US should rejoin UNESCO

It's time for the United States to rethink the decision made 15 years ago to leave an organization it helped found in 1946 - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The US left UNESCO primarily because of disagreements over its internal management and political issues rooted largely in Cold War differences with Soviet bloc members of UNESCO.

Times have changed, and so has UNESCO.

Under new leadership and direction, UNESCO has tighter financial controls and more streamlined and efficient management. It has instituted strategic planning, restored recognition of intellectual property rights, and avowed its support for international freedom of the press, all of which were at the center of the disagreement with UNESCO.

These reasons alone should be enough for the US to rejoin UNESCO and reaffirm its commitment to supporting "full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge" as stated in the UNESCO constitution.

UNESCO is more important to the world today than it has been at any time in its 53-year history because the world is changing more rapidly than it ever has.

Think about what has transpired in just the past 10 years. The Berlin Wall came crumbling down, not from the weight of military might, but from the strength of the will of ordinary people. Sovereignty over Hong Kong - one of the world's great cities - was transferred from one world power to another, without a shot being fired or a life being lost. In Kosovo, Kuwait, and other troubled parts of the globe, the world community has come together to confront and, when necessary, forcefully stop, regional aggression and ethnic oppression. At the end of this year, the United States of America, the world's remaining superpower, returns to Panama, one of the smallest nations of the world, what is rightfully Panama's - control of the strategically and commercially invaluable Panama Canal.

I'm a scientist and an engineer, but as much as I love science and technology, I consider these events to be foremost among our 20th century achievements. These achievements mark the ongoing reduction of political, cultural, and economic barriers, and the dawning of a new era of global cooperation and global community. These achievements are, first and foremost, social achievements - the achievements of people working together. And they are based on knowledge, education, and mutual understanding, which are also the foundations of UNESCO.

Even though US government participation in and funding of UNESCO ended in 1984, participation in UNESCO programs and activities by the people in this nation has continued. In 1993, my university - Iowa State University - joined with UNESCO and private sector partners to create the International Institute for Theoretical and Applied Physics. Through IITAP, we share our scientific and technical knowledge with scientists from developing nations so they can put it to use in their nations to generate new economic activity and promote progress.

The Institute for Biosphere and Society at Columbia University and the Pierre Auger Project involving the University of Chicago and Fermilab are other UNESCO partnerships that are doing important work here and in developing nations. There should be many more, and there will be when the US rejoins UNESCO.

There's an even more fundamental reason for the US to rejoin UNESCO - it has to do with the role of America as the leader of the world. As we move away from confrontation and toward cooperation, as barriers - physical, cultural, and ideological - continue to crumble, and as we move to a world economy based, for the first time, on an unlimited resource (knowledge), the leaders of this world will not be the nations with the strongest military forces. The leaders will be those nations with the greatest ability to generate and share these knowledge resources.

Participation in UNESCO will enable the US to realize its role as a world leader in this knowledge age. That's why I support House Resolution 1974, which directs the president to develop a strategy to bring the US back into full and active participation in UNESCO.

It's time to rejoin the rest of the world.

*Martin C. Jischke is president of Iowa State University.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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