Defunding UNESCO is America's "Least-Bad" Option
A nation threatening to withhold contributions to UNESCO – the United Nation’s education, scientific, and cultural body – must seem like the petulant act of a bully. After all, UNESCO is, quite possibly, the least contentious of the UN’s major bodies (Preah Vihear notwithstanding). So when the U.S. State Department announced that it would not make its $60-$80 million contribution to UNESCO after the organization admitted Palestine as a member yesterday, it is not hard for observers to vilify America’s rash actions.
Yet, in the great game of politics, America’s actions are probably the “least-bad” option it has at its disposal.
Yes, defunding UNESCO is a peevish act. However, UNESCO probably does not rank amongst the UN's most vital organizations. And the United States could have done a lot worse.
Withdrawing America’s financial contributions to UNESCO – which amount to just over 20% of its annual budget – was meant to be a clear signal of America’s commitment to its ally Israel’s position that Palestine should not be granted full membership in the UN. Palestinian Authority Presdent Mahmod Abbas’ dramatic attempt to gain UN membership completely blindsided Israel and forced a diplomatic crisis within the UN. The division was dramatic, as Israel, America and her allies opposed much of the rest of the world.
As the first UN body to admit Palestine, America’s harsh response to UNESCO will be seen as a devastating sign of things to come. Shades of UN-hostile American administrations from yesteryear echo. But such a move will not necessarily deter Palestine’s supporters from voting; the only thing it will do will threaten the good work that the UN does around the world.
The State Department’s logic, however, is clear. Ever since Abbas announced his intention to seek UN membership, the State Department has gradually realigned itself to this shift in Middle Eastern politics – Palestinian membership in the UN is supported by the vast majority of member states. But at the same time, the United States government has a vested interest in standing by Israel for foreign policy, security, and domestic political benefits. Both Republicans and Democrats have affirmed the Israeli alliance as a cornerstone of national policy and neither side can politically afford to waver on its support for Israel.
As luck would have it, UNESCO was the first UN body to admit Palestine. This allows the American government to appear staunch in its pro-Israeli stance and send a credible message to the rest of the world. At the same time, defunding UNESCO is probably the least harmful act America could have struck against the UN.
If America’s hand were, instead, forced against the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme, or the World Health Organization – UN bodies that have, literally, saved the lives of millions, if not billions, of people – the consequences would have been catastrophic. The United States’ would have been universally hated and condemned as being cruel and arbitrary. That it was UNESCO that suffered the initial snub could be a small blessing.
The UNESCO vote, and America’s subsequent reaction, should therefore be seen as a rehearsal for the next stage in Palestine’s quest for UN membership. America had to send a clear message to the international community, and President Barack Obama had to avoid political criticism at home, without jeopardizing the lives of millions. Thankfully, this time, the stakes were not any higher. In future votes, the Obama administration could always cite this instance to justify itself to the domestic pro-Israeli lobby, while ceding to the “inevitable tide of history” or “humanitarian concerns” to explain its continued funding of the UN’s more immediately vital organizations.
But there could yet be a technicality that could add another twist to the story. Membership to UNESCO can only be confirmed after Palestine signs and ratifies the UNESCO constitution – something that is usually only done by a sitting legislature in a democratic government. Given the split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, this could complicate Palestine’s ability to accede to UNESCO. Such complications could, potentially, allow the U.S. to continue to fund UNESCO, preserving its ability to safeguard humanity’s collective cultural and scientific achievements while presenting a brave face for its citizenry and Israel.
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