The balcony press gallery in UNESCO’s cavernous, flag-bedecked main conference hall was only half full when I arrived Monday. The usual speeches His Excellencies the Permanent Representatives made praising its splendid, nay, heroic, efforts to build a culture of peace and brotherly love throughout the known universe droned on, barely audible above the noise of private conversations among the hundreds of indifferent delegates.
Independent-minded Estonia warned that the committee that decides which of the planet’s wonders will be designated a World Heritage Site — UNESCO’s most high-profile, best-known activity — was becoming dangerously politicized? No one noticed. Vigilant Australia said the organization should tighten up its finances and cut spending in line with the new austerity policy of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon? Whatever.
But as the hour drew closer for the 36th General Conference to vote on admission of Palestine as a full-fledged member, press attendance grew to overflowing. A gentleman of Middle Eastern aspect (this is not profiling!) bustled in importantly and seated himself next to me. He was just in time to hear, and loudly applaud, the Palestinian “foreign minister,” Riad al-Malki, gargle a vociferous plea for admission. Then began the roll call, in alphabetical order according to the French spelling of each member country’s name, for the vote. The hall grew quiet, the atmosphere palpably tense with expectation.
It soon became clear that it would be, as they say in Washington, a vote along party lines. In the case of UNESCO, this usually means pro- or anti-America. Africa? Solidly in favor. South America, the Middle East? Ditto. Russia, China? Of course. But a ripple of surprise and scattered partisan applause swept through the hall when usually sensible Austria voted in favor. The dithering British abstained, along with the cautious Swiss, but Ireland provided another much applauded surprise by voting yes. In an attempt to regain control of an assembly that was beginning to resemble the excited crowd at a soccer match, the conference president repeatedly called for calm, reminding delegates that it was supposed to be a solemn vote on an important matter. But by this time the gleeful delegates, sensing victory, were having too much fun.
There was a sprinkling of moans or boos when Germany, Holland, and the U.S. voted against. The event everyone was waiting for was France, which had abstained during the UNESCO Executive Council meeting on October 7 that decided the Palestinian request was admissible. Then, France considered that admission was premature, echoing the United States’ position. Thus the hall erupted in thunderous, prolonged applause and cheering when France’s representative manfully answered oui to the roll call. The character next to me, jumping up and down in his seat, must have hurt his beefy hands beating them so hard. One thrilled delegate screamed “Long live Palestine!” in French.
France’s foreign ministry later tried to justify the turnaround. “We had to assume our responsibilities and deal with the fundamentals of the question,” it explained, whatever that meant. In any case, France’s backing for Palestine is old news. Since the days of Charles de Gaulle, France has never pretended to be a friend of Israel. Former President Jacques Chirac flaunted his good relations with Yassir Arafat. It has long presented itself as being the one European country that the Arab world could count on. The temptation was irresistible to consolidate all that while simultaneously strutting its independence from American foreign policy. (The Quai d’Orsay also said it was trying to avoid a lack of European unity on the question. A ludicrous notion, given that its good European Union neighbors Germany and Holland voted against the admission.)
An unstated reason for France’s good will gesture to the Palestinians was possibly concern over its own domestic tranquility. With 10 percent of France now Muslim, its foreign policy is partly hostage to domestic Islamists quick to take violent offense in the sordid Paris suburbs. If that was the case, currying favor didn’t work. Tuesday night the Paris offices of a weekly satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo, were destroyed by two Molotov cocktails. Its online edition was pirated and the home page replaced by Islamic messages and a photo of Mecca. Its offense: publishing a funny caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover, and irreverent articles about Islamists taking power in Tunisia and the probability of sharia Islamic law in post-Gaddafi Libya.
In all, the farcical UNESCO spectacle this week produced more losers than winners, something the organization has proven itself adept at over the years.
The fragile façade of European unity was shattered once again. The European Union, which wants the world to think of it as a political entity worthy of being taken seriously, had no position on the question. As usual when the chips are down, each EU member took off in the direction it considered in its own best interests. This, despite the EU’s making a show two years ago of creating the simulacrum of a foreign ministry, a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
For the Palestinians themselves, ’twas a famous victory that they may come to regret. The peace process will suffer: Israeli retaliation was immediate, Tel Aviv vowing to accelerate construction of more homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and suspend transfer payments the Palestinian Authority uses to pay its civil servants. It is unlikely to grant further negotiating concessions to the PA, and can be expected to crack down harder on Hamas. The Palestinian ploy, a transparent end run for admission to the UN as a legitimate state, may also backfire with unintended consequences when its application for full membership is considered by the Security Council later this month.
The biggest cost will be to UNESCO itself. The financial penalties — losing the annual $70 million U.S. contribution, over one-fifth of its operating budget, along with those of Israel and possibly Canada — are just the most obvious ones it will pay. Perhaps worse is that its clumsy politicization was once again on full view. It inevitably recalled the bad old days when it allowed itself to become a Cold War battlefield, flagrantly corrupt and politicized, an anti-American tool of the hostile Soviet bloc and the envious, resentful Third World. This was the root cause of Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the organization in 1984.
UNESCO did make an effort at reform in the 1990s, abandoning its vicious condemnation of Western culture and “American imperialism.” It also dropped its campaign for a media-muzzling “New World Information and Communication Order.” George Bush decided to rejoin it in 2003 with the hope that it would be useful to America’s security following the 9/11 attacks. That turned out to be naïve, given the woeful lack of concrete results.
Now the frivolous, clearly partisan irresponsibility displayed this week will again make many observers, in the U.S. and elsewhere, wonder just how worthwhile the culture palace on the Seine really is.