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UNESCO: Love It and Don’t Leave It

In defense of the UN's "rogue agency" -- letters from the U.S. ambassador, and others, with a reply by Joseph A. Harriss.

2.10.12

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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.

But back to the headline, adorning the cover story of February's Spectator: "The United Nations' Rogue Agency." This is a seriously cheap headline, not least in light of the fact that no attempt is made in the body of the article to assess UNESCO alongside other agencies in the UN system. "Rogue" means the others are going one way, this one is going another. In fact, it is supremely inappropriate to single out UNESCO in this way in light of the Palestine question, as if UNESCO's leadership had courted Palestine or -- unlike other UN agencies -- were specially disposed to be sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian membership in the UN system. Whatever the merits of the legislation passed by Congress in 1990 and after that required defunding of UN agencies that accepted Palestine into membership, in the case of most UN agencies membership is by direct election of all member states. That is, it is the same member states who vote in each of the agencies. In effect, the voting group is the UN General Assembly, who as we know have passed many resolutions sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. So whichever agency Palestine decided to join, it was likely to get the same response. The response is from the member states of the international community. It has nothing specifically to do with UNESCO at all. UNESCO was the chosen venue for the first attempt. It is open to Palestine to approach more than a dozen other agencies, where the same states will be voting and likely cast exactly the same vote. To single out UNESCO as "rogue" on the basis of Palestinian membership is in fact, in the absence of evidence that UNESCO's DG and her team actively sought a Palestinian membership request, either a category mistake or simply an exercise in mendacity.

There is a great deal more to be said. The two Permanent Representatives who have served as our ambassadors to UNESCO since we rejoined -- Louise Oliver under the Bush administration, and now David Killion -- are amongst the most excellent of our public servants, and have pursued essentially nonpartisan foreign policy in Paris with acknowledged éclat. That was no better demonstrated than when immediately after we defunded, the United States was re-elected to the Executive Board with an increased majority. The many programs that very specifically advance our interests, such as teaching literacy to police in Afghanistan -- which Harriss is forced to acknowledge -- simply illustrate the immeasurable value of our engaging in this multilateral institution.

So far from presaging a pull-out, the defunding forced upon the United States and UNESCO by what now appears to have been naïve politics back in 1990 and a smart asymmetric move by Palestine needs to be reversed. If with that reversal and the discussion it has engendered comes a better grasp of the value of multilateral engagement and the special value of this institution, so much the better. Perhaps to that end Joseph Harriss' rogue article may have served a purpose.
-- Nigel M. de S. Cameron
Chair, Social and Human Sciences Committee
U.S. National Commission for UNESCO

If only UNESCO could embalm the brain of Joseph A. Harriss. It contains a perfect example of cold war mentality from around the time of the Cuban missile crisis -- definitely a cultural artifact worth preserving. Harriss is so busy looking for communists and defending U.S. global hegemony that he can't see the modern UNESCO. We are the UN agency that:

• Teaches police in Afghanistan how to read and write;

• Leads global research in Tsunami warning systems;

• Ensures that the Holocaust is never forgotten; and

• Spearheads Education for All, the movement for universal schooling.

And yes, we're the first UN agency to admit Palestine. What Harriss misses is that -- put to the vote -- every UN agency would make the same decision, except for the General Assembly in New York where the U.S. has a veto through the Security Council. At UNESCO, he blames this new global reality on the "aggressive Arab-African regional bloc" and comes dangerously close to racism when he talks of "grinning, gibbering, gesticulating inmates" "taking over the asylum." Does he always have such an extreme reaction when a vote goes against him? I'm surprised The American Spectator agreed to print such bigoted, undemocratic cant.

But never mind. No one's perfect, certainly not UNESCO. We're in the middle of reforming our business processes and management systems so that the excesses Harriss so exhaustively describes can never happen again. 

Actually, there's a lot that someone with his perspective should be cheerful about. The old UNESCO tried to stifle media through the New World Information and Communication Order. The new UNESCO defends media freedom by protesting every time a journalist is killed in the line of duty. Isn't that what was supposed to happen when America won the cold war?

Sincerely, 
-- Neil Ford
Director, Division of Public Information
UNESCO

Joseph A. Harriss replies:
I was delighted when the editors told me they had received letters reacting to my article on UNESCO. I expected that they would be the sort of serious, constructive discussion of the organization's problems and what to do about them that the article was intended to stimulate. They did, after all, come from Mr. Neil Ford, UNESCO's director of public information, and Mr. Nigel Cameron, a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and Ambassador David Killion of the U.S. Mission to UNESCO. Imagine then my disappointment on discovering that their letters, except for Ambassador Killion's, contained only spiteful vociferation and personal attacks.

First, to answer Mr. Ford: After a brief flash of wit concerning the desirability of embalming my brain, he launches into a snide tirade, beginning with preposterously trying to paint me as a commie hunter of the old Cold War school. He also says I cannot see the modern UNESCO. On the contrary, his reaction indicates that I have seen today's UNESCO only too well. More to the point, a close reading of the article will show that there is no "looking for communists" or "defending U.S. global hegemony," though clearly Mr. Ford, in keeping with the prevailing UNESCO attitude toward America, certainly does not favor the latter. It is distressing that the UNESCO director of public information, surely an intelligent, articulate gentleman as one would expect, resorts to a cheap ad hominem attack. Indeed, his whole missive is devoted to assailing the author, rather than responding concretely to the facts and issues mentioned in the article. He might usefully even have pointed out errors, if any.

His statement that every UN agency would also have admitted Palestine is a spectacularly unsupported allegation. If he has any, Mr. Ford would do better to give us his empirical evidence for that assertion. That would have gone far to refute, if possible, the point that Palestine chose UNESCO, not some other agency, because they knew it was the weak link in the UN system.

He refers to the Arab-African bloc being a "new global reality." This does indeed reflect the official UNESCO line and its day-to-day reality on the ground. But what concerns me is that he comes dangerously close to calling me a racist, the lowest of low blows, to which I do not take kindly. But in all due Christian charity, I forgive him. I understand that, in the absence of seriously contesting points I raise, and being unable to express himself with the sort of verbal elegance one might expect of a high UNESCO official representing what claims to be the world's premier cultural organization, he has no choice but to fall back on rhetoric worthy of a guttersnipe.

He asks, oddly, whether I always have such an extreme reaction when a vote goes against me. While I am flattered that UNESCO might have been voting for or against me personally, the vote actually had nothing to do with me. It was against the member states that considered UNESCO was not the proper forum for deciding the question of Palestinian statehood. Besides the United States, these included such considerable nations as Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden, among others. Your argument about the vote is with them, Mr. Ford, not with me. I am only the messenger of the bad news.

When he refers to an ongoing reform of the "excesses" I describe, I can only accept and applaud Mr. Ford's candid admission that 1) my article was indeed exhaustively researched, and 2) that these "excesses" need to be corrected. QED.

As to America's winning the Cold War, I fail to see the connection between that and the fact that UNESCO has again become dysfunctional due to the political and, occasionally, economic corruption made clear in my article. More likely, such incoherence is simply another example of Mr. Ford's regrettably angry reaction due, no doubt to a sensitive nerve having been touched. Perhaps he would like to cool down and make a positive contribution to a discussion about what can be done to reform that organization? Just a thought. But the present reality is that such reform, as in the 1980s and '90s, will probably be possible only as a result of the salutary shock of America's complete withdrawal.

Now to British-born Mr. Cameron, a self-described inter-disciplinary scholar, facilitator and communicator who has worked both sides of the Atlantic to considerable advantage. Why he sticks his oar into this debate can only be surmised, since it is not the official reaction of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. However that may be, he too starts with bilious insults rather than rational discussion, casting aspersions on my intentions as an investigative journalist and unwittingly raising interesting questions about how much he really supports freedom of the press.

He finds fault with my characterization of the director general, Mrs. Irina Bokova, trying to score points by mentioning that the Bush administration supported her during the election. Well, of course. As my article points out, the U.S. and other Western member states certainly were not going to vote for the other candidate, the thuggish Farouk Hosny. No one doubts that Mrs. Bokova is shrewd -- most survivors of Eastern European communist regimes are -- or intelligent, etc. But the point is that she is unable to control that organization. Unable both because she lacks the forceful personality that requires, and also because UNESCO's structure makes it virtually impossible for any DG to keep it on track. Its problems are systemic, not the result of any one personality.

He questions the relevance of my mentioning that one ambassador voting for Palestine entry was the daughter of a dictator condemned by the UN itself. Actually, it is entirely relevant to demonstrating 1) the unworthy atmosphere in the conference hall during what was supposed to be a vote with weighty consequences, and 2) that this is the sort of national delegate UNESCO attracts, a frivolous socialite who makes the Paris gossip papers photographed cavorting in night clubs in filmy dresses with plunging necklines. Is this the case with any other UN agency Mr. Cameron can cite?

He questions whether UNESCO's past is relevant to its present condition. This section of the article puts UNESCO into the shameful context of its past. The point being, if it is necessary to spell this out for some, that there has long been a pattern of unacceptable behavior by this organization. Today's situation is nothing new.

Mr. Cameron, oddly, states that indeed, UNESCO is badly managed and that this does not particularly shock him. The fact is that "recent controversies" are outrageous, unacceptable, and have stirred significant indignation among the national delegations to UNESCO. That Mr. Cameron is not shocked says more about him and his conception of what constitutes appropriate conduct by a UN agency.

As part of his vituperation, he accuses me of "tabloid journalism." In response, I submit that we should distinguish between "tabloid" and investigative journalism that intends to make a useful contribution to the public discourse. My article is the latter. I am gratified to see that Mr. Cameron agrees with me that UNESCO is badly managed, and that this inevitably produces unacceptable results. But those results are more than merely "embarrassing." They are wasteful, sometimes dangerous (cf. the outbreak of hostilities on the Thai-Cambodian border) and bring the organization into disrepute.

Mr. Cameron argues in favor of UNESCO's "soft power," a frequent European argument to excuse its absence of any other power. I don't know much about the problematic substrates he refers to, but his argument would be considerably stronger if he could have cited just a few concrete, tangible instances in which America's 19-year absence from UNESCO actually harmed its interests. Absent that, it is difficult to justify U.S. membership now, except for those whose jobs and income depend on it.

Finally, I can only be pleased that Mr. Cameron does after all understand that the article is intended to provoke discussion of the need for reform of UNESCO. The best way to concentrate minds on that reform is U.S. withdrawal, as was proved by the reforms it undertook following our withdrawal in 1984.

As to Ambassador David Killion's contribution, I salute his sincere engagement in his task, as do many other ambassadors to UNESCO I interviewed. The problem is that he understandably -- and, I am sure, sincerely -- wants to portray these setbacks as victories. My research makes it necessary that I disagree, as my article demonstrates.

His contention that the defeat of Farouk Hosny as director general was a triumph is unconvincing. At best, this is barely snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But, while the U.S. Mission's role here was indeed exemplary, that is not the point, which is that Hosny's very candidature and near victory demonstrates the systemic failure of the organization.

Ditto the embarrassing mess over World Philosophy Day in Iran. The question is not whether the U.S. and other member states were at the last moment able to change that incredibly stupid decision, but why on earth UNESCO decided to hold it in Iran in the first place. Systemic, self-perpetuating failure is the answer.

Ambassador Killion argues, as anyone in his position must, that engagement in such an organization is the only way to influence it. The unfortunate reality is that most of the time, it's a losing game for the U.S., as the vote on Palestine admission and the corruption of the World Heritage Convention decisively demonstrate.

His argument that UNESCO has programs that promote democracy fails to pass the test of results. UNESCO, as I have pointed out in the article, has many high-flown programs with impressive names, and indeed programs within programs. The problem, as the thoroughgoing British evaluation last year says, is showing convincing results. I see very few, as do the British.

Yes, there is the promise to review the disastrous decision to include Syria on the committee that treats human rights. Nice try again, Ambassador, but Syria's appointment to that committee would never have happened if UNESCO were not dysfunctional. The whole episode illustrates its systemic failure.

Lastly, Ambassador Killion argues with some heat the need of American participation and engagement to keep UNESCO from becoming a rogue agency. Dear Ambassador, it is already a rogue agency, as anyone who reads my article can see. The U.S. can do nothing useful about that except to make the ultimate protest of withdrawing. History shows that only that will concentrate UNESCO's collective mind on the root and branch reform that could make it, once again, a worthwhile enterprise worthy of American support.

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