Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
NO ONE who has followed closely the development of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization can fail to catch the sense of promise and latent strength which this agency communicates. But it is no less true that UNESCO's work is at an extreme pitch of confusion. Its projects are indescribably multifarious. There are several hundred of them (no one can say how many), some of first importance, some absurd -- a conglomeration defying summary. The program seems a huge catchall of internationalist schemes, chosen or rejected for no reason which is comprehensible even to most delegates at UNESCO conferences, let alone to the general public.
In many quarters the agency is beginning to pay the most severe penalty which can be exacted from a public body -- it is not being taken seriously. Nor can this be written off merely as evidence of "anti-intellectualism" by the press and the public; some of the other specialized agencies of the United Nations formulate their programs in terms much more abstruse without provoking such a response. A not unfriendly commentator recently dismissed UNESCO with the good humored verdict: "that organization in search of a purpose." The regularity with which supporters of the agency, at conferences and in committees, begin their deliberations by addressing themselves to the very question of what it is supposed to be doing, suggests that the remark all too accurately locates the point at which UNESCO now finds itself after about three years' work.
The easiest explanation for the confusion into which the agency has fallen, and the one most often advanced, is "poor administration." It is true that the form of the budget leaves much to be desired. The $2,000,000 allocation for General Administration seems an undigested lump, and recommendations for a "program budget" make out a good case for change. Moreover, the division of UNESCO's activities into the general fields of Natural and Social Science, Philosophy and the Humanities, Education, and so on, more or less arbitrarily adopted as a way of getting started, has been retained, and with it the implication that something must as a matter of course be distributed to everybody.
But much of the criticism of administration seems unjust. UNESCO's "housekeeping" expenses appear to run about the same as those of other U.N. agencies; and, after all, it is the Executive Board, not the Director General, which draws up these immense programs, and the General Conference which approves them. It was inescapable that an organization with limited funds and a large number of clients, entering more or less uncharted territory, would spread itself thin, and the need for a strong Director General seemed obvious; yet Dr. Huxley's authority was deliberately curtailed by the Executive Board. Señor Torres Bodet, the new Director General, has in his turn pointed out that the 1949 program ranges over too vast a field to be successfully executed, and has urged that the next General Conference present a program that is more concentrated. It is with the General Conferences and the Executive Board, not with the Secretariat, that the responsibility for the present state of affairs lies.
We may note that a contributing factor to the proliferation of projects was the intense opposition of the Soviet Union to the very suggestion of efforts to encourage the free flow of ideas (which in 1946 a spokesman for the Soviet Union termed a Fascist objective), originally supposed to be a field of concentrated activity for UNESCO. The mass-communications projects which loomed so large in 1946 were therefore, in the main, postponed or watered down, to avoid "tension." In the area thus left vacant, a great number of little activities swarmed to compete for funds.
But the major cause of confusion lies in a miscalculation of the significance of the original purpose, for which the Soviets cannot be blamed -- indeed, which they have never for an instant shared. To understand this error we must recall some of the circumstances of the early days of UNESCO. In 1945 and 1946, when the plans for the agency were being made, the prestige and actual political power of European intellectuals were remarkably high. Intellectuals were leaders of the Resistance during the war -- Professor Bidault, Professor De Gasperi, Dr. Gruber, for example -- and many of these men held high political offices in the postwar governments. The emergence of intellectuals as political leaders was not accidental. Hitler had recognized them as foremost enemies; he knew that the New Order could be accepted by the people of Europe only if those who were teaching the old ideas of freedom were destroyed. Power over public opinion is a primary weapon for war or peace, and the new instruments of mass communication have many times multiplied its reach. Intellectuals everywhere shared this sense of new strength and new responsibilities.
Along with this, as a major influence in the formation of the organization, was a universal anxiety over the success of the new effort at world organization. It is ironical, perhaps, that we should need to remind ourselves how important this solicitude for the U.N. seemed and what precedence it was given in the intellectual life of the period. Though there were many schools of thought about the problems of world organization, the main current of opinion, I think it may be said, held that only as the rudimentary world community developed could the political structure which rested upon it gain size and strength; and education, science and all forms of culture, which can do much to bring men together, were thus seen to have an important rôle to play in the task of international organization. This is the sense in which UNESCO was called "the spearhead of the United Nations." The Constitution spelled the idea out in the Preamble in these terms:
In consequence whereof they [the States parties to the Constitution] do hereby create the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for the purpose of advancing through the educational and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind for which the United Nations Organization was established and which its Charter proclaims.
Article I of the Constitution (Purposes and Functions) said: "The purpose of the Organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for all the peoples of the world . . ." It was specified that to realize this purpose the organization would pursue three types of activity: 1, use the mass communications media; 2, promote popular education; and 3, "maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge." The third provision was sweeping, but its subordination to UNESCO's primary purpose was unmistakable.
All this is familiar, but is repeated here to show where the emphasis in this original formulation of purpose lay. The key word in the above passages is the word "through." UNESCO would achieve its purpose through science, culture, education, the mass media and so on. In short, these were deliberately made a means to a practical goal, not ends in themselves. UNESCO was not designed to add to the sum of human knowledge. It was not a classroom on a world scale. It was a medium through which culture and learning could be applied to the practical problem of maintaining peace, and advancing the common welfare as represented by the United Nations. Thus the agency was given a form that would enable it to reach masses of people and to influence their thinking and their actions, and the instruments which shape public opinion were written large into the Constitution (as the Soviet Union instantly noticed), particularly in the Articles relating to the powers of the Secretariat, the General Conference, the provisions for the summoning of world conferences, the development of the National Committees, and so on.
But in 1945 and 1946 there was a competing idea in the field, strongly supported and, at one time, ascendant in the councils of those who organized the agency. It was the idea that the new organization should be simply an International Office of Education, to perform the restricted functions which the term implies. It would exist to forward the interests of the teaching profession. Such an agency would also carry on the work of the old International Institute for Intellectual Coöperation and would thus act as a clearing house for more than one kind of intellectual activity, but its main responsibility would be to advance the interests of professional educators. It would be a world center of learning -- the nucleus, perhaps, of a world university. It would not try to reach masses of people, and thus would as far as possible divest itself of political power and political obligations. Its ideal would be the ideal of the liberal classroom -- the disinterested advancement of learning. This conception, however, was deliberately rejected in favor of an organization of a quite different kind.
Perhaps that decision was a mistake. There is every reason for asking the question frankly, though the lesson of the old International Institute for Intellectual Coöperation seems to suggest that an educational agency of the restricted kind would merely deprive itself of broad support without thereby avoiding the thorny problems. The I.I.I.C. did useful work in the interwar years as a clearing house for education, art and science, but it showed no vitality and gradually faded away. Its one effort to broaden its reach -- the campaign to delete from textbooks passages offensive to national sensibilities -- ignored the political realities involved in the problem and, so far as it had any practical effect, probably did more harm than good -- that is to say, it tended to encourage aggression in Germany and to discourage resistance to aggression in her neighbors, particularly in France, the only country where the textbook campaign made any headway.
But if a world center of education is what UNESCO should be, then any competently-managed institution of learning offers a working model for the reorganization that must come. The first step would be to revise UNESCO's Constitution, and to jettison the machinery designed to appeal to mass opinion, most of which gets in the way of such relatively simple activities as, say, making arrangements to hold a seminar in political science or to exchange scholarships in music. The second step would be to confer sufficient powers upon the chancellor of the "university" to reduce the unruly curriculum to order. The third, no doubt, would be to set up a fund-raising department.
If, however, this is not the direction which the member states of the organization wish it to take, then the path of escape from the present indecision and ineptitude is to face the significance of the original decision. It is that, inexorably and inescapably, UNESCO as designed and set going is an organization that wields political power. The work it was designed to do bears both directly and indirectly on the relations of governments. Misjudgment of that aspect of the original structure and purpose is the chief source of confusion in the work of the agency.
It is compounded by the fact that as things have turned out, the professional educators, many of whom wanted a different kind of agency in the beginning, seem to be pretty much in control in UNESCO; and it is these most expert, influential and devoted supporters who, by and large, are most reluctant to face the significance of the original choice. The semantic confusion which surrounds the word "politics" is, no doubt, invincible. For reasons which perhaps only psychologists can explain, English-speaking people especially (whose most characteristic accomplishments have been registered in the political field) tend to use the word as a term of opprobrium: "politics" means partisanship, deals, the smoke-filled room, "ward politics." Yet to others who remember that it is precisely the neglected field which attracts parasites, who think of Lincoln or Gladstone, Thomas G. Masaryk or F.D.R., and long for nothing so much as a great politician who could realize the possibilities for world organization inherent in the U.N. and UNESCO, such a response seems the unhappiest of superficialities. However that may be, the two connotations remain; and the former is the one that has been favored in UNESCO's councils. No speech has been more often delivered in gatherings of the agency than the one which gives thanks that it is "unpolitical."
But the hope that it could avoid political responsibilities has been proven illusory. The central question of our time is whether the nations of the world are to be "organized" -- and if so, to what degree, on what terms, with which nations predominant, and with or without another world war. It is apparent that so long as that general question has such a tremendous impact on the everyday life of every living person, it will not be possible to hold a conference of 46 nations on any subject and divest that gathering of immediate political significance. Some "clearing house" activities of UNESCO's, of a more or less technical nature -- negotiations for a copyright agreement, for example, which may concern only certain nations and which make no effort to reach numbers of people -- have relatively little impact on political relations. But any effective attempt to reach masses of people with a discussion of "peace and understanding" lights a red light in every foreign office and the editorial room of every knowledgeable newspaper in the world.
Unfortunately, the political influence of an agency which appeals to public opinion can be just as strong when the effect is destructive as when it is constructive. If a UNESCO conference is incompetently managed, and if its subject matter seems, justly or unjustly, confused and inept, the bearing of such a public judgment on the question of the practicability of international organization is at once apparent; the failure touches political relationships at a dozen places. It is by no means inconceivable that the Atlantic Pact might, for example, have taken the form of a "universal" arrangement far more helpful to the U.N. -- and perhaps to the United States -- than the new alliance, had public opinion, including opinion in high places in Washington, had a little more confidence in the practicability of universal organization. UNESCO cannot escape a share of the blame for the discredit that has fallen upon that idea during the last few years.
The Communist-sponsored Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York last spring provided a paradoxical but clear illustration of this tight bond which holds culture and politics today. At that conference, Shostakovitch, the Russian composer, made a "political" speech -- a tirade obviously written for him, and so obviously a tirade that it did not make much impression on American public opinion. But had he made a serious, interesting talk on music, the political effect on American intellectuals might have been considerable. A UNESCO conference of 46 nations to determine the true pitch of A in the musical scale would have political significance; one can imagine the resulting cartoons and stories -- not too witty but not without point -- about fiddling while Rome burned, and so on. The immediate effect of any one such episode is, of course, slight, but the cumulative effect on public opinion is real.
Does this mean that the agency must deliberately be made an instrument of national chauvinism? It means the opposite. It means that the agency must deliberately be made an effective instrument of internationalism. The task is political -- but its objective is to strengthen not any one nation, but the United Nations organization. That UNESCO exists to contribute to the welfare of the United Nations seems inevitably the final term of the original assumption that educators, scientists and other professional men could usefully combine to form an agency which would bring their particular talents to bear on the task of world organization. UNESCO's machinery shakes and rattles unmercifully because the driving rod is not connected with the wheels. "Peace," "understanding," "security," "welfare" are abstractions. So are such admirable descriptions of the agency's rôle as "building the world community," or "emphasizing that which is common to all men." How can these phrases be made tangible save by focussing the program upon the welfare of the one concrete world organization that now exists -- the United Nations organization itself? These are the wheels which UNESCO's great potential political power can help turn. When "world community" means "United Nations," so far as UNESCO is concerned, then this specialized agency will settle down and begin to move.
Once this specialized agency has made its point of view that of the United Nations, will it not see -- looking at all the nations of the world around the circumference from its central position -- that the concrete task of international organization has two great objectives? The first is to harmonize the operation of the Soviet system with the processes of the non-Communist world. The second is to harmonize the procedures of the enormously powerful, successful and individualistic United States and those of the coöperative system -- "semi-Socialist" or whatever it should be labelled -- which is envisioned as a goal by almost all the literate world outside of the United States and the Soviet Union. There is this important difference between the two tasks: no one at Lake Success thinks that the work of harmonizing the interests of the United States and the interests of the rest of the non-Communist world necessitates war or is in the least likely to provoke it; but few deny that the task of adapting the interests of the Soviet Union and all the rest of the world may not prove possible without fighting. To the extent that that is true, the U.N. will always be pro-United States. How could it not be? But if the U.N. is to develop as an independent entity, it must accomplish the second task also; its own interests can never coincide with those of the United States unless it abandons its hope for the independent personality which it is slowly acquiring. The closer UNESCO comes to the actual political problems of the United Nations, the more plainly this reality will emerge in its work, and the less hospitable its supporters will be to chauvinism in its councils.
What effect might such a concentration of purpose have on the present program? It is almost impossible to talk about the program in concrete terms since it is impossible to know which items may in fairness be taken as representative. A few projects are unmistakably foolish -- the project to found a world newspaper edited by children, for instance. The "clearing house" type of activities are familiar and unexceptionable, save that there are too many of them. The problem is how to impart resolution to the Executive Board so that it will discard, say, 75 percent of the remaining items. [i] Nearly everyone agrees that drastic elimination of dispersed activities is essential; but how can it in fact be accomplished save by persuading the members of the Executive Board and General Conference that UNESCO has no obligation to any of the special groups which clamor for its funds -- in short, that the international organization is a load to help pull, not a wagon on which to catch a ride?
The support that UNESCO can bring to the U.N. is the yardstick for measuring its work. Use of this yardstick would emphasize the premise that the agency's projects are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and that UNESCO is an instrument to be used for the job of strengthening the world organization, not an instrument for advancing the interests of natural scientists, political scientists, philosophers, librarians, museum directors, writers or any special group of any kind. If science and the humanities and culture in general can add to its prestige and strength, or help equip it with expert knowledge, their services are needed. But UNESCO would no longer recognize an obligation to "do something" for science or the humanities or culture.
This does not mean that UNESCO would become the information agency for the United Nations. The U.N. has a satisfactory information service and neither needs nor wants it duplicated. No one proposes that the agency try to take over this particular function. UNESCO, however, now publishes and distributes material for use in schools describing and discussing the U.N. in what may be called straight educational, textbook terms, and much more such literature might be distributed. The parent organization welcomes this assistance, and most schools seem to have welcomed it. The material is no doubt susceptible to improvement; but no one proposes that this material attack or defend any particular nation. Obviously, and rightly, teachers would refuse to receive such material in their classrooms.
It is true that some leaders of UNESCO like to talk in general terms about the necessity of so firmly conditioning the minds of children in peaceful attitudes, beginning in the kindergarten, that when these infants have matured and are running things 40 or 50 years from now, no people and no government will resort to war. So far as I know, there has been no attempt to express this idea in a concrete program; and surely nothing will more effectively discourage such an attempt than a candid estimate of the political implications inherent in the theory. Were there the slightest possibility that UNESCO would be able to apply the enormous and unceasing leverage on children's minds necessary to condition them in this way, the project would have instant and crashing political reverberations -- among them the charge that it would probably tend to disarm the peaceful nations and strengthen the aggressive, as did such theories in the inter-war years. The abstract proposal has no political significance only because it is obviously futile. What it provides is an instance of the ambiguity of trying to separate UNESCO's projects into those which have "long-range" and those which have "short-range" political significance. All who wrote or talked about the agency in the early days tended to make this distinction constantly. It is a convenient one, but experience has shown that it is most misleading. Any cultural project that promises to be effective in the long run for bringing the nations of the world together has an immediate effect on their relationships.
But if it is agreed that "propaganda" upon children is not permissible (and not even contemplated), can it not also sensibly be agreed that propaganda upon adults is a different matter? In addition to the drastic reduction of the number of UNESCO's "community-building" projects which should result from the application of the yardstick proposed here, could not the agency address itself explicitly -- in conferences arranged to attract the maximum attention -- to the question of coördinating the organs and agencies of the U.N., with a view to centralizing it to some degree and enabling it to gain power? This is the central problem of world organization, and it is one on which political scientists, publicists, mass communications men, etc., have a special competence to address the public. And UNESCO is especially qualified to deal with it since, like the parent body, it too is an organization of sovereign states which (illogically but with vigor and promise) likewise reaches out to deal with individuals and offers them a means of participating directly in its work.
Aspects of this major topic are now included among UNESCO's multifarious projects. Two or three might be taken up and fully developed, the others laid aside. Such conferences could be successfully arranged only after careful consultation with the Secretary General of the U.N. and his assistants. In this work, UNESCO would be the agency of the permanent U.N. organization; it could focus attention on problems which the Secretariat cannot now "propagandize." In short, it could deliberately use public opinion to build up the U.N. as the independent entity which (we must assume) all hope that it will some day become. Of course, UNESCO would have to overcome the reputation for incompetence which it has acquired before the U.N. Secretariat would coöperate in such a project. If it cannot win a reputation for competence in its field, why should it be continued in existence? But, if it can make the effective appeal to public opinion that it was designed to make, it will have an attractive commodity to offer the United Nations: power.
Unfortunately, the experience of the past three years shows that the fear of increasing tension between east and west is not a useful criterion for the selection of projects. The U.N.'s primary desire is to accomplish its two great tasks without war; but unless the U.N. -- and UNESCO -- abandon their work of integrating the world community, they will themselves have to judge the bearing of their actions on peace. They cannot let it be decided for them by the Soviet Union. This problem becomes clear when it is seen that the act of international organization is the political act which UNESCO is designed to forward through its cultural activities. This act -- not verbal criticisms of the U.S.S.R. -- is what the Soviet Union most seriously objects to. It is when any effort is made to centralize and coördinate U.N. projects, agencies and organs, or to lay the groundwork for such integration, that the Soviet representatives leap to their feet with their most bitter protests. Thus anything done to make more effective UNESCO's activities for integrating the world community may increase tension. We shall add to it least if we admit it.
In his great work, "A Study of War," Professor Quincy Wright noted (in the inter-war years) that there were three basic requirements for the success of the League of Nations. The first was that people should respect it; the second was that people should identify themselves with it; the third was that the League should show itself capable of dissuading lawbreakers. Trygve Lie's Canadian broadcast on "The Peoples' Rôle in Peace" (January 7, 1948) summarized the same task even more simply: "It is necessary that ordinary men and women demonstrate, at all times, their belief in the United Nations and the things for which it stands." And Mr. Lie pointed out that under the democratic system of government, governments will act in the "interests of the world at large" if their peoples want them to; and will hesitate to do so if the people are apathetic. Is not this an acceptable practical application of the ideal of "peoples speaking to peoples" -- and a fair description of UNESCO's job?
Finally, the responsibility for using public opinion directly in support of decisions of major organs of the United Nations in times of great emergency is, I think, inherent in the "community building" task that UNESCO set for itself at the beginning, and can (if the emergency comes) be avoided only if UNESCO frankly withdraws from the field of public opinion. But then perhaps the question would be whether the United Nations, deprived of a will to resist aggression by the apathy of public opinion, would survive the next "Abyssinian" episode better than the League of Nations weathered the first one. Surely there is little reason to believe that UNESCO would survive the U.N. longer than the International Institute for Intellectual Coöperation survived the League.
[i] The most authoritative description of the various items of the program is to be found in the supplement to the UNESCO Courier for December 1948-January 1949.