for progress in the world. Congressional action will be required to overturn the law that is currently stopping the U.S. from supporting UNESCO, but once that is out of the way we can start rebuilding our reputation in the world.