UNESCO Is Worth the Trouble : By rejoining, the United States would affirm to the world its beliefs in democracy, human rights and a free press.


The United Nations is on the ropes. Its “peacekeeping” in Bosnia never kept the peace and U.N. “protective forces” were not able to stop attacks on relief convoys.

But assessing the value of the United Nations in military terms misses much of where the United Nations’ value lies. Caring for immunization of the world’s children, getting relief to refugees and working to protect the oceans signal the way nations come together in the United Nations.

There is only one United Nations banner under which the United States does not participate: the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO is the agency working to bring together networks of scientists so that whole nations are not trapped in new forms of illiteracy--scientific, technological and computer illiteracy. It is the agency that identifies the world’s most precious historical, cultural and environmental sites and tries to educate people living near them to respect what they have and to encourage economic incentives to preserve them.


Of the world’s nations, 182 are UNESCO members. When the United States withdrew in 1984, UNESCO, like much of the Cold War world, had a polarized membership, talked of licensing journalists and trampling with the free flow of information. Its leadership was charged with financial cronyism. Since then, the world has changed and so has UNESCO. The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that the problems that caused our departure have been resolved. Editors and publishers, leading educators and distinguished American scientists and Nobel laureates have called for the United States to rejoin. But we have not.

Why? The United Nations gets you very few political points in the United States. Office-holders don’t get re-elected for supporting it; some lose because they do. Yet in this complex world, how would we function without U.N. institutions in place that bring us together to talk about common problems?

Does it cost us not to be a part of UNESCO? I think it does. This is another missed opportunity to demonstrate with actions that we mean what our words say. When officials at the State Department or in the White House speak of U.S. foreign-policy goals, they talk of supporting democracy and human rights around the world, of working for a free press internationally and of giving women a chance to develop themselves. Those are the goals expressed around the UNESCO board table. In another era, we would have fought to join with those who were working to shape young minds across the globe to confront the issues of the 21st Century. Not now.

The reason given for the U.S. failure to re-enter UNESCO has been that “we don’t have the money.” Yet, we recently announced that we can find $25 billion more for defense. UNESCO members get irritated when they hear the United States, the world’s richest superpower, plead poverty. They know that if there was a will, the money--which could amount to $100 million a year--could be found. Americans have spent hundreds of millions this past year responding to world tragedy. Some of that money might be better spent by educating people about democracy, human rights and tolerance.

As a U.S. government-appointed observer to the recent UNESCO board meeting, I was struck by how much of UNESCO’s mandate meshed with the work being undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Some of those AID programs could be performed under the U.N. insignia.

Many U.N. agencies, including UNESCO, have serious management problems. The U.S. goal should be to make them perform better, and this is more easily done from the inside. We in the United States have to learn to work with countries in new partnerships and see international humanitarian and development work through new prisms. The failure of the United Nations militarily in Bosnia should not cause us to abandon other aspects of U.N. work. Despite the substantive and international political reasons to rejoin UNESCO, the United States probably won’t. Some new money might be found to support favored programs that UNESCO is undertaking, but in the polarized Washington of today, a skittish Administration wanting to pick its struggles carefully will likely decide, as I was told at the National Security Council, “UNESCO’s not worth the trouble.” Too bad.