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Smart, Soft, Silent Powers: The UNESCO Problem of the Euro-Atlantic Community

Smart, Soft, Silent Powers: The UNESCO Problem of the Euro-Atlantic CommunityUNESCO recently admitted Palestine as a full time member of the UN family. This decision has had considerable consequences: division among the EU powerhouses, U.S. suspension of its financial support to UNESCO, and the end of the Euro-Atlantic community unity as we know it. The 194 members of the UN Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is regarded as one of the most successful UN agencies, voted on Palestinian membership with 107 members voting in favor, 14 against and 52 abstained.

The Palestinian question emerged at the top of the agenda over the summer when Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would be seeking UN membership for Palestine. Back in September, during the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Palestine sought for full membership in the UN, creating a certain cacophony among world powers. The U.S. was opposed, even though a year earlier President Obama declared that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undeniably include the creation of an independent Palestinian state. And as usual EU powerhouses diverged on the matter, and the EU was silent.

Prior to the vote, the U.S. threatened UNESCO that if Palestinian membership was approved it would not pay its share. Following the vote, the U.S. State Department’s Victoria Nuland declared that the U.S. will not be making the planned $60 million payment to UNESCO, which is considerable given that the US contributes to almost 20% of UNESCO’s overall budget. However, one of the reasons behind the U.S.’ decision to stop funding UNESCO is a law passed in the 1990s, which “bars giving funding to any UN body that admits the Palestinians as full members before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.” But, this decision to cut UNESCO’s funding is probably one of the worst diplomatic and foreign policy moves in recent years. Soon after her appointment to the head of the Department of State, Ms. Clinton made a long speech about the new dimension of US foreign policy: smart power. This notion of smart power – which could be retraced to Joseph Nye, the father of the concept of soft power, and ultimately smart power – emphasizes a balance between hard power and soft power. In her address before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Clinton defined smart power as:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy. This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence declared that “in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.” The same truth binds wise women as well.

This means that hard power cannot be used in all situations, and soft power, or the power to attract, is a more appropriate foreign policy instrument. Well, funding UNESCO is the perfect example of smart power. By denying its financial share, the U.S. is hurting its reputation as a global leader. Furthermore, by not funding UNESCO, the U.S. is also indirectly harming its Afghan strategy as one of the agency’s largest projects focuses on education reform in Afghanistan. The US counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan consists of winning hearts and minds of Afghans, which goes through educating Afghan civilians.

On the other side of the pond, the EU has remained silent. This has become a pattern for Brussels. The EU external strategy is finally taking form: silence. The EU strategy of silence started to become fully operational after the appointment of Lady Ashton. With the newly established EEAS offering diplomatic and foreign policy analyses and advice to the High Representative, the EU has decided to adopt the tactic of ‘wait and do nothing.’ By simply looking at the EEAS’s website, no mention/reaction on Palestinian membership can be found. The EU is progressively slipping away from important foreign affairs questions and being bypassed by Paris, London and Berlin. Thus, following the vote, Israel declared that it was disappointing to see that the EU was unable to unite against the Palestine bid. Only blaming the EEAS and Ms. Ashton would not be fair, as the EU Member States have been increasingly and progressively seeking their own gains at the expense of the Community’s. The EU powerhouses were divided on the matter, with Paris as well as the BRICs voting in favor, Berlin against, and London and Rome abstaining.

Of course, the Palestinian case is a real dilemma for the international community for obvious reasons: first, the admission of Palestine will undeniably establish a precedent for other states to seek for UN membership; second, it is not because UNESCO granted Palestine full membership that the Israeli-Palestinian tensions have been solved. As underlined by Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, the peace talks need to be maintained and must be the foundation for a viable solution; third, there is absolutely no unity among the members of the Euro-Atlantic community on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem for two simple reasons- national interest and domestic politics. These two variables underlined the biases of the US and EU powerhouses on the Palestinian question, affecting their credentials as mediators in the peace process. “Despite US and EU insistence that negotiations are the only way to secure a lasting settlement and an independent Palestinian state, efforts led by the Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair to restart talks between the two parties have made little progress.” What is certain is that we are not done talking about UNESCO, Palestine, and the silence of the EU.



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.