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The UNESCO Follies Are Back

The Obama administration bungles the Palestinians’ membership vote.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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The Palestinian Authority succeeded last Monday in becoming a member state in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The vote was 107 in favor, 14 opposed, and 52 abstaining, with France, Spain, Austria, and India among those supporting PA admission. Two of our closest allies, the United Kingdom and Japan, abstained. Because of a 1990 federal law, supplemented in 1994, the State Department announced a few hours after the vote that the United States was ceasing its contribution to UNESCO.

Photo of Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki and ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar


The applicable statute, proposed in 1989 by Senator Bob Kasten, was a corollary to President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization (predecessor of the PA) from joining U.N. agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNESCO. Back then, the PLO was trying to create “facts on the ground” in the Middle East peace process by working the U.N.’s corridors. Because only states are eligible for membership in the U.N. system, becoming a member of U.N. bodies, in the PLO/PA’s idiosyncratic view, would prove it was a state and therefore equivalent to Israel. 

Europeans in particular were reluctant to oppose the PLO. In part, they dismissed as pro forma the Bush administration’s warnings that Congress would retaliate financially if the PLO joined WHO; they assumed this stance was purely for domestic consumption, to appease “the Jewish lobby,” which Europeans believed in even before professors Walt and Mearsheimer unearthed it. 

Those of us in the administration working to block the PLO realized we needed to take much stronger steps. Accordingly, Secretary of State James Baker issued a statement that he would recommend to the president eliminating all U.S. contributions, assessed or voluntary, to any U.N. organization that granted the PLO full membership or changed its observer-state status. Everyone understood that Bush 41 would accept Baker’s suggestion. 

The effect was dramatic. PLO membership was defeated in May 1989 during a boisterous WHO meeting in Geneva that saw Libyans, Cubans, and Nicaraguan Sandinistas stand on their chairs denouncing American imperialism. Immediately afterwards, I flew from Geneva to Paris to meet with UNESCO’s executive board. Ever since Ronald Reagan withdrew the United States from UNESCO in 1984 (along with Thatcher’s Britain and Singapore), U.S. contributions to UNESCO had been minimal, so defunding was irrelevant. Instead, I delivered an equally stark message: You can have us or the PLO. The United States will never rejoin if the PLO is admitted. Different words, same music, same effect. 

Some people might call this the exercise of smart power. Twenty-plus years later, however, confronted with a resurrected Palestinian U.N. membership campaign, Team Obama stumbled badly. Initially, there was even speculation, since denied, that the president might not order a Security Council veto of a PA application to the United Nations. (Applications to U.N. agencies are decided individually by their respective governing bodies.) 

In the context of the financial crises since 2008, there are often calls for governments to use a “big bazooka,” a really dramatic step to signal their willingness to take strong measures and thereby reassure global markets. Obama’s hesitancy, embarrassment, and unwillingness to fire up a big-bazooka defunding threat undoubtedly contributed to last week’s UNESCO defeat. Without question, the PA sensed this weakness and exploited it. Comments by State Department officials before and after the vote betrayed their displeasure with the statute, in effect blaming Congress for making them do something they didn’t really want to do. Had they enthusiastically endorsed turning off the U.S. spigot to UNESCO, they would likely have succeeded, as the Bush administration did in 1989. 

The difference between Obama and Bush 41 is that Bush understood America had higher priorities than funding U.N. agencies. He and Baker were not afraid to order, over the usual cries of doom and gloom, strong diplomacy to achieve our objectives. And their muscular strategy prevailed. U.S. Middle East policy was not derailed by politically incontinent Palestinian leadership, and the U.N. system was not deprived of any funding. Under Obama, the opposite is happening on both counts. 

George W. Bush decided to rejoin UNESCO in 2003 under the mistaken impression he could thereby stem criticism of his administration’s unilateralism. Predictably, however, the “international community” pocketed the U.S. return while continuing its unrelentingly hostile appraisal of Bush and his policies. For the privilege of continuing to be abused, Washington resumed payment of its assessed share of UNESCO’s annual budget; the U.S. share reached approximately $80,000,000 this fiscal year.

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