The Palestinian bid for statehood recognition by the United Nations is almost certain to be rejected if it is taken up by the Security Council. But as early as this week, the governing assembly of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization could grant the Palestinians membership in that organization.
If this happens, as is widely expected, the United States would have to resign from UNESCO because of a 20-year-old law forbidding the payment of dues by the U.S. to any U.N. body that accepts Palestine as a member.
And the consequences wouldn’t end there. UNESCO’s acceptance of Palestine would automatically trigger Palestinian membership in the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization, and it could smooth the way for membership in other U.N. entities, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization.
American critics of the U.N. assert that a UNESCO pullout wouldn’t matter. Last week, a spokesman for the conservative Heritage Foundation insisted that UNESCO does very few things that are “central to U.S. interests around the world.” But that is far from true.
Alongside its important functions facilitating peace and cooperation among nations and helping to conserve the world’s cultural heritage, UNESCO is also good for American business. Through the organization, American companies such as Cisco, Intel and Microsoft have been introduced to expanding Third World markets hungry for high-tech products, and that facilitation by UNESCO has helped to create or retain thousands of American jobs.
UNESCO also does work that protects the lives and safety of U.S. citizens. For example, it was a tsunami warning system coordinated by UNESCO that alerted Californians to a possible tsunami following Japan’s devastating earthquake in March. The organization also supports U.S. national security by teaching literacy skills to Afghan citizens who will be taking over security functions when allied forces leave the country.
Because Palestinian membership in UNESCO would trigger its acceptance into the World Intellectual Property Organization, the United States would also have to give up participation in that group, which plays a key role in the international safeguarding of intellectual property, including the vast range of patents, copyrights and trademarks belonging to U.S. companies and individuals.
Lest you think that recognition of UNESCO’s crucial role is a partisan issue, it’s not. Not only is President Obama a strong UNESCO supporter; it was President George W. Bush who led the U.S. effort to rejoin UNESCO in 2003, and former First Lady Laura Bush remains a goodwill ambassador for the organization.
It is clear that whatever happens at UNESCO, Palestinians will continue to seek membership in the U.N.'s many specialized agencies. And each time they succeed, the United States will have to resign from another world body, thereby losing influence and input on international issues. We might no longer be able to participate in decisions about how nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel stockpiles are safeguarded around the world by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or decisions about how people are protected during pandemic outbreaks by the World Health Organization, or about how international food supplies are kept safe from disease and terrorism by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Within a few short months, without discussion at the White House or debate in Congress, the U.S. could find itself shut out of a great many international decisions that have a direct impact on American jobs, lives, safety and security.
The Obama administration and U.S. allies are scrambling to put together a diplomatic solution, at least in the short term. But in the long run, Congress must also take a fresh look at a law that could literally force the U.S. off the international stage.
There are those who would like to believe that the U.S. brings more to the U.N. table than it takes away, and that our leaving these U.N. agencies would be a bigger loss for the rest of the world than for Americans. But that is simply not true.
The U.N. and its related organizations bring the world together to consider issues that affect all of the planet’s human beings. Every day, decisions are made that have a direct effect on American prosperity, health, safety and security. The discussions won’t stop and the international policies won’t disappear just because the U.S. no longer participates. Our absence would only lessen our ability to influence how the world functions and would undermine the legitimacy of vitally important global institutions.
Timothy E. Wirth is a former U.S. senator and is president of the United Nations Foundation. https://www.UNFoundation.org