Alarm bells ought to be going off because of the quiet trip to Washington this week of the head of the Paris-based UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. For at least the fourth time since last December, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova is visiting the U.S. capital. There are disturbing signs that her trip is part of a renewed push by the Obama administration to waive U.S. law in order to flood UNESCO once again with American taxpayers’ money.
More than money, though, is at stake. Also at issue is the credibility of U.S. foreign policy. Two laws passed by Congress in the early 1990s block American funding to any U.N. body that admits the Palestinians to full membership before they fulfill their promise of direct negotiations with Israel. The aim of these laws, which worked well under three previous presidents, is to prevent the Palestinians from exploiting the U.N. as an avenue to acquiring on paper the statehood they have not yet qualified for in practice.
But last year, perhaps banking on hints that the Obama administration was exploring ways around these laws, UNESCO’s members went ahead anyway. Cheering as they massively outvoted the U.S., they admitted the Palestinian Authority to full membership. That immediately cost them U.S. contributions of more than $78 million per year, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s core budget.
In theory, UNESCO, by treating “Palestine” as a member state, opened the door for the Palestinian Authority to join a number of other U.N. agencies. But at the U.N., for all the impassioned rhetoric, a credible threat of losing hard cash makes a lot of folks think twice. If there is an obvious reason why the Palestinians have not so far pressed ahead with joining other U.N. agencies, it is that the U.S. withdrawal of funding to UNESCO made other agencies wary of welcoming the Palestinians — and lo! the Palestinians got the message.
But will that hold? For the past year, Director-General Bokova has been campaigning for the resumption of U.S. funding. She rushed to Washington to meet with members of Congress last December. She returned to the U.S. in March for a twelve-day tour that took her from Washington to Los Angeles. She was back in Washington in September and also attended the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York that month. Her pitch has been that the cutoff of U.S. money has imposed crippling hardships on UNESCO, and that America needs UNESCO because its “vital work to promote global stability and democratic values is in America’s core interests.”
These are flimsy arguments, given UNESCO’s habit of devoting the bulk of its resources to the comfort of its well-paid staff in Paris and its record, according to its own auditors, of waste and confusion in the field. Nor is UNESCO a cradle of core American interests and values, a prime counterexample being the Palestinian vote itself. To take a more recent example, Bokova — who during the Cold War served in Bulgaria’s mission to the U.N. in New York — was in Cuba last month, praising the school system of the Castro dictatorship as a paragon of education in Latin America.
Does America need UNESCO? In 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, America left UNESCO entirely, finding it hopelessly anti-American and corrupt. America then stayed away during George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s presidencies, and did not return until 2003, under President George W. Bush. During that 19-year period, America won the Cold War and saw the spread of freedom in the world. If America’s absence from UNESCO had any effect, it was probably a salutary one.
But Bokova, in her push for the resumption of U.S. funding, has had an improbable ally: the U.S. administration itself. In Paris, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to UNESCO is a former congressional staffer, David Killion, who played a part in bringing the U.S. back into UNESCO nine years ago. Following the UNESCO vote last year to admit the Palestinians, Killion came close to apologizing for the U.S. position. He pledged that the U.S. would keep trying to “find ways to support and strengthen the important work” of UNESCO.
In February, the U.S. State Department released a budget proposal that ignored the defunding of UNESCO required by U.S. law, and proposed $79 million for UNESCO in fiscal year 2013. A footnote, in fine print, informed readers that the State Department “intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO.”
Some members of Congress were outraged. Florida representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, released a statement saying she was “deeply disappointed that, rather than standing up for U.S. law and for our key ally, Israel, the Administration is seeking to remove this roadblock to the unilateral recognition of a ‘Palestinian state.’” Ros-Lehtinen added that any attempt to waive the law “will pave the way for the Palestinian leadership’s unilateral statehood scheme to drive on, and sends a disastrous message that the U.S. will fund U.N. bodies no matter what irresponsible decisions they make.”
Enough lawmakers shared her views that it seemed for a while that the administration would not get its wish to reopen the money spigot for UNESCO. Some deterrent is needed to Palestinian opportunism at the U.N., where Obama’s State Department failed last month to stop the General Assembly from voting to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status to that of non-member observer state. Former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton notes that how the U.S. deals with UNESCO could set a vital precedent for how it would treat other U.N. agencies, such as the World Health Organization, were they to admit the Palestinian Authority. “If you waive the prohibition once,” Bolton says, “and waive it for a trivial little organization like UNESCO, the pressure to waive it everywhere else will be overwhelming.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, UNESCO has been busy in the back corridors. Following the cutoff of U.S. funding, Bokova handpicked a UNESCO staffer named George Papagiannis to serve in the newly created role of her Washington go-between. Papagiannis, a former communications director for Representative Nancy Pelosi, is well versed in the byways of the Hill. By many accounts, Papagiannis has organized virtually all of Bokova’s doings in the U.S. this past year, including her visits to U.S. legislators.
UNESCO’s website lists Papagiannis as an external-relations and information officer assigned to UNESCO’s liaison office at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York. But staffers there say he spends a lot of time in Washington. And in Washington, for at least part of this year, he has been working out of the office of a small nonprofit outfit called Americans for UNESCO, housed on the premises of George Washington University. Papagiannis refused repeatedly this week to answer my e-mail and phone queries about Bokova’s meetings and his own office arrangements. But documents posted on the website of Americans for UNESCO describe him as using its Washington office earlier this year. In a phone interview, a former longtime board member, John Daly, says that is correct.
All of which might be of no great interest were Papagiannis laboring in Washington to enhance literacy, or perhaps restore cultural artifacts. But there’s a lot of discussion going on among this crowd about how the funding law might be waived. On one of the blogs linked to on the Americans for UNESCO site, there’s a post dated December 1 with the caption “The Process to Change the Law.” It outlines exactly how that might be done — by way of an amendment to a big spending bill: “There will probably not be a specific vote of the Congress on the proposed amendment. Rather it will be included in a larger bill to appropriate funds, that will probably be approved before March, 2013. . . . Lacking strong opposition in the Congress, the waiver will probably be incorporated into the bill.”
Is this credible? I phoned the author of the post, the same John Daly. Daly is an ardent supporter of UNESCO, but unlike Papagiannis he answered my questions. He said he got this information from Peter Yeo, when Yeo spoke at a November 26 panel hosted by Americans for UNESCO at George Washington University. Yeo is a former congressional staffer who now serves as executive director of the Better World Campaign, which is an advocacy arm of Ted Turner’s well-heeled and well-connected U.N. Foundation. In a phone interview this week, Yeo repeated the view that a waiver for UNESCO is likely to go through in “a big omnibus spending bill,” because “this is a strategy that’s been outlined by the president.”
When Yeo shared these thoughts at last month’s Americans for UNESCO panel, he was speaking alongside Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer. Both of them were responding to a keynote speech by UNESCO’s George Papagiannis.
Information gleaned from UNESCO’s Paris press office this week suggests Bokova will be meeting in Washington with pretty much this same cast of characters who last month were discussing the legislative sleight of hand for hooking UNESCO back up to U.S. taxpayers’ wallets. Squired by Papagiannis, Bokova will be visiting the State Department, plus the U.N. Foundation and “other institutes and foundations.” And which lawmakers will she be seeing this time? Papagiannis replied to that question with an e-mail: “Our meetings are very fluid. At the end of the visit there will be a press release, which you will have access to.”
— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.