There is more to the United States' planned withdrawal from UNESCO than unhappiness with that specific organization's management and programs. ''The discontent,'' says David Brooks Arnold, a former United Nations official, ''is but the signal most visible of a crisis of confidence that has been spreading through the entire international system for years.''
One of the issues in the specialized agencies of the UN is that each nation has a single vote, no matter its population, economic might, or financial contributions. Fiji, for instance, has the same vote as the United States.
In the United Nations itself, the nature of the Security Council recognizes national might to some degree. Some of the most powerful nations have a veto, for one thing. Also, in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, voting power reflects national output to a considerable degree.
But in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization 100 developing nations - which contribute only 1 percent of the budget - easily can control the 161-nation agency.
Gregory J. Newell, US assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, complains that when UNESCO votes are taken for budget increases, it is easy for the smaller nations ''to raise their hands'' in favor. ''In effect, they impose taxes on the major donors,'' he says.
When UNESCO's executive board met here in October to consider the agency's budget, US Ambassador Jean Gerard introduced a resolution that would have required an 85 percent majority for approval of the work program and corresponding budget estimates. In effect, Mr. Newall noted, eight nations could have blocked a boost in the budget, or vice versa, a drop in the budget.
When the US got no support from other industrial nations, it withdrew the resolution.
Swiss Ambassador Charles Hummel argued that it was wrong to say that one nation-one vote was the only correct democratic method. The Swiss confederation, one of the oldest of democracies, has a system for balancing the votes of the 26 cantons, he noted.
A representative of another industrial nation, although recognizing the validity of the US argument, commented: ''We feel that it is extremely dangerous for us to advocate that sort of position.'' He said the resentment of smaller nations to the proposal was ''extremely strong.''
For instance, a delegate from Guyana attacked the US proposal as being contrary to the democratic principles he had learned in a British university.
At the moment, one of the complaints of the industrial nations at UNESCO is not only that the third-world majority can override the industrial-world minority with ease, but also that director-general Amadou Mahtar M'Bow runs the organization and devises its programs with little real control from any of its member nations.
One industrial country representative explained that most third-world delegates are sent by their governments to UNESCO to round up as much development money as possible. Since Mr. M'Bow and the secretariat largely devise the details of UNESCO's spending program, it is in the interest of third-world representatives to curry his favor. They tend to be compliant with the budget and program wishes of the director general.
In the case of the 3,316 employees in the secretariat, it is noted, in the past M'Bow has controlled in great detail staff appointments, promotions, extension of job contracts, trips to conferences, and other such benefits or favors. This gives him too tight control, it is charged.
A special study by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) called for greater oversight by the governing bodies (the nations) and decentralization of decisionmaking (shifting some decisions downward in the bureaucracy).
UNESCO officials say reforms along the lines suggested by the GAO are being instituted, but take time. US officials doubt the reality of the reforms, but the US will be sending a team of observers to UNESCO next year to monitor progress.
For the time being, some industrial-nation delegates describe UNESCO as run like a ''dictatorship'' or ''machine government.''
As a result, a delegate alleged, there are ''far too few good people left in the secretariat.'' Intellectual standards, he said, have been lowered over the years. Reports, particularly in the social science areas, tend to be ''wordy, largely meaningless, highly unimpressive.''
Dr. Frederick Seitz, president emeritus of Rockefeller University in New York , says: ''Unless something happens at UNESCO, it will become less and less effective, even in the sciences. It hasn't had any new blood or new ideas.''
Many industrial countries have written M'Bow with calls for reforms. Usually these nations' complaints are similar to those of the United States, though many would prefer the US to remain in UNESCO and work from within.
Last week, the US National Commission on UNESCO, a private group advising the State Department, passed a resolution regretting the US withdrawal ''before the process of reform with full United States participation was completed.'' The group also urged the US to continue working with other nations and the director general ''to refine and secure reform objectives'' with the objective of rejoining ''at the earliest possible date.''
Without reforms, Hummel warns, the interest of the major industrial nations in UNESCO will fade away.