American engagement just isn’t going well these days at UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. On Monday, despite U.S. objections, UNESCO’s General Conference voted to give a seat to the Palestinians, thus making UNESCO the first UN outfit to grant the Palestinians full membership. On the part of the Palestinian Authority, the bid to join UNESCO was a violation of their own past agreements, and a betrayal of the trust with which the U.S. has been bankrolling Palestinian development in exchange for Palestinians pledges of peace that can only come by way of good faith dealings with Israel, not by UN fiat. On the part of a majority of UNESCO’s member states, the vote was a festival of derision toward the U.S. and prejudice against Israel, as the “yes” votes for Palestinian membership were greeted in the chamber with cheers and applause. The tally was a slap-happy 107 states in favor, and 14 states against (including the U.S.), with 52 abstaining.
UNESCO’s seating of the Palestinians has triggered American laws that require the U.S. administration to cut funding to any part of the UN that gives membership to the Palestinians before they have actually met the qualifications for functional statehood (such as scrapping plans to terrorize and obliterate their neighbors). Cutting funding is a good start for a fitting U.S. retort to UNESCO, where the loss of U.S. lucre ought to provoke some serious second thoughts. U.S. taxpayers have been bankrolling 22% of UNESCO’s budget, plus extras — meaning UNESCO now faces a funding cut of about $80 million per year. Whether UNESCO, faced with this shortfall, will choose to sacrifice programs in the field or dinners in Paris remains to be seen.
Except, to judge by the statements of U.S. diplomats, the Obama administration is looking for ways to save UNESCO from making any sacrifice at all. In tones less of anger than of apology, administration officials have been hinting that they are looking for some way to work around current U.S. law, or maybe get it changed, so America can go right on supporting UNESCO. A State Department spokeswoman said the administration will be consulting with Congress about the funding cut-off. America’s ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, in the aftermath of the UNESCO assembly’s derisive and reckless vote, abased himself before the other delegates, saying “We pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the important work of this vital organization.”
What are these U.S. officials talking about? UNESCO is not vital. It is a mischief-prone UN body from which the U.S. withdrew entirely in 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, and did not return until 2003, under President George W. Bush. The world survived. Indeed, in many ways the world did a lot better than it has lately.
And why, in the face of in UNESCO’s contempt for U.S. policy and values, would the U.S. administration hustle so hard to assure UNESCO that — to quote Ambassador Killion again — “President Obama has made strong multilateral engagement across the UN system — including at UNESCO — a top priority and a core aspect of U.S. policy.” That statement came after UNESCO’s members had collectively delivered America a kick in the face.
Not that everyone in Washington subscribes to the practice of abasement as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is already seeking UN reform by way of a bill that would link U.S. funding to UN performance. On Tuesday, she released a statement on the UNESCO train wreck, warning that:
Already, the Administration appears to be seeking loopholes, and the UN’s apologists are out in full force with doomsday rhetoric urging a change to the law that would allow payments to continue to flow to UN entities that admit ‘Palestine.’ Congress’s response must be a resounding ‘No.’
For more on this latest UN madness, here’s a link to my column on Forbes.com, UNESCO Fiasco.