In defense of the UN’s “rogue agency” — letters from the U.S. ambassador, and others, with a reply by Joseph A. Harriss.
Joseph A. Harriss’ recent article (“The United Nations’ Rogue Agency,” TAS, February 2012) expresses appropriate concernabout certain recent events at UNESCO. At the same time, the piece mischaracterizes events that are portrayed as stains on the organization when they were actually triumphs for UNESCO — and U.S. interests.
For example, Harriss alleges that the election pitting Mubarak’s corrupt henchman Farouk Hosni against other candidates was a black mark on UNESCO’s reputation. On the contrary, due to intense and vigorous pressure by the United States, Hosni was defeated and instead the organization elected Irina Bokova, who in my view has been a superb Director General. Without U.S. active membership in UNESCO, this would not have happened.
Similarly, the controversy over Iranian sponsorship of World Philosophy Day ended in a U.S. victory and Iranian defeat. Director General Bokova played a statesmanlike leadership role during this crisis, making a clear decision to cancel the plan to hold World Philosophy Day in Tehran. Without U.S. active membership in UNESCO, this would not have happened.
Third, the piece makes the classic mistake of conflating the organization with its Member States. This is the world. The United Nations and organizations like UNESCO reflect the full spectrum of its membership — democracies, dictatorships, failed states, emerging powers. We can either be engaged and active in fighting for our values and interests, or we can find a seat on the bench while other players dictate the game.
UNESCO’s conduct and constitution are profoundly influenced by the United States. Its mandate to promote education, science, and culture to advance universal respect for justice, rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms reflects American values. Our active engagement is absolutely critical to ensuring that the organization stays on track.
Mr. Harriss also gets it wrong when he suggests that UNESCO doesn’t do anything to fight discrimination against women except to “preach the good word.” To cite just a few examples, UNESCO is on the front lines in Egypt and Tunisia, educating women about their rights and supporting their participation in political processes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNESCO works to prevent violence against women through school and community-level programs. These programs help create stable, democratic societies that are more resistant to extremism and violence.
Of course, Harriss is right to be outraged about Syria’s reappointment to the UNESCO committee that deals with human rights. But the story isn’t finished. In early February, thirty countries from around the world, including the United States, requested that UNESCO’s Executive Board review the issue when it meets in late February/early March. With active U.S. engagement, respect for human rights and dignity may triumph once again.
If we follow the author’s advice to withdraw, we would be
unable to pursue the Syrian issue and many others fundamental to
our interests at UNESCO. American leadership is crucial at UNESCO
and this is true now more than ever. Without it, UNESCO — an
organization that has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support —
could very well become a “rogue agency.”
— Ambassador David T. Killion
U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO
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.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?