United States' UNESCO policy: 1985 and beyond

REMEDIAL efforts undertaken this year at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, might well have made a case for a 12-month delay in the US decision to withdraw. Its newfound budget restraint was particularly encouraging. Since all signs indicate a pullout, however, it is time to focus on the future. If a US departure is not to become a divorce, but a first step toward a restrengthened union, then both this country and UNESCO will have to make a greater effort than they have to date.

For its part, UNESCO should make a virtue out of financial necessity. Faced with the reality of a 25 percent cut in revenue, it should consolidate the large number of duplicative programs identified by its own internal investigators this summer. Further cuts will also be necessary. Those programs with the narrowest international support should be the first to go, those with the backing of every region should be spared. This key reform would ensure that the political divisions inevitable among UNESCO's members, as they are to some extent in any international organization, will not sabotage its important work in science, education, and elsewhere.

But there is no guarantee that UNESCO will enact such an all-important reform. America's job is to join with other reform-minded states to see that it does. Success here would lead to a historic redirection at UNESCO, with salutary effects for the entire UN system. US failure to contribute to this effort would shift our role from reformer to dropout.

That would be a mistake. The purposes embodied in UNESCO's charter - the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth - reflect some of the principles underlying our own and other democracies. If we cease to press our own values in an institution largely founded upon them, US withdrawal will become a self-inflicted wound.

As it shapes its new policy toward UNESCO, the US should draw on lessons learned at the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1977 the US withdrew from the ILO after that agency failed to respond to longstanding American complaints. In 1980, after significant changes, the US returned. Yet it was not withdrawal that brought the improvements, but the fact that US attention to the ILO intensified. Our capacity to monitor and take part in international labor matters was beefed up dramatically at the Department of Labor. Overall coordination of US policy toward ILO, and surveillance of the reform effort, was taken over by a senior Cabinet committee. We set out clearly those specific conditions that would have to be satisfied before the US returned.

If a US withdrawal from UNESCO is to result in a strengthening of that organization and of American interests there, then, guided by the ILO example, the US should put its leverage to work.

First, the US should present UNESCO with a list of specific and feasible conditions that would permit an enthusiastic American reentry. Over the past year, the US has failed to articulate its demands and expectations consistently and clearly.

Second, a high-ranking special ambassador to UNESCO's Paris headquarters should be appointed by the President. Working closely with US allies and other reform-minded states, the US representative would use the period from January through the General Conference next October to push for more lasting reforms than were achieved this year.

Third, continuing reform efforts should be coordinated by a high-level committee chaired by the Department of State and including the heads of each governmental agency directly concerned with some aspect of UNESCO activities. In addition, the committee should include senior representatives of the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This panel would monitor both developments within UNESCO and the effectiveness of the alternative arrangements utilized to carry out some UNESCO programs.

Finally there are many UNESCO-funded programs on which specialized scientific , educational, and cultural communities in the US depend for exchange of information vital to research, for access to areas difficult to enter by American nationals, and for other reasons. Where there proves to be no feasible alternative, arrangements should be made to maintain US funding and participation at the technical level in these activities.

There is no magic by which a US withdrawal from UNESCO will produce changes which its pesence this year failed to achieve. An American departure - should it happen - ought to be part of a larger, sustained, and intensified effort to reform the organization. If it is not, both the US and UNESCO will be losers.

Elliot L. Richardson is chairman of the United Nations Association of the USA.

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