Commentary Magazine


UNESCO Rebuff Shows Decline of American Influence Under Obama

The Obama administration lived up to its legal obligations today by withholding the first payment of U.S. funds to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since it voted to recognize “Palestine” as a member state.  The State Department said a scheduled $60 million payment would not be in the mail to the world body and warned that the same treatment would be given to any other UN agency that pulls the same trick.

But Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said the U.S. would maintain its membership in the organization and continue to participate despite the group’s decision to flout America’s demand that it not attempt to circumvent the peace process by admitting the Palestinians. How exactly that will work is not clear especially since Washington will lose its vote after two years of nonpayment of dues. There is also the possibility that the international community will interpret the decision to stay at the organization as a mixed message that will dilute the impact of the financial cutoff. Considering that the administration’s arguments against the vote to admit the Palestinians were often couched more in terms of the embarrassment they felt about the aid cutoff than the damage the group was doing to the peace process, it would be difficult to blame other countries from assuming that Obama will find a way to make good on the funding by eventually finding a way to circumvent the law.

Meanwhile the Palestinians are celebrating their victory by planning to take their campaign to other UN groups such as World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or the International Atomic Energy Agency. Given the easy majority that the Palestinians were able to assemble despite Washington’s efforts, there is no reason to believe they won’t be able to duplicate their UNESCO triumph.

As damaging as this result is to Israel, it is also a clear rebuke to the Obama administration that came into office convinced that the sheer force of the president’s personality would mean the world would be more willing to listen to America than his unpopular predecessor George W. Bush. But given the dimension of the UN debacle, it is fair to point out that the UNESCO vote illustrates the decline of U.S. influence during Obama’s presidency. Had the Palestinians been able to effectively flout American foreign policy imperatives in this manner on Bush’s watch it would have been treated as a clear sign of the Republican’s incompetence and tin ear about international opinion. But after less than years of Obama’s apologies, appeasement and weakness, the U.S. finds itself on the receiving end of the sort of humiliation that no one in the administration expected in January 2009. Unfortunately, they should expect more of the same during the rest of Obama’s time in office.