US return to UNESCO

The US returned to UNESCO last week after an absence of 20 years. Some observers cited this step as proof of that the Bush administration was relaxing its opposition to a more dynamic role for the UN and its affiliate bodies in international affairs. They further link it to Washington’s renewed drive for a Security Council resolution that would ostensibly give the UN a greater role to play in Iraq.

Even presuming the best of intentions, this contention is regretfully illogical and overoptimistic. It is hardly a coincidence that the decision to withdraw from UNESCO in 1983 was taken by a neo- conservative administration and that the decision to return to the humanitarian body was taken by an administration at the more extreme end of that political spectrum. If the decision to withdraw reflected, as I believe, the arrogance of American might, its return was certainly not with its tail between its legs. If the withdrawal was meant to convey the message that the US could get along perfectly well without the rest of the world, the message today is not "We’re sorry for offending the international community and are now ready to hear others’ advice", but rather "We hope y’all learned your lesson and are now ready to do as you’re told".

The US’s departure from and return to UNESCO is also the story of the rise to power of the American ultra-right in the beginning of the 1980s and its even more forceful resurgence at the beginning of the new century. Nor do I believe that it was coincidence that this shade of the political spectrum, then and now, chose UNESCO as its preferred forum for declaring its intentions.

The American ultra-right has multifarious origins. It has roots in the forces that resisted the abolition movement and, later, the American civil rights movements. It has roots in the opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal intended to advance economic and social recovery in the 1930s. And it was amply fed by the McCarthyist movement of the 1950s, with its aggressive paranoia against all ideological and cultural manifestations that might conceivably be labelled "red". This American extreme right was openly hostile to UNESCO upon its inception in 1945, and this hostility resurfaced with every resurgence of ultra-conservative influence in American politics.

In the McCarthy era, UNESCO came under vicious assault as a hotbed of communism and a stronghold of Marxist thought. And the Soviet Union was not even a member yet. The ultra-conservative campaign against UNESCO reached such a degree of vehemence that public school teachers who used the textbook, The E in UNESCO, were subjected to various forms of intimidation. A leaflet distributed by an ultra-conservative organisation proclaimed, "Introducing UNESCO’s ideas on education into American schools will instill in the minds of new generations reverence for internationalism and scorn for American patriotism. The word UNESCO implicitly conveys ideas that promote atheism, communism and sabotage".

Although the intensity of this campaign decreased with the end of the McCarthyist movement, McCarthyists themselves had not vanished from the political and intellectual scene in the US. The movement had also succeeded in entrenching the negative stereotypes of UNESCO among broad sectors of the American ultra-right and these images reared their head again in the 1970s, with the hearty backing of the Zionist movement.

It is not difficult to understand why the Zionist movement threw its weight behind the anti-UNESCO campaign. UNESCO had taken far too many honourable positions on educational and cultural issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, notably on excavations below the Dome of the Rock. Matters reached a head when in 1974 the UNESCO general conference not only reiterated its customary condemnation of Israeli educational and cultural policies in the occupied territories, but went a step further, this time, demanding to put a stop to aid to Israel. The US objected to these resolutions furiously, threatening to abandon its financial obligations to this international body.

The American ultra-right, supported by the highly influential international Zionist movement, took advantage of the occasion to unleash a campaign of unprecedented intensity against UNESCO, in which President Ronald Reagan, then still governor of California, took part. In "Taking a Look at UNESCO" which appeared in Human Events of 8 January 1978, Reagan called upon the US government to reconsider its position on the international organisation, which, he charged, had become "a den of Soviet espionage and a bastion of hostility to Western thought and democratic forms of government in the world". Two years later, Reagan became the elected president of the US, brought into power on the crest of the most extremist tides of the American right. Upon coming into office, Reagan surrounded himself with advisors who shared his contempt for everything UNESCO stood for. Withdrawal was now only a question of timing.

The US withdrawal from UNESCO was in fact only the visible tip of a comprehensive strategy for declaring a new Cold War, not only against the Soviet Union, but also against the Third World. To the Reagan administration, the specialised organisations of the UN constituted no more than the mouthpiece for the alliance between communism and the world’s poor and underprivileged. Its decision to withdraw from UNESCO was simply the warning signal sounding the onset of various forms and degrees of pressures targeting the UN as a whole. UNESCO was selected as the starting point for this campaign for two reasons: by the very nature of its intellectual and cultural properties it represents the conscience of the international community and, secondly, a Senegalese Muslim, Ahmed Mukhtar Ambo was director at the time. All efforts to dissuade the US from withdrawing from UNESCO failed because Reagan wanted to throw down the gauntlet before the international community and say, "The US can get along without the world but can the world get along without the US?"

Reagan eventually won his Cold War, but the fruits of victory only came to light much later, under Bush Sr, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gradual dwindling of the role of UN agencies in international politics. This was when the victorious American right began to launch its imperialist enterprise, seizing upon Iraq’s crime of occupying Kuwait as its platform for operations. However, the initial drive met with contrary winds when the victor of the Cold War lost the presidential election of 1992. It would be another eight years before the opportunity to resume the drive presented itself again, with the electoral victory of Bush Jr in 2000.

If the intervening liberal administration, which in theory at least should have been closer in spirit and thought to UNESCO, was unable or reluctant to take the decision to return to UNESCO, how could it be that the current administration, which represents those forces in the US that virtually reach for their gun whenever they hear the word UNESCO, could declare, suddenly and without forewarning, its ardent desire to return? It is certainly a puzzle that seems to defy explanation.

But then, at second glance, by staying cool, calm and collected we should be able to figure out a way to decipher this mystery. Let’s work from the assumption that the ultra-right now in power in the US has not changed its attitudes towards UNESCO, that it is just as contemptuous of it as it has always been. Once we accept this premise we have to discard the likelihood of any softening of the Bush administration’s heart or the possibility that this administration is in the grips of a form of schizophrenia or sadomasochism. This leaves us with the conclusion that the decision to return was taken while of sound mind, on the basis of rational criteria that had been given much advanced study. It further leads us to suspect strongly that the decision is closely connected to this administration’s imperialist project, which in turn compels us to examine the decision within the broader framework of the way in which Washington capitalised on the events of 11 September.

Let us not forget either that a major objective of this project is to introduce profound and sweeping changes in the educational, cultural and media policies in the Arab world, all of which fall precisely within the scope of UNESCO’s work. In addition, Washington is aware that in order to produce these changes it needs the guise of an international cover, legitimate channels and collective endeavour, features which only UNESCO can provide. Clearly, in the US’s return to the Security Council and UNESCO a single rationale is at work. Washington needs the Security Council to rubber stamp its presence in Iraq without having to relinquish any of its objectives there and it needs UNESCO to legitmise the overhaul of the cultural structures of the Arab and Islamic worlds, which Washington perceives as a fundamental step towards the advancement of its imperialist vision. Thus, in returning to UNESCO, the US is acting, not on the defensive, but on the offensive. It wants to transform UNESCO into a tool on the intellectual front in its war on "terrorism".

Still, however legitimate these fears, we must not lose sight of the other side of the picture. Ultimately, the return of a nation that has made such huge contributions to contemporary culture can only serve to support the institution officially responsible for thought and culture in the world. This nation may currently appear to have been hijacked by a clique that takes pride in flouting international law, but this situation can only be temporary. Tomorrow, the American people will oust these rogues, at which point it will become possible to explore the best means to turn the potential of that great power to the service of the higher interests of humanity, rather than to the service of a handful of megalomaniacs bent on ruling the world.