Friday, April 10, 2009

Class: U.S. Foreign Policy and UNESCO - A View from the Top

Esther Brimmer
Recently confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State
for International Organizations

Michael Southwick spoke to our graduate seminar last night, drawing from his experience as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and especially on his experience as the United States rejoined UNESCO.

Michael Southwick (and Frank Method)

There was a confluence of circumstances that resulted in the U.S. reentry into UNESCO:
  • It was generally agreed that the problems that had been cited when the United States withdrew from UNESCO had been ameliorated or resolved.
  • President Clinton had made a public statement at the end of his administration that the United States should rejoin UNESCO when the United States had paid the billion dollars it owed to the United Nations agencies. Thus when the debt had been repaid, the support of the Democratic leadership could be counted upon.
  • The State Department had done a low-level internal review of the value of UNESCO membership in terms of U.S. foreign policy interests which concluded that membership in UNESCO offered a low-cost alternative to achieve U.S. objectives in international education, science and culture, that UNESCO would be more effective than bilateral agencies in some locations important to U.S. foreign policy, and that letting UNESCO work in other locations would relieve the need for the U.S. government to take action.
  • Rep. Tom Lantos had introduced legislation in the House of Representatives calling for reentry which had passed.
  • The United Kingdom and Japan were strongly supporting U.S. reentry into UNESCO, and were combining personal appeals with more formal diplomatic contacts.
  • Key gatekeepers in the State Department and White House supported the reentry, as did the Secretary of Education and the First Lady.
  • Surprisingly, there had been no delegations from civil society leaders (in education, science or culture) to the State Department advocating reentry, and surprisingly there had been no request from Rep. Lantos for inputs from State on his UNESCO legislative initiative.
While the process was put on hold due to 9/11, it was found convenient to announce reentry when President Bush made a major address to the United Nations General Assembly. He received a standing ovation on making the announcement, something that is both exceptional and against UN rules on that announcement.

The reentry into UNESCO remained controversial within the Republican Party, but the opponents were unable to muster their forces when the decision was made; they were able to do so later, and key members of the Bush administration were only won over to support for UNESCO with years of experience with the organization.

Ambassador Southwick indicated that UNESCO one of 42 intergovernmental agencies for which the State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs provides U.S. representation, and indeed receives less attention than others such as the United Nations itself.

He emphasized the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the operations of the United Nations system, and characterized UNESCO (as seen from State) as the soul of the system, the agency in which intellectual leaders could debate important issues. UNESCO is a place in which American diplomats can hold serious discussions with diplomats from Islamic nations.

Within the State Department, the most prestigious posts deal with major countries -- Russia, China, etc. Foreign Service Officers, chosen for their economic and political expertise, depend on officers from other government agencies for substantive leadership as they deal with the specialized agencies in areas such as education, public health and agriculture. (He described leading a 90 person delegation to a meeting of the International Postal Union, in which 85 delegates came from the Postal Service including the Post Master General. U.S. Government policy is that even in such technical discussions, delegations be led by diplomats rather than sector specialists.) In these circumstances, there is little understanding of U.N. mission agencies in the higher levels of the State Department, and little attention to their programs.

In the discussion, Ambassador Southwick distinguished between the United Nations treaties, for which negotiations are led by diplomats, and programs of cooperation and assistance. He noted the fact that many key UN treaties have not been ratified by the United States, and the difficulties involved in trying to explain that failure to ratify a treaty does not imply opposition to its objectives.

One of his more interesting comments compared the process of negotiating an international agreement in a UN conference to the process of serving as a liaison of the State Department with the Congress. In both cases it pays to develop a strategy, recognizing the structure of the body in which the debate is taking place, and focusing on the key players in the negotiation.

There was some discussion of the means by which different governments influence international negotiations, ranging from diplomat-to-diplomat requests for support, to block voting, arm twisting of heads of government by heads of government, offers of increases in foreign aid, and even illicit financial incentives.

This was an exceptional opportunity for graduate students to get the straight information from someone who was really in the know, having lived the diplomatic process for years under different administrations. As such, it was an opportunity that might be unique in the Washington DC university system.

Check out:
Students Calder, Auten, Khouri, Tew and Cline
(and Method) listening to the speaker

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