First published by American Spectator at http://spectator.org/archives/2012/02/10/unesco-love-it-and-dont-leave/1
As hatchet jobs go, Joseph Harriss’s effort to butcher UNESCO and its Director-General Irina Bokova deserves a Pulitzer. He’s a veritable Lizzie Borden.
All good fun on Saturday Night Live, with Tina Fey a passable Mme Bokova. But as a foray into United States foreign policy at the outset of the most delicate year since at least 1989, “The United Nations Rogue Agency,” put out by the Spectator as a cover story, is misjudged, misleading, and potentially damaging to our interests.
All the tricks of the woodman are brought to bear. So, first: Shrewd, highly intelligent, charming Irina Bokova, whom the Bush administration strongly supported for the role of Director-General, is dismissed as “grandmotherly.” (Has anyone else who has met her even entertained that thought? He also says she’s 60. She’s actually 59, exactly two weeks older than me. Details matter. He might at least have checked Wikipedia.) Second: Random items are strewn around, entirely prejudicially, early on in the article. So in paragraph 3 on the Palestine vote, the fact that one ambassador happens to be the daughter of a dictator who allegedly boils people alive becomes suddenly relevant. Third: Then a litany of stories from the dark days when Director-General M’Bow ruled the roost — and the United States walked out of UNESCO. Your point, sir? Oh yes, of course, I was forgetting; it’s a hatchet job.
Finally, we move to another litany, of current efforts and recent controversies. They amount to what? Basically, that UNESCO is not run like IBM and does not have a policy agenda like that of the Heritage Foundation (both of which, for the record, I admire). I am not exactly shocked.
UNESCO, of course, is an organization run by and on behalf of nearly 200 member states. Like other similar organizations, inside the UN system and outside, it has a cumbersome constitution and ungainly mechanisms designed to keep the thing together through issues of disagreement — and that inevitably produces some embarrassing results (like Syria on the human rights committee, the Obiang prize that was finally stopped, the world philosophy day mess, others he cites and I’m sure many he does not). What this means is that the “farrago” approach adopted in the article is inherently flawed. Any such effort as UNESCO will produce stories like these. They go with the territory. Tabloid journalism feeds off them.
And it should come as no surprise that staff and diplomats have offered off-the-record criticisms; I’m actually surprised — given his goal of trashing the organization and the propensity of annoyed officials to speak to journalists — that they aren’t more damaging. I don’t hear Assistant DGs whispering in his ear that grandma Bokova dozes off during cabinet meetings, that senior officials were privately pleading with Palestine to come to UNESCO as it went venue-shopping, or even that disenchanted underlings at the U.S. Mission sit around drinking wine in sidewalk cafes wishing we would just pull out so they can stop wasting their careers. In fact, if the Joseph Harriss J’Accuse is as bad as it gets, things in Paris are looking pretty good. Perhaps Mme Bokova should appoint him Inspector-General so he can ferret out even nastier tales. There probably are some. And as the first-rate leadership team Mme Bokova has put in place will be the first to say, there is an enormous amount of work to be done in an organization much of whose culture was set in the mid-20th century to prepare it for the mid-21st.
Point is: It is no easy thing to assess the usefulness of an organization that is answerable to 195 nation states. Yet the reason that since the 1940s we have bought into the UN system lies exactly here: that we need venues that are multilateral and within which the participation of smaller nations as equals enables a different kind of conversation to take place to that which we have elsewhere — in OECD or G8 or IMF or World Bank where the United States has in the past been dominant and small nations count little. With the collapse of four empires in the aftermath of the First World War, and the slow disintegration of the British Empire, and later the Soviet, after the Second, we have welcomed large numbers of smaller states into a global community built on the extension of the nation-state principles of Westphalia to entities that mercifully avoided the privations of the Thirty Years’ War. The nation state is the currency of 21st century diplomacy, and the UN system has been designed around it. We have taken the view that for the security interests of the United States to be addressed influence needs to be exercised in fora of different kinds. Consistently high levels of public distrust in the United States in the non-western world (and, face it, to a lesser degree in the western) demonstrate a problematic substrate that will not be addressed by our adding another carrier group, but by soft power, public diplomacy, exactly the opportunities afforded by UNESCO. In the nature of the case, these are fora that we do not dominate and in which we gain credibility by working with others and seeking consensus, which is in general the UNESCO modus operandi. Some Americans disapprove of such a way of doing business. Others believe it has enormous value, and costs remarkably little (in this case, $80m a year; we spend billions funding UN peacekeeping). If that’s what we seek to do, UNESCO as it is presently operating is doing it quite well.
But back to the headline, adorning the cover story of February’sSpectator: “The United Nations’ Rogue Agency.” This is a seriously cheap headline, not least in light of the fact that no attempt is made in the body of the article to assess UNESCO alongside other agencies in the UN system. “Rogue” means the others are going one way, this one is going another. In fact, it is supremely inappropriate to single out UNESCO in this way in light of the Palestine question, as if UNESCO’s leadership had courted Palestine or — unlike other UN agencies — were specially disposed to be sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian membership in the UN system. Whatever the merits of the legislation passed by Congress in 1990 and after that required defunding of UN agencies that accepted Palestine into membership, in the case of most UN agencies membership is by direct election of all member states. That is, it is the same member states who vote in each of the agencies. In effect, the voting group is the UN General Assembly, who as we know have passed many resolutions sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. So whichever agency Palestine decided to join, it was likely to get the same response. The response is from the member states of the international community. It has nothing specifically to do with UNESCO at all. UNESCO was the chosen venue for the first attempt. It is open to Palestine to approach more than a dozen other agencies, where the same states will be voting and likely cast exactly the same vote. To single out UNESCO as “rogue” on the basis of Palestinian membership is in fact, in the absence of evidence that UNESCO’s DG and her team actively sought a Palestinian membership request, either a category mistake or simply an exercise in mendacity.
There is a great deal more to be said. The two Permanent Representatives who have served as our ambassadors to UNESCO since we rejoined — Louise Oliver under the Bush administration, and now David Killion — are amongst the most excellent of our public servants, and have pursued essentially nonpartisan foreign policy in Paris with acknowledged éclat. That was no better demonstrated than when immediately after we defunded, the United States was re-elected to the Executive Board with an increased majority. The many programs that very specifically advance our interests, such as teaching literacy to police in Afghanistan — which Harriss is forced to acknowledge — simply illustrate the immeasurable value of our engaging in this multilateral institution.
So far from presaging a pull-out, the defunding forced upon the United States and UNESCO by what now appears to have been naïve politics back in 1990 and a smart asymmetric move by Palestine needs to be reversed. If with that reversal and the discussion it has engendered comes a better grasp of the value of multilateral engagement and the special value of this institution, so much the better. Perhaps to that end Joseph Harriss’ rogue article may have served a purpose.
— Nigel M. de S. Cameron
Chair, Social and Human Sciences Committee
U.S. National Commission for UNESCO