Since October 17, when UNESCO opened a six-week general conference in Paris, 158 member nations have been debating the United Nations organization’s strategic plan for 1990-95. The member nations should weigh their decisions carefully, for UNESCO’s future hangs in the balance.

What is at stake is whether UNESCO can recover the vitality and leadership it lost in 1984, when the United States withdrew from it, and 1985, when the United Kingdom followed suit. Since then the organization has suffered a 30% cut in annual operating funds. More damaging, it has lost the support and resources of the world’s two leading research superpowers. Unless UNESCO wins them back soon, its present state of temporary weakness may degenerate into permanent impotence.

The strategic plan now being debated ought to address three main problems that triggered the U.S. withdrawal: poor management, runaway spending, and highly politicized programs. These problems characterized the administration of...

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