AT a time when world attention is focused on wavering United Nations efforts to contain the carnage in the former Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration has quietly taken a seemingly unrelated step toward rebuilding United States ties to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In fact, UNESCO has direct relevance to international efforts to prevent similar outbreaks of ethnic conflict in the post-cold-war world.
The groundwork for the Bosnian bloodletting was laid by Serb intellectuals, who in the mid-1980s discerned in Serb ultranationalism the alternative to discredited communism. Abetted by cynical politicians, their poisonous propaganda permeated Serb schools, communications media, and cultural institutions, setting off parallel paroxysms among Croats and whipping up ethnic antagonisms among Yugoslav communities. From there it was a small step to undertake bombardments, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.
In reaction to a like harnessing by the axis powers of culture, schooling, and the media to fan warlike ambitions, Western democracies created UNESCO at the end of World War II. It was chartered to forge international cooperation in these often controversial fields and to promote the "liberal," democratic values of tolerance, respect for the dignity and rights of others, and freedom of expression.
The agency lost sight of that founding vision. It became more a forum for propagating than for bridging political antagonisms. Its program to broaden news and communication networks became mired in controversies over government controls on the press. As its leaders embraced not just the needs but the illiberal attitudes of many third-world governments during the 1970s and 1980s, they lost the confidence of Western democracies.
Mismanagement deepened the malaise. The US suspended its membership in 1984, demanding reform as the price for its return.
The shock of US withdrawal gave other Western democracies and developing countries the opportunity to remake the agency. They installed a new director-general in 1987, Spanish biochemist Federico Mayor, and approved wide-ranging changes. Leaders have made media freedom a crusade, sponsoring conferences on an independent press for journalists in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central Asia. Management has been restructured.
A series of independent review bodies have documented steady progress at UNESCO since Mr. Mayor's accession. But in recent years State Department officials resolutely refused to recognize the change or to reopen the question of US nonmembership in UNESCO. They rebuffed all calls for consultations about UNESCO with American nongovernmental organizations and federal agencies active in education, science, culture, and communications.
The views of American scientists and scholars, teachers and researchers, cultural preservers and creators, journalists and computer makers - whose associations are virtually unanimous in support of US reentry - have not deserved such short shrift. UNESCO's sectors are exactly the areas of America's competitive edge in the world today, our most dynamic and creative sectors. UNESCO's worldwide networks for international exchanges and collaboration, whether on literacy or marine research or cultural heritag e, cannot be replicated on a bilateral basis.
Members of Congress, led by Rep. Esteban Torres (D) of California, have introduced legislation calling for US reentry. For its part, the administration has just undertaken a broad review of US policy that concludes that the work of the revitalized UNESCO is so important that the US needs to be part of it.
While acknowledging the need for US membership, the administration seems to be leaning toward delaying reentry until 1995 for budgetary reasons. Such delay will squander the president's opportunity to assert US leadership and energize the agency to fulfill its original promise to build "the defense of peace ... in the minds of men."
Thanks to its network of contacts with education ministries in every member state, UNESCO is already a vehicle for incorporating education about population planning, environment, drugs, and AIDS into classroom curricula worldwide. It plans to fulfill the same role in education for human rights and democracy. Even in authoritarian societies, the imprimatur of a UNESCO curriculum offers protection to the classroom teacher in raising such politically sensitive issues.
The Clinton administration can bring an even more ambitious vision to UNESCO as it reenters by calling for vigorous measures to strengthen the independence and role of UNESCO national advisory commissions in member states. The educational, cultural, media, and scientific sectors of any country are crucial to the development of civil society. UNESCO can take steps to afford greater international protection for their autonomy and to involve them in its governance.
UNESCO has exceeded US conditions for reentry. Its potential for dealing with the sources of conflicts at their ideological roots makes it a valuable instrument for strengthening world peace and order - at a fraction of the cost of international peacekeeping or military intervention. If such an agency did not already exist, in this turbulent world it would have to be invented. Since it does exist, we need but rejoin and reinvent its mission.