The United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has, in recent years, become controversial.
According to a State Department summary, “The United States joined UNESCO at its founding but later withdrew in 1984 because of a growing disparity between U.S. foreign policy and UNESCO goals. After an almost twenty-year absence from the organization, the United States rejoined the organization in October 2003 in an effort to express America’s firm commitment to uphold and promote human rights, tolerance and learning worldwide.” Because of “U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” however, the U.S. announced its withdrawal effective December 31, 2018.
As controversies unfold, it’s always worthwhile to look back at first principles. Establishing UNESCO was a major goal of U.S. foreign policy at the end of World War II, and the American delegation played a significant role in writing the UNESCO constitution. Archibald MacLeish, earlier the Librarian of Congress, wrote the first sentence of the constitution’s preamble, and he became the first American delegate on UNESCO’s governing board. The establishment of UNECSCO was a milestone in U.S. foreign policy, and its constitution provides a snapshot of the best American thinking as the Second World War closed. Here are excerpts from the preamble:
That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed;
That ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war;
That the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races;
That the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfill in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern;
That a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.
For these reasons, the States Parties to this Constitution, believing in full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives;
Here are a few contemporary questions: In the twenty-first century, do some governments, ruling parties, or movements aim for “ignorance of each other’s ways and lives” or cultivate “suspicion and mistrust”? Which regimes deny “the democratic principles of the dignity, equality, and mutual respect of men” in favor of a “doctrine of the inequality of men and races”? Does an over-reliance on “political and economic arrangements of governments” continue? Do broadcast jamming and internet blocking “increase the means of communication”? As for “education for all,” “unrestricted pursuit of objective truth,” and “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” – which nations fall short?
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.