Global Policy Forum

“United States’ UN-Wise UNESCO Policy”

Citizens for Global Solutions CEO Don Kraus examines the impact of two arcane US laws that require the US to defund UN agencies which accept Palestine as a member. Kraus argues that it is in the US’ interests to remain engaged at the UN. Being a part of the UN has allowed the US to push their foreign policy goals and create more partnerships for American companies like Cisco and Proctor & Gamble. It is important, however, to note that US leadership at the UN has not always been in the best interest of other member states or the UN as a whole.

By Don Kraus

Citizens for Global Solutions

November 8, 2011

Last week, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), voted to allow Palestine to become a member state. Due to two laws written nearly 20 years ago, the United States was forced to halt its $60 million contribution to the agency and has vowed to freeze funding to any other U.N. entity that recognizes Palestinian statehood. This is a bit like using a hammer when a scalpel is needed. It’s time to take a serious look at this policy’s impact.

These laws were adopted in the 1990′s to ensure that Israel would be part of any process that established a Palestinian state. But twenty years later, the Israelis and Palestinians are far from reaching a peace agreement. Many nations are frustrated with the process. Only 13 out of 190 nations joined the U.S. in opposing Palestinian membership in UNESCO.  Only 5 out of 28 NATO members voted with the U.S. Similar lopsided votes could occur in other U.N. organizations. Clearly the threat of a U.S. financial tantrum is not having the desired effect of protecting Israel. The U.S. must assess if the cost of pursuing this failed policy and disengaging from the international community is worth it.

If the point of the law is to change behavior of the U.N., we need to take a stroll down memory lane. The United States has been most effective at pushing our foreign policy goals when it remains engaged and keeps a seat at the table. U.S. leadership at the U.N. has helped defend Israel at the Human Rights Council, increased whistle-blower protections, revitalized the U.N.’s Ethics Office now spearheaded by an American, and enforced budget discipline.

The big question to answer is who benefits and loses from maintaining this policy. The biggest winners are people who use the Middle East conflict as a platform to spew anti-U.N. views and promote an isolationist agenda for the United States. The biggest loser isn’t the Palestinians or Israelis, or even the U.N. It’s the United States.

The United States’ foreign policy goals, national security interests, and economy all benefit from its relationship with U.N. agencies like UNESCO.

UNESCO promotes freedom of expression, one of America’s core values. It advocates for freedom of the press and the promotion of an independent media around the globe. It manages a tsunami warning system in the Pacific, which warned Californians of possible aftershocks from Japan’s earthquake last March. The organization assists the United States in its transitions out of Iraq and Afghanistan, by preparing communities and governments for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

American jobs have been saved and grown by UNESCO’s efforts to connect U.S. companies like Cisco, Apple, Microsoft, and Proctor & Gamble to emerging tech markets in developing countries.

While the U.S. defunding of UNESCO is aimed at showing solidarity with Israel, it hurts a joint U.S./Israeli sponsored UNESCO program on providing Holocaust education around the world.

Other U.S. interests could be harmed if it defunds U.N. agencies that recognize a Palestinian state. The United States’ ability to work with partners on stopping the spread of pandemics, monitoring nuclear stockpiles in North Korea and Iran and ensuring safe use of nuclear energy, maintaining global regulations for civil aviation safety, and protecting intellectual property rights that encourage American ingenuity and job growth will all be impacted by the continuation of this unwise policy.

It’s important to remember that when the United States disengages, other nations with agendas that conflict with American foreign policy goals will use the opportunity to take a leading role.

Last February, when I spoke with my friend David Killion, the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, he stressed the importance of the U.S. relationship with the organization saying, “It is vitally important that the U.S. remain committed to UNESCO – an organization founded on the very principles that Americans hold dear… Other member-states look to us for leadership and have turned to us for help when repressive regimes, such as Iran, have attempted to undermine the core mission of UNESCO, and thus use it to spread repression. In other words, our engagement in UNESCO is as important as our military posture for our national defense.”

The U.S. has nothing to gain and much to lose by continuing its policy of self-isolation if and when U.N. agencies recognize Palestinian statehood. But there are two simple solutions: First, Israel could help its friend the United States by accelerating a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians. Short of that, the Obama Administration must call for Congress to provide a waiver authority to these laws, so that the President can have the ability to do what’s right for United States’ national security and economic interests.


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