Soft Power Failure

Following in the heels of the recent flap over archaeology funding at the NSF, my colleague Chris Monroe pointed out yet another arena where the US government is failing the cause of research and preservation.  This time, it is the global stage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  A 1990 law passed by Congress law stipulated that:

No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

By voting to bar US funds for any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a member state, the goal was presumably to be preventative.  The US provides a sizable portion of UN agency budgets so the threat of a withdrawal of funds was presumably to work as a kind of soft veto over any effort to bring Palestine into the organization.

Only one problem: circumstances on the ground changed and the soft veto did not work.  In 2011, Palestine was admitted to membership in UNESCO and the flow of US dues was summarily cut off.  The US had been providing 22% of UNESCO’s funding so the damage to its programs was necessarily consequential.

But the damage doesn’t stop there.  UNESCO’s rules require that countries who fail to pay their dues for two years lose their vote in the UNESCO General Assembly.  As the New York Times notes, this makes it considerably less likely that “two American sites on the list to become World Heritage sites certified by Unesco will win approval.”

But perhaps just as importantly, the US can no longer use its role in UNESCO as a form of global soft power, leveraging its support for education, science, and culture as evidence of the good that the US does in the world.  As the government loses the tools of soft power, all that is left of US involvement globally are the tools of hard power–the very tools that are often counter-productive to US geopolitical goals.  So to summarize, a 1990 effort to exert soft power failed so dramatically as to fundamentally undermine the US’s ability to assert soft power going forward.

There comes a time to simply admit a strategy has failed.  This is clearly one of those times.  The US must resume its payments to UNESCO not only for the sake of the organization’s mission, but also for the future of US involvement in the world.

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