UNESCO Goes to Washington
The organization plans to open a new office to influence U.S. policy.

UNESCO’s Bulgarian director general, Irina Bokova


On whose authority is this office being set up? “On the authority of the director-general,” said Papagiannis, referring to Irina Bokova. While UNESCO’s mission is to promote culture, it seems the main aim of this office will be to promote UNESCO itself, with a special focus on the U.S. capital, where, Papagiannis says, there is a failure to fully appreciate UNESCO. He explained, “My remit in this is very much focused on Washington.” His brief, he said, will include “liaising” with “various stakeholders.” Will he be meeting with U.S. lawmakers? He said he’d be glad to oblige “if members of Congress and their staff would like to meet with me.”

Does that mean he will be lobbying U.S. authorities to restore funding to UNESCO? “I am not lobbying,” replied Papagiannis. “I am raising awareness about the organization.”

When I phoned Papagiannis, he was about to leave Paris for Washington. He is now in the U.S., accompanying Bokova, who is devoting nearly two weeks (March 13–25) to her third visit to America’s shores since September. After starting her trip in Washington, Bokova plans to visit Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. According to UNESCO’s website, her agenda includes meetings with the media, private-sector companies, charitable foundations, and “government officials.”

This isn’t the first U.S. trip on which Bokova has availed herself of the talents of a former U.S. congressional staffer. According to one congressional aide, on her previous trip to Washington this past December, Bokova was squired to meetings with lawmakers by the current U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion. Killion is a veteran of the Hill, where he helped pave the way for America’s 2003 return to UNESCO, after President Ronald Reagan pulled the U.S. out in 1984.

Before President Obama appointed Killion in 2009 as the U.S. envoy to UNESCO, Killion served for years as a staffer and top adviser on U.N. affairs to the late Representative Tom Lantos. Killion’s State Department biography records that “in this capacity he worked on legislation that Mr. Lantos introduced and passed in 2001 authorizing the U.S.’s re-entry to UNESCO.”

Killion is an impassioned advocate of “active engagement” with UNESCO, arguing that this is the way to influence the organization for the better. But on his watch as ambassador, there’s been little U.S. influence on display. One reason may be that Killion keeps hinting that no matter what UNESCO does, the Obama administration will seek ways to keep American money flowing.

That’s how Killion’s message played out last fall, following the vote on the Palestinian Authority. Killion delivered a statement explaining why America voted no. Quite reasonably, he invoked the same rationale that underpins the U.S. laws passed in the 1990s: The path to Palestinian statehood lies in good-faith, direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, not a Palestinian end-run at the U.N. But Killion then undercut his own message. Speaking to the same UNESCO crowd that had just overwhelmingly scorned the U.S. position, he promised, “We pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the important work of this vital organization.”

The Obama administration has since greatly expanded on Killion’s kow-tow to UNESCO. In February, President Obama submitted a 2013 State Department budget that lists $78.9 million for UNESCO, despite the legal ban on funding for the organization. In a footnote comes the explanation: “The Department of State intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO.”

By now, there’s quite a crowd trying to “work with Congress” to reopen America’s river of money to UNESCO. Let’s reprise the star players: former congressional staffers Killion and Papagiannis, plus the U.S. State Department, plus UNESCO director-general Bokova — whose job is supposed to be administering UNESCO, not pressuring the U.S. to change its laws.