Esther Brimmer, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, was assistant secretary of state for international organizations from 2009 to 2013.
This week the United States stands to lose its vote in an international organization because poorly written U.S. law allows foreigners to determine American foreign policy. As part of the budget process, Congress should support the Obama administration’s effort to update the legislation to enable the United States to support programs that can create jobs at home and counter violent extremists abroad. The United States should be able to fund agencies that advance tolerance, education and press freedom in communities well beyond the reach of our country.
Under two laws dating to 1990 and 1994, the United States must automatically stop providing treaty-obligated funding to a United Nations agency if Palestinians gain full membership. In 2011, a majority of member countries voted to admit the Palestinians into the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Washington was then compelled to halt funding for an organization that can advance U.S. interests, thereby leaving space for others with very different political agendas. These laws are relics that inhibit U.S. ability to advance its interests internationally. They punish pro-U.S. United Nations agencies that have no control over Palestinians; moreover, other countries, by ostensibly being supporters of Palestinian statehood, can strategize to reduce American influence internationally.
After three years of non-payment, a delinquent country loses its vote. Although it wants active U.S. participation, the UNESCO General Conference is obligated this week to suspend the U.S. vote until the United States’ dues are paid.
America and its friends lose when the United States is sidelined. Consider that UNESCO manages the World Heritage system. World Heritage designation for U.S.-nominated archeological wonder Poverty Point in Louisiana would bring tourist attention and travel dollars to an economically depressed area. Designation for San Antonio would highlight the cultural contribution of the American Southwest. But World Heritage committee members are unlikely to support nominations from a financial delinquent.
Without U.S. support, programs that advance U.S. security will wither. Returning to its founding principle, that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed,” UNESCO has sought to counter extremism. When the Bush administration rejoined UNESCO in 2003, reversing a Cold War-era departure, it recognized that the organization could help fight extremism in the post-9/11 world. Indeed, it provided literacy classes for Afghan police. UNESCO leads the global fight against illiteracy. First lady Laura Bush served as the UNESCO honorary ambassador for its Decade of Literacy. In early 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a UNESCO program promoting education for women and girls, widely understood to advance long-term economic and social development. On Dec. 10, 2012, UNESCO launched the Malala Fund for Girls Education, deepening its commitment to provide all girls access to school by 2015.
UNESCO hosts the U.S.-Brazilian initiative on Teaching Respect for All, a global program on promoting tolerance in ethnically diverse societies, launched with students from Tallwood High School in Virginia and from Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. As part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 Birmingham bombings, more than 50 U.S. cities joined UNESCO’s global Coalition of Cities Against Racism. UNESCO promotes press freedom in a world where too many countries crack down on media.
UNESCO’s science side manages the Tsunami Early Warning System that in 2011 alerted Hawaii and the West Coast to the post-Fukushima pan-Pacific waves. UNESCO’s scientific cooperation spawned SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), in which scientists from nine places, including Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, work together.
Our decades-old laws may have been an effort to stand with Israel, but Israel will be hurt by the U.S. absence at UNESCO. U.S. officials have worked hard to help forestall or mitigate anti-Israeli actions in international bodies. When controversial Holy Land heritage issues are discussed at UNESCO next year, a non-voting United States will be less able to help its ally. Meanwhile, the UNESCO worldwide Holocaust and anti-genocide education programs will wither without U.S. support. Israelis should welcome an updated approach that restores the U.S. vote and strong voice in international organizations.
Nor is this issue limited to UNESCO. This week it is UNESCO, but our two outdated laws could undermine U.S. participation in other U.N. bodies. With polio emerging in Syria, the world needs everyone in the Middle East to cooperate on epidemic prevention. Yet if the Palestinians gain status at the World Health Organization, the United States — the WHO’s largest funder — would have to stop its financing, crippling the world’s premier health agency.
These laws were written in a different era. The legislation should be revised to provide a national-interest waiver and ensure that U.S. foreign policy is made in Washington, not in Ramallah, nor by our adversaries.