USA Loses Vote at UNESCO. Withdrawal from the IAEA, WHO and OPCW Next?

The USA will lose its vote at UNESCO today. The proximate cause is that the USA has not paid its membership dues since 2011. And that is because of a pair of laws from the 1990s that forced the USA to suspend payments to UNESCO when its member states opted to extend membership to Palestine.

The decades-old legislation automatically cuts off dues payments to any UN entity that admits Palestine as a full member. The legislation was passed in a different era—before even the Two State Solution became official US policy. It also is very inflexible. There is no “waiver” built into the laws which would permit the executive branch to waive the funding restrictions if it deemed paying the institution was in the national interest. The only way to get around these laws are to repeal them or at the very least amend them in a way that gives the President some latitude in conducting US foreign policy.

And so UNESCO is in the midst of a budget crisis, and the USA is poised to lose a great deal of influence over an organization that runs Tsunami warning systems, teaches literacy to the same Afghan police officers that are being trained by American soldiers, runs education programs for girls around the world, and has conferred “World Heritage” status on 22 American monuments and sites.

These are all important tasks. But UNESCO is having a much harder time undertaking them since its lost about one fifth of its funding. And the USA’s ability to steer UNESCO in directions it deems to be American priorities has been diminished.

For now, Congress does not seem interested in amending the laws. Congress has trouble passing much of anything these days and UNESCO’s contributions to American national interests and security are not obvious to many in Washington.  So what can be done? The unfortunate truth is that Congress and the White House may only focus on this issue when other international organizations that have more obvious connections to American security — like the IAEA, World Health Organization, or Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — are on the chopping block.

For now these organizations are safe because the Palestinians have suspending their push to join international organizations pending the outcome of the John Kerry led talks on the Two State Solution. Those talks have a deadline in April. Should they  fail, the Palestinian leadership will likely resume their quest for membership to various international organizations. Unless the law changes, the USA may be forced to pull funding from the OPCW as weapons inspectors seek to contain and destroy  Syria’s chemical weapons or the IAEA just as an Iranian nuclear weapons deal is unfolding.

This is clearly preposterous but it is the inevitable consequence of poorly construed laws give the Palestinians incredible leverage over  America’s relationship with multilateral bodies.