Summary of a meeting with Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) co-sponsored by the Conflict Prevention Project and Better World Campaign

Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) discussed the potential re-entry of the United States into UNESCO and solicited suggestions on how to improve U.S.-UNESCO relations at a recent meeting held at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 citing ineffectiveness and organizational abuses. At the time of the action, a State Department official announced, "When UNESCO returns to its original purposes and principles, the United States would be in a position to return to UNESCO." Has that time come? In May, the House International Relations Committee adopted an amendment to the 2002-2003 Foreign Relations Authorization Bill inserting $59.8 million annually for UNESCO membership dues. The Senate version, while not yet finalized, does not include money for UNESCO.

Since his appointment in November 1999, Matsuura has cut the agency's bureaucracy by half, strengthened oversight and auditing procedures and has returned the organization to its roots—providing education, promoting tolerance and human rights, and protecting ecosystems and world heritage sites, he said.

UNESCO's commitment to education programs is illustrated by their work in the Balkans, Nigeria and most recently in Afghanistan. Participants suggested that UNESCO could counteract religious extremism found in madrassas by creating a "culture of tolerance" and promoting education programs. Matsuura noted that UNESCO's mandate—to "encourage peace and security through cooperation" is more important than ever.

Currently the U.S. gives between $2 and 3 million a year to UNESCO in voluntary contributions for specific projects. While partial participation has been accepted for numerous years, the rationale for minimum contributions is wearing thin, a former State Department official said. "That made sense when we said we would join imminently, but it's now been nearly 20 years. We're not a real player in UNESCO. Our influence isn't sustainable, nor is it honorable," he added.

Reentry into UNESCO by the United States might be one way to achieve "multilateralism on the cheap," suggested another participant. While the Senate has yet to debate the proposal, several participants suggested that UNESCO make its case to other potential advocates, including First Lady Laura Bush.