31 October 2011


The US Shoots itself in the foot

In a Lose-Lose conflict over UNESCO

The vote by UNESCO to grant full membership to the Palestinians, immediately followed by a US announcement that it would cease to support the venerable cultural institution, shows the Palestinians as canny as ever in making their point, and shows the US as clueless as ever in squandering whatever remaining vestiges of good will it may have had in the international community.

The reader may well say that it is UNESCO that has shot itself in the foot, since it will now lose about 20 percent of its operating budget which has been coming from US contributions to the agency. But UNESCO has been boycotted by the US in the past and survived. While there is money at stake, it is at least arguable that there is equal prestige and symbolism at stake, if not more of the latter.

At a time when the entire political and strategic calculus of the Middle East was shifting due to the Arab Spring, marginalizing many old conflicts in the public mind in order to put new conflicts front and center, the Palestinians have managed to regain the symbolic initiative and the US has managed to (once again) alienate most of the world over a symbolic issue that easily could have been avoided.

It is true that there is a law that forbids the US from funding any UN body that admits Palestine as a full member before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached, but we all know that laws are subject to interpretation (and, of course, we also know that the “peace process” is going nowhere and can be perpetually invoked in order to exclude the Palestinians). Even when a law is strictly observed, public diplomacy can radically alter the perception of the operation of a law. The US has not only chosen to systematically oppose Palestinian attempts at diplomatic recognition, it has also chosen to be very public about this systematic opposition.

This is definitely one of those things that should have been received with a shoulder shrug. Instead, it was received in a fit of pique. In other words, those who oppose US policies got exactly what they wanted — a reaction. The most powerful nation-state in the world has once again managed to present itself as powerless and overtaken by events that it cannot control.

And all of this was unnecessary. Ways and means could have been found, but the unimaginative folks at the US State Department insist on doing the same-old-same-old even when the same-old-same-old has long since ceased to be a winning strategy. In doing so, they have breathed new life into an issue that could have been marginalized but now is magnified in stature and prominence.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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