WASHINGTON — A year and a day after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush went to the UN to announce that, "As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. The organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning."
Mr. Bush's decision to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after a 19-year absence marks recognition of the valuable role it plays in promoting US principles, like freedom and democracy, and serving US interests, like the war on terrorism. It is also a welcome display of US collaboration in international bodies.
Yet, while Bush has worked to uphold his commitment to the international community, Congress is dangerously close to discrediting that commitment by not funding US membership in the organization. Bush requested $71 million in his 2004 federal budget to fund reentry. The House approved the funds in July. But last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee struck all UNESCO funding from the Senate version of the bill. The US officially rejoined the organization on Oct. 1 - but unless funding is restored, the US is in immediate arrears, jeopardizing its leadership in UNESCO before it even begins.
A Congressional decision not to fund US membership would be shortsighted and counterproductive. The decision to return to UNESCO was more than an acknowledgment of sweeping reforms within the organization - such as staff cuts, management overhaul, and the elimination of biases and corruption - made since the US withdrew in 1984. More important, the decision to rejoin was part of the realization that military force alone isn't enough to win the war on terrorism, which - more than a struggle for dominion - is a battle for the hearts and minds of entire generations. It requires addressing the roots of social ills and changing the mind-set that somehow leads human beings to sacrifice their own lives to kill others. If it is to triumph against global terrorism, the US must prevail in the war of ideals.
By rejoining UNESCO, the US is supporting UNESCO's global promotion of values like human rights, democracy, good governance, a free press, and universal education. In the aftermath of the war against Afghanistan, for example, the organizationplayed a key role in giving girls equal opportunityto go to school. In Iraq, students received new textbooks free of old propaganda, thanks to UNESCO.
At a ceremony last month in Paris welcoming back the US, First Lady Laura Bush noted, "As the civilized world stands against terror, UNESCO's work can make an enormous difference. Together, we can construct, as UNESCO's constitution states, the defenses of peace in the minds of men."
It's time for Congress to honor Bush's commitment, heed the First Lady's words, and assure that US membership begins with the right foot forward, not devoid of meaning and deep in debt.
• Timothy Wirth, a former US senator from Colorado, is president of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund. He was Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs in the Clinton administration.