The United States is about to lose its vote in UNESCO, the UN organization devoted to educational and cultural issues. Two years ago, UNESCO members voted to welcome Palestine as a member. Preexisting U.S. legislation required that the United States cease funding the organization, and Washington has now accumulated sufficient back dues to lose its voting privileges. In today's Washington Post, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer argues that Congress desperately needs to alter the legislation:
Without U.S. support, programs that advance U.S. security will wither...When the Bush administration rejoined UNESCO in 2003, reversing a Cold War-era departure, it recognized that the organization could help fight extremism in the post-9/11 world. Indeed, it provided literacy classes for Afghan police. UNESCO leads the global fight against illiteracy. First lady Laura Bush served as the UNESCO honorary ambassador for its Decade of Literacy. In early 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a UNESCO program promoting education for women and girls, widely understood to advance long-term economic and social development. On Dec.?10, 2012, UNESCO launched the Malala Fund for Girls Education, deepening its commitment to provide all girls access to school by 2015.
Even more ambitiously, however, Brimmer argues that Israel should support amending the legislation:
Our decades-old laws may have been an effort to stand with Israel, but Israel will be hurt by the U.S. absence at UNESCO. U.S. officials have worked hard to help forestall or mitigate anti-Israeli actions in international bodies. When controversial Holy Land heritage issues are discussed at UNESCO next year, a non-voting United States will be less able to help its ally. Meanwhile, the UNESCO worldwide Holocaust and anti-genocide education programs will wither without U.S. support. Israelis should welcome an updated approach that restores the U.S. vote and strong voice in international organizations.
I doubt this view will be persuasive in Israel. Even with a vote, the United States hasn't prevented UNESCO from passing resolutions critical of Israel. In any case, UNESCO is just one part of a much broader strategy of keeping Palestine for achieving full international recognition and participating as an equal in international organizations. Whatever small cost there may be to a U.S. absence from that organization is more than compensated for if--and it's a big "if"--the UNESCO example deters other multilateral bodies from offering Palestine full membership. At the very top of that list is the International Criminal Court, which could in theory investigate Israeli settlement activities on Palestinian territory.
In the last several months, Ukraine has taken several steps toward a move advanced relationship with the European Union. Via the BBC:
The EU has been pursuing closer economic and social ties with ex-Soviet states for many years, in a so-called "Eastern Partnership".
The plan is to sign a far-reaching association and free trade agreement with Ukraine - seen as an important step towards eventual EU membership. Agreements would also be initialled with Georgia and Moldova.
Kiev has responded with reforms and legislation, and a flurry of diplomacy is under way to seal the deal in time.
The increased coziness with the EU has annoyed Moscow, which wants Ukraine to instead join the customs union it has formed with several other former Soviet republics. As in other similar cases, there have been vague threats that Moscow might use its control of energy resources to punish Kiev for tilting westward. Lithuania's president said recently that Ukraine faces "huge, huge pressure from Russia" not to ink the agreement with the EU.
If Ukraine persists, there's a real chance of economic retaliation from Moscow. And that in turn could put the International Monetary Fund smack in the middle of the high-stakes dispute. Via Reuters:
If the EU-Ukraine pact is signed, and the Kremlin does retaliate in the ways many expect, the EU has plans in place to supply Ukraine with natural gas, as well as arrangements with the IMF for emergency financing - even if some analysts doubt the IMF and Ukraine can bridge long-standing differences.
"The IMF plays a very important role and there are ongoing discussions with them about standby arrangements," said a senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A second EU official directly involved in talks on Ukraine added: "There are ongoing discussions to support the IMF and find a way for standby arrangements to be concluded soon."
The head of the IMF's mission in Ukraine said there was no link between Ukraine signing the EU deal and receiving help.
IMF experts and Ukrainian officials have been sporadically butting headsfor months about what reforms Ukraine must undertake to receive a new round of international assistance. But if a breakthrough with the IMF would help reassure Ukraine about a move toward the EU, it's quite possible that big Western states--including the United States--will "encourage" IMF staff to loosen up a bit on their precious conditionality. Several years ago, political scientist Randall Stone provided evidence of just such a dynamic in previous negotiations with big strategic consequences.
The Better World Campaign recently released the findings of a regular survey it conducts on attitudes in the United States toward the United Nations. It found mostly good news for the world organization: Sixty percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the UN and most want the United States to pay its UN dues in full and on time:
The poll—conducted following a productive UN General Assembly meeting in New York and during the federal government shutdown—also showed strong support for paying U.S. dues to the UN on time and in full.
In a survey of 900 registered voters, seventy-three percent report seeing, reading, or hearing about the crisis in Syria. More than eight in 10 say that the United States should be supportive of the UN overseeing the collection and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons; the same number say that the U.S. should support the UN’s work to provide humanitarian aid, relief, and shelter to Syria’s refugees (asked of 440 respondents).
Americans also broadly support strong involvement in the UN: 88 percent say it is important that the U.S. maintain an active role in the UN. Further, nearly two thirds—63 percent—support paying our dues to the UN on time and in full, and 71 percent support paying peacekeeping dues on time and in full.
The UN's favorable numbers matched the highest results since 2009 and the unfavorables matched the lowest. Other findings hinted at just how little most Americans know about the UN however. 68 percent of those polled did not know who Ban Ki-moon was and 70 percent couldn't identify Samantha Power. Full results of the poll, including the questions asked, are here.
Brett Schaefer at the Heritage Foundation is skeptical that the survey accurately represents U.S. sentiments:
This conclusion by the BWC, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening U.S. ties with the U.N., seems at odds with other polls. The most recent Gallup poll, conducted February 25–26, finds that Americans see the U.N. as “relevant on the world stage,” but “Americans are not highly positive about the job the United Nations is doing.”
When Gallup asked its standard question, “Do you think the United Nations is doing a good job or a poor job in trying to solve the problems it has to face?” only 35 percent of Americans said the U.N. is doing a “good job,” compared with 50 percent who said it’s doing a “poor job.”
This poll is consistent with long-term U.S. opinion. In the 35 Gallup polls posing that question, since 1953, respondents who answered that the U.N. was doing a poor job outnumbered those who thought it was doing a good job, by an average of 50 percent to 39 percent.
But even the Gallup numbers that Schaefer highlights do point to a modest recovery in the UN's image from a prolonged slump that began after the 2003 Iraq War.
The UN world is buzzing this morning after Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of declining membership on the UN Security Council.
Earlier this week, the kingdom was elected to a nonpermanent seat along with Chad, Nigeria, Lithuania, and Chile. It marked the first time the Saudis had secured a Council seat. By all indications, the election was the culmination of a long diplomatic campaign to change the country's foreign policy profile. In anticipation of Council service, the Saudi UN mission had apparently boosted its diplomatic staff and given personnel special training on Council procedures and working methods. There's evidence that the decision to reject the seat took the country's UN mission by surprise.
The Saudi foreign ministry's statement highlighted the Council's failures on Syria and Palestine as the primary reasons for its decision. But it's difficult to see what has changed on those fronts in recent months that would occasion such a dramatic diplomatic move. In fact, the Council has adopted a much tougher stance toward Syria than ever before and is attempting to strip the country of its chemical weapons. The absence of any obvious recent trigger for the Saudi move raises the question of whether this was an elaborate act of protest planned long in advance.
Whatever the reasons, the Saudi move has some important short-term and longer-term implications for the United Nations. In the short term, the General Assembly will have to figure out whether and how to fill the Saudi seat (assuming there's no change of heart in Riyadh). One possibility is that the Saudis will still be treated as Council members who are, in essence, boycotting the body. There is past precedent for the Council operating with one of its members boycotting (the Soviets boycotted for several months in the early 1950s). But it seems more likely that the General Assembly will choose a new member. If so, the Arab group at the UN will try to reach consensus about their new candidate and present it to the General Assembly. If they can't for some reason, there could be a relatively rare contested vote in the full Assembly.
The potential longer-term implications are more intriguing. The Saudi move may ultimately become nothing more than an odd historical footnote in the Council's history. But it could also presage a broader strategy on the part of UN members for effecting change in the Council's membership and methods. A few months ago, I suggested a "modest proposal" for UN member states fed up with the Council's antiquated structure and despairing at the possibility of reform: they could stop participating in the annual General Assembly elections of non-permanent Council members.
Refusing to engage in the annual Security Council election process until there is reform would be a modest and proportional act of disobedience. There would be a significant collective action problem, of course, and states would have to pledge in advance to abstain. But if that cooperation could hold, the manuever might radically change the landscape. With a large bloc of states withholding votes, no new members could be elected, and the council would face an institutional crisis. Large-scale abstention could force the permanent members to engage in the reform debate in a way they have mostly avoided to this point.
In some ways, Saudi Arabia's move is an even more dramatic gesture of defiance. And while Syria and Palestine were apparently the focus of its discontent, the foreign ministry's statement also criticized general double standards embedded in the Council's work. "Work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace," it read. That kind of sentiment resonates with most of the UN's membership and may have been designed to generate a broader push against the Council structure.
There are all sorts of political and diplomatic reasons that other states will be hesitant to emulate the Saudi move. For all the rhetoric about the Council's dysfunction and double standards, most states aren't willing to pick a fight over them. While they won't say so publicly, many states likely prefer the current Council structure to a revised one that might give permanent seats to regional rivals. What's more, Saudi Arabia is an unlikely leader of a reformist push in Turtle Bay. But if the strange Saudi act of protest somehow does catch on, the consequences for the Security Council could be dramatic.
As its Kenya cases stumble forward, the International Criminal Court is under intense political pressure in Africa. Next week, the African Union will convene a special meeting to discuss the court and its alleged bias against African states (all eight formal court investigations have been on the continent). In this atmosphere of recrimination, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—who was present when the ICC was negotiated—has risen to defend the court:
Speaking at the third annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture, Annan came to the defence of the ICC - which had come under increasing criticism from African countries for "unfairly targeting Africans".
"On a continent that has experienced deadly conflict, gross violations of human rights, even genocide, I am surprised to hear critics ask whether the pursuit of justice might obstruct the search for peace," Annan told a packed University of the Western Cape main hall.
Annan said justice and peace were interlinked, and one could not be achieved without the other.
"We must be ambitious enough to pursue both, and wise enough to recognise, respect and protect the independence of justice," he said.
But one aspect of Annan's defense is suspect. He told his audience that the court's all-Africa docket is mostly not of its own making:
"In four of the cases on Africa before the court, African leaders themselves made the referral to the ICC. In two others - Darfur and more recently Libya - it was the United Nations Security Council, and not the Court, which initiated proceedings," he said.
Annan is correct that most of the ICC investigations have come via either referral by the state itself or by the Security Council. But he speaks as if the court simply received cases forward by others. In both the Congo and Uganda referrals, the former prosecutor sought out and encouraged the referrals from those governments. More important, nothing compels the prosecutor to open a full investigation when a situation is referred to him or her by a government or by the Security Council. Deciding to spend the court's scarce resources on those situations rather than others where the court might have jurisdiction--such as Afghanistan, Georgia or Colombia--is in fact a choice.
The ICC has been abused and maligned aplenty by certain African leaders. But pretending that the court has no agency isn't the correct response.
The annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are underway--and officials from both institutions are fielding questions about what the U.S. political stalemate means for the world economy. Nothing good is the short answer. Here's Bank president Jim Kim all but pleading with U.S. politicians to consider the global impact of their actions:
"Please consider politics beyond the Beltway, politics beyond your own districts," Kim said. "Really think about the impact that inaction can have on poor mothers in Africa, trying to feed their children. It will really have an impact on those mothers. It will have an impact on young men and women trying to create businesses in the Middle East. This is real. This is not a theoretical impact. It's very real."
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde recently urged U.S. policymakers to move away from dramatic budget cuts and toward longer-term measures. Via The Guardian:
"I have said many times before that the US needs to "slow down and hurry up" – by that I mean less fiscal adjustment today and more tomorrow," Lagarde said. She added that the world's biggest economy needed to put its finances in order, but favoured back-loaded measures to raise revenues and limit entitlement spending such as medicare that did not jeopardise short-term growth.
"In the midst of this fiscal challenge, the ongoing political uncertainty over the budget and the debt ceiling does not help. The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse, and could very seriously damage not only the US economy, but the entire global economy.
"So it is 'mission-critical' that this be resolved as soon as possible."
And here's IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard:
[T]he IMF's chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, warned there could be major financial disruptions throughout the world if the United States does not increase its borrowing limit in the coming days to avoid a default on its financial obligations. The U.S. government is in the midst of an eight-day partial shutdown and at the same time is running out of money to pay its bills....Blanchard said the government shutdown, if it does not last too long, is likely to have a limited effect on the world economy, but that a U.S. debt default could be calamitous.
"Failure to lift the debt ceiling would, however, be a major event. Prolonged failure would lead to an extreme fiscal consolidation and almost surely derail the U.S. recovery. But the effect of any failure to repay the debt would be felt right away, leading to potential major disruptions in financial markets, both in the United States and abroad," Blanchard stated.
The last two weeks have seen more UN Security Council action on Syria than the previous several months. But in today's New York Times, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius reminds readers that the long stretch of Council paralysis likely took a toll:
[T]hese [recent] positive outcomes cannot hide the fact that, for a long time, the Security Council, constrained by vetoes, was powerless in the face of the Syrian tragedy. Populations were massacred and the worst scenario unfolded as the regime implemented large-scale use of chemical weapons against children, women and other civilians. For all those who expect the United Nations to shoulder its responsibilities in order to protect populations, this situation is reprehensible.
Fabius offers a plan to prevent this kind of damage in the future:
Our suggestion is that the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — themselves could voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto. The Charter would not be amended and the change would be implemented through a mutual commitment from the permanent members. In concrete terms, if the Security Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime, the permanent members would agree to suspend their right to veto. The criteria for implementation would be simple: at the request of at least 50 member states, the United Nations secretary general would be called upon to determine the nature of the crime. Once he had delivered his opinion, the code of conduct would immediately apply.
Fabius does include a major caveat: "To be realistically applicable, this code would exclude cases where the vital national interests of a permanent member of the Council were at stake."
The French proposal is not new; various activists and even some governments, notably the "Small Five" countries, have floated the concept of a "responsibility not to veto" in mass-atrocity contexts before. I've always been skeptical of this kind of proposal because what constitutes a "mass-atrocity situation" is largely in the eye of the beholder. Almost all international and internal conflicts feature atrocities of one sort or another. But these conflicts also have political and strategic dimensions. At least rhetorically, the West sees Syria through the prism of atrocities. But it do so in every cases where atrocities occur. Was Iraq between 2003 and 2006 a mass-atrocity situation? Is Afghanistan now? Was Gaza during the Israeli incursion of late 2008?
What is new (at least to me) is the mechanism that Fabius suggests for determining what constitutes such a situation. The notion of a combined role for the General Assembly and the Secretary General is innovative. And it's remarkable that a veto-wielding permanent member is willing to advance the idea. The British and French have long been the permanent members most willing to consider changes to the Council's methods and architecture, and this is a notable new foray.
But if I had to guess, this proposal won't get very far. Russia and China are going to be very hesitant to adopt any code of conduct that restricts the veto power and encroaches on Council flexibility. And my guess is that the United States--even with a specialist in mass atrocities as ambassador--won't be keen either.
World Bank president Jim Kim has frequently called on the institution he leads to become less risk-averse. In a recent speech, he made clear that part of a new, bolder lending policy will be more engagement with conflict-ridden and fragile states:
Kim pledged that he would direct more funding to fragile and conflict-affected states. He said it his hope to increase the share of [International Development Association] core financing – the Bank’s fund for the poorest – to fragile and conflict-affected states by about 50 percent in the next three years. He also said that the IFC, the Bank’s private sector arm, also would increase funding by 50 percent over three years for low-income and fragile states. The IFC increase could amount to more than an $800 million increase over three years; the IDA amount could not be determined until countries made pledges later in the year.
This strategy is in some ways natural for the Bank, as several of its largest client states are graduating from eligibility for IDA loans. But it does create tension with other areas of emphasis for the lender, including the crackdown on corruption associated with Bank projects. Operating in the most fragile states may require dealing with less scrupulous official and non-official partners.
David Bosco reports on the new world order for The Multilateralist.