United Nations Archive 2

Is the UN Back, or Is the US Back?


By Bill Miller

After the infantile name-calling and genuine inability of key Security Council members to agree upon whether Iraq should be invaded, whether Saddam has weapons of mass destruction that were an imminent threat, and whether Saddam Hussein should be disarmed forcibly, some UN-watchers (and bashers, alike) erroneously predicted that the UN would go the way of the failed League of Nations. Uninformed pundits were lining up to throw the first shovel of dirt on the UN’s coffin. Today they are scarcely to be found. What happened?

It probably became apparent that the UN is still the only international entity to bring together the 191 countries of the world to deal with thorny problems, hopefully, peacefully. The UN, even during the withering verbal and political assault prior to the invasion of Iraq, continued to be the US’s number one ally in combating terrorism, developing the physical and social infrastructure in Afghanistan, diligently working to defuse the Iranian and North Korean nuclear flashpoints, developing the military, economic, and social programs to confront the dangerous and challenging problems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia, while successfully conducting another 10 or so peacekeeping missions. Recently, President Bush (who at-times referred to the UN as irrelevant) and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan met at the White House to discuss major international problems and how the US and UN could cooperate. The US now wants to take the North Korean-US standoff to the Security Council, rather than deal with it bilaterally. While the UN was rising like the Phoenix Bird from the ashes of destruction, the 90% of the UN system that provides basic services worldwide continued to develop rules to safely move aircraft, ships, mail, and weather information around the world.

A thoughtful questioner might ask if it were not the US withdrawal, albeit for a few weeks, from the UN decision-making process, that was similar to how the US withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1984 for a 19-year period. Fortunately, the US is returning to be an active player in all phases of the UN, even the once-maligned UNESCO.

On September 12, during a major speech at the UN, President Bush, who should be congratulated, stated the US would re-join UNESCO because it had reformed and met the US’s concerns about bureaucratic mismanagement, corruption, and the politicization of its programs and staff. President Bush was correct to push for re-entry, even though the US could have re-joined UNESCO in 1993 after the US General Accounting Office concluded that most of the problems had been eliminated or were being treated adequately. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who signed the 1984 letter to withdraw from UNESCO, recommended in 2000 that the US return. UNESCO’s far-reaching internal management reforms began under former Director-General Frederico Mayor of Spain and continue today with the current Director, Dr. Matsuura from Japan. UNESCO has reduced waste, become more transparent and competitive, implemented results-based management and budgeting, established an internal and external auditing system, moved to merit-based hiring and promotion, and reduced senior level positions by 50%.

Now that President Bush has committed to US re-entry into UNESCO, it is critical that the US Congress immediately authorize and appropriate the approximately $71 million Administration request by October, 2003, so that the US is eligible for election to the Executive Board, which develops the programs and sets the budget priorities. The US’s annual membership will be $60 million, or a paltry 25 cents for each American.

UNESCO has a long list of accomplishments that are directly beneficial to US foreign policy, such as combating terrorism by developing programs to combat government corruption, endemic poverty, mass illiteracy, environmental devastation, and the spread of infectious diseases. It also promotes democracy, a free press, and international conflict through an intercultural mediation project.

Both the US Government and UNESCO have shown that there is often ample opportunity to recognize an organization’s mistakes, make mid-course management and policy corrections, and develop a logical strategy to achieve their goals. What are the key lessons learned? The US and the UN agencies, such as UNESCO, desperately need one another. It is wiser and more effective to stay involved with one another on a professional level to effect change that will benefit both groups. Unfortunately, eighteen years were lost with the US-UNESCO imbroglio. Fortunately, the UN and the US are moving towards an active partnership, after the recent disagreement on Iraq at the UN, on all fronts. This act of maturity is long overdue.