FIVE years ago the United States withdrew from the troubled United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is clear, both in terms of program and management, that UNESCO is well along on the road to renewal. Now it is time for the United States to return. The US should rejoin UNESCO not only because the agency has vigorous, reform-minded leadership in its new director-general, Spanish biochemist Federico Mayor. It needs to rejoin as a matter of national interest. UNESCO helps shape the thinking and the policies of the world community in domains vital to America's own competitive edge - science, education, culture, and communication. We diminish our own influence by keeping ourselves isolated from UNESCO forums.
This is not to say the US withdrawal has not had a salutary effect. When Washington pulled out, I believed it was responding rightly to deteriorating conditions in the agency. I believe now that that strategy has accomplished its purpose.
In the early 1980s UNESCO was suffering from grossly political mismanagement by its then director-general and from a political and ideological perversion of the agency's mission. UNESCO needed shock therapy to break the fever of ideological fantasies and restore its sense of realism. The shock treatment has worked.
UNESCO's most destructive ideological battle was over a ``new world information order.'' Left-wing totalitarians two decades ago manipulated legitimate concerns about inadequate press coverage of the third world to justify calls for restructuring the world's communications media - under government control. This ``new order'' was openly intended to threaten the commercial interests of Western news media - and, far more insidiously, it also jeopardized the fundamental principle of freedom of the press.
While the West in the late 1970s successfully stripped resolutions on the ``new information order'' of any language sanctioning state controls, the specter of state ``responsibility'' for media continued to lurk in ambiguous texts. Now, with Dr. Mayor's leadership, that specter has been exorcised.
At their biennial conference in November, UNESCO's member states agreed to consign the ``new order'' to history. They reaffirmed UNESCO's constitutional mandate to promote the ``free flow of information.'' They praised ``private'' and ``independent'' media and made them eligible for UNESCO program assistance. They explicitly endorsed ``freedom of the press'' as an international goal.
THE welcome shift from political confrontation is evident in other areas of US concerns too. UNESCO forums were once a favorite venue for Israel-bashing, approving vitriolic resolutions even when contradicted by the balanced reports of UNESCO's own fact-finders. In 1989, by contrast, UNESCO member states rejected Yasir Arafat's application for membership for the ``State of Palestine.''
There has been undeniable progress on the two other concerns the US cited as its reasons for withdrawal. UNESCO's budgetary growth, once among the fastest among UN agencies, not only slowed; its budget was slashed 20 percent in 1985 and has been frozen ever since. As for management, Mayor promptly ended his predecessor's manipulative control of all hiring and returned authority over recruitment to program managers. He has gradually installed his own reform team, and is now executing a massive staff shakeup.
One would think Americans would celebrate the improvements our withdrawal helped produce. Inexplicably, some in the State Department, denying the reality of change, seem determined not to take yes for an answer. This doesn't make sense.
The US can gain nothing more by staying out of UNESCO. It can only lose. It would suffer, first, a further loss to its credibility in international forums, already tattered by its failure to resume full payment of its UN dues. Furthermore, the leverage for reform that the US withdrawal gave our Western allies is now exhausted.
If our government decides not to go back, we will surrender our influence over the agency: There is no more damage the US can threaten. And there are political costs. If the US is not there, for example, the Arafat ``government'' may easily waltz into membership in UNESCO next year.
But the bigger loss is to this country's professional communities - our scientists, educators, and preservationists. UNESCO has always been for them a vital instrument for international collaboration. UNESCO's activities - whether in environmental science, literacy, copyright law, or human rights - are important to Americans. As the president of the National Academy of Sciences told Congress in testimony last fall, ``to meet the increasingly urgent global problems that will confront us during the next decade and, indeed, after the turn of the century ... we should give UNESCO the benefit of our active involvement.''
President Bush has underscored the importance of America's energetic participation in the United Nations system. With our success in turning around the world's lead agency on education, science, and culture, surely we want to be part of its future.