Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Editorial: The United States Positions At UNESCO

What should be the United States position with respect to UNESCO as we enter the 21st Century?

UNESCO seeks to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. It seeks to promote international cooperation among the intellectual communities of its member states, It is the lead agency for the United Nations in education, science, culture and communications. It describes itself as a laboratory of ideas, as a standard setter, as a clearing house, as a builder of capacity in Member States and as a catalyst for international cooperation.

The United States cooperated in the creation of UNESCO, with post World War II leaders seeing it as important to a variety of U.S. foreign policy interests. It withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 when -- due to UNESCO's bureaucratic inefficiencies and to some areas in which the majority of governments opposed the positions of the United States -- a later administration concluded that UNESCO no longer was a cost-effective vehicle for achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives. In 2002, following improvements in the operations and efficiency of UNESCO and changes in aspects of UNESCO's policies and programs, the United States government decided to rejoin the Organization.

U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives

The dominant foreign policy objectives of the United States are assuring the security and economic health of the nation. Humanitarian concerns are also important, realized through provision of relief to the victims of disaster and provision of foreign assistance for the alleviation of poverty. There are increasing concerns for global problems, such as protecting the health of the nation from global epidemics, protection of the global environment, and protection of World Heritage from the threats that arise from globalization.

The State Department has also maintained a program of cultural diplomacy, which has been under-appreciated. Cultural diplomacy has the potential to help bridge the cultural divides between the people of the United States and the peoples of other nations, tand indeed to prepare U.S. government officials to deal with people from other cultures.

It is also important that the U.S. builds support for and reduces resistance to its own diplomatic priorities. Importantly, diplomats engage in give and take in international fora, supporting the priorities of other nations and building alliances.

UNESCO's Potential Importance to U.S. Diplomacy

UNESCO's efforts to promote peace through appropriate education programs, and its ability to promote better understanding among people of different cultures are increasingly important to U.S. security, as indeed is UNESCO's ability as a neutral party to allow the global scientific community to reach consensus on issues such as the location and availability of water resources or the appropriate management of ocean resources.

UNESCO's leadership of the global Education for All program, its intergovernmental scientific programs, its World Heritage program, and its network of conventions governing cultural property are additional examples of highly cost- effective vehicles for the United States by which UNESCO is achieving objectives of U.S. foreign policy as well as objectives of many other member states.

UNESCO can serve as a neutral venue for discussions between the United States and other nations. In some cases those discussions are important in themselves and in others they are important in building confidence for later negotiations. Similarly, it serves as a venue in which other countries can meet, advancing peace processes and cultural understanding in ways that are indirectly important to the United States.

UNESCO offers a vehicle to help network U.S. educations, scientists and cultural leaders with their counterparts in other nations. Such networking is important in achieving a number of foreign policy objectives, and indeed is so valued by the U.S. communities involved that it is itself an increasingly important objective in terms of service to the public.


As a result of the 18 year absence of the United States from UNESCO membership, the immediate concern is to reestablish U.S. influence in the governance of UNESCO while seeking changes in policy and programs that further advance U.S. foreign polity interests.

Another immediate priority is reacquainting the U.S. communities with UNESCO, and increasing the involvement of leaders of those communities in the work of UNESCO. In this respect, the U.S. National Commission could again be an important instrument as it was in the distant past.

Of course, the United States is interested in UNESCO's ability to work effectively and efficiently. UNESCO will not be an useful vehicle for achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives if it is allowed to be ineffective or inefficient in carrying out its constitutionally assigned mission. Thus the U.S. should use its influence in the governing bodies of UNESCO to assure it is well led and efficiently run.

UNESCO's most important objectives have not been met in six decades of its existence, and will not be quickly met in the future. Every U.S. administration seeks to have results to show in four or eight years. The U.S. should be willing, given the modest size of the UNESCO budget, to give priority to those long term efforts likely to contribute most to peace and prosperity in a livable environment.

Perhaps the most important priority might be to fully incorporate UNESCO as an instrument of U.S. cultural diplomacy, encouraging the organization to promote cultural development in its member states. UNESCO quite properly follows the mandate of its member states to protect and promote cultural diversity. Globalization often results in pressures driving cultural changes which are unpleasant to the members of the changing cultures and indeed sometimes immoral or unethical to the majority of the people.

This is not to say that cultural change itself is unacceptable, but rather that the directions and processes of cultural change must be more acceptable. While the world's cultures are hugely diverse, there is wide agreement among nations on universal rights of man. Consequently, there is likely to be wide agreement that cultural changes are acceptable when they help to assure that people within a culture can more fully achieve those rights. Indeed, it is clear that cultural development is important for achieving peace, for assuring that peoples rights to a decent life, and indeed for assuring freedom of expression and freedom from coercion.

Thus U.S. cultural diplomacy should seek to encourage UNESCO to promote processes which engage the members of the cultures of the world to embrace those changes which will help them to more fully achieve the rights of their members which all nations have agreed to be universal rights.

John Daly
The ideas expressed in this posting are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.

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