The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does it matter that the U.S. just lost its vote in UNESCO?

French President Francois Hollande (sixth from right ) and UNESCO general director Irina Bokova (center) visit a damaged historic site in Mali last February. (Fred Dufour/Reuters)

As of today, neither the United States nor Israel has a vote in UNESCO -- the United Nations’ organization that leads global initiatives on everything from HIV/AIDS and climate change to literacy and Holocaust education. (Its name is short for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.)

The downgrade is the result of two sets of laws that the United States and UNESCO have had for years. First, the United States automatically stopped contributing to the organization in October 2011, when Palestine was accepted as a member. That dates back to early '90s legislation -- one measure signed by President George H.W. Bush and one by his successor, President Bill Clinton -- that triggers an end to U.S. payments to any U.N. body that recognizes Palestinian statehood. Now, UNESCO has automatically rescinded U.S. voting rights after Washington missed its two-year deadline to begin contributing again. That comes from a rule in UNESCO’s constitution, last updated in 2001.

Before the cutoff, the United States used to provide  $80 million every year to UNESCO -- about 22 percent of the agency’s funding. Now the country has lost its voice in a critical governing agency, argues Mark Goldberg, who edits the news site U.N. Dispatch and has been watching this funding standoff since 2011.

“How UNESCO contributes to national security isn’t as glaring as something like the International Atomic Energy Agency or the World Health Organization,” Goldberg said. “But it still does.”

Goldberg sees a twofold risk here. One is political: The United States can’t vote for UNESCO’s next director general, veto proposals from member states or advance causes that Washington supports -- for example, marking historic sites in Israel or teaching girls to read in countries such as Iraq and Pakistan. (These kinds of efforts represent what is called “soft power” in political science parlance.)

Some of the United States' soft-power interests in UNESCO have already suffered in the absence of U.S. funds. For example, a Holocaust education program that the United States and Israel spent years pushing had its budget cut in 2012. The United States also might not get two World Heritage Site designations it lobbied for -- one in northeastern Louisiana, the other at San Antonio’s Alamo -- which were expected to create at least 1,000 jobs.

But the most problematic outcome, at least from a national security standpoint, might be several more months down the road, in April. That’s when the two-state diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians wrap up. If they don’t succeed, Goldberg says, it’s likely that Palestinian leaders will renew their bid for membership in other global governance organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under the same 1990 and 1994 laws that cut U.S. contributions to UNESCO, the United States would automatically stop funding those groups, as well. Given the IAEA's role in Iran, this would presumably be bad for U.S. interests.

“This is the first time this has happened. It’s basically the canary in the coal mine,” Goldberg said. “It could get much worse if the law isn’t changed. I mean -- it’s a ridiculous law.”

As for the prospects that Congress might amend the law to cut U.S. funding to these agencies, Goldberg was skeptical.

“Well -- it’s Congress,” he said.

The Obama administration has, in fact, proposed changes to the current U.N. funding policy, but Congress tabled it.