Flags from several countries float in front of the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organiztion (UNESCO). Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
In a short statement that spoke volumes about American engagement with the international community, the United States announced on Thursday that it will withdraw from United Nations cultural organization UNESCO at the end of the year. The Trump administration has justified the withdrawal in part due to what it claims is UNESCO’s “anti-Israel bias.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump’s move and followed suit. Cultural policy experts have been left shaking their heads.
What does the withdrawal actually mean for UNESCO? Is the “anti-Israel bias” the administration’s main reason for pulling out? And can the organization survive without the United States?
What does UNESCO do?
Founded in the aftermath of World War II, UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, comprised of 195 member states (two more than make up the UN, since Palestine and the Cook Islands are UNESCO members). Its self-stated mission is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture.”
The founders of UNESCO saw fostering education, science, and culture as a means to peace, not an end in and of itself. As war-weary countries began to grapple with the enormous damage done during World War II, they worked to develop organizations, including UNESCO, intended to generate international dialogue and mutual understanding, in the hopes of preventing such an atrocity from occurring again. The first line of UNESCO’s founding constitution, adopted on November 16, 1945, articulates this grandiose goal: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
It has pursued this mission through multiple means, supporting academic conferences and training journalists. Today, UNESCO supports programs including Holocaust and genocide education and literacy efforts for both children and adults.
Most famously, UNESCO administers the World Heritage List program, which identifies places (from man-made structures to natural locations) across the world that are of shared international and human importance for protection and preservation. There are 23 sites in the United States, including the Statue of Liberty. The United States remains a signatory of the international treaty underpinning the program, the World Heritage Convention, which was originally modeled off the U.S.’s National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
In addition to its programming, UNESCO’s current director general, Irina Bokova, has also been an outspoken critic of the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria and Mali, labeling them “war crimes.” We can credit UNESCO with making such cultural heritage destruction a major issue that reaches the front page of world newspapers, said Stefan Simon, Director of Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH).
The organization’s 1970 convention, titled “The Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property,” was ratified by 134 nations to date, including the United States.
Why is the United States leaving?
The U.S. Department of State cited “the need for fundamental reform” and “continuing anti-Israel bias” at UNESCO, along with “concerns with mounting arrears” owed by the U.S. in the statement formally announcing the withdrawal from the organization, a move heralded by President Trump’s anti-globalist base.
Most press attention around the withdrawal has focused on the allegation of anti-Israel bias, but all three reasons are important, said Brian Daniels, the director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
The factors are intertwined to an extent. America’s strained relationship to UNESCO actually began well before the Trump administration. In 2011, the agency voted to allow Palestine to join as a member state over Israel’s vocal objections. As a result, the U.S. stopped funding UNESCO due to what the New York Times described as a “forgotten” 15-year-old law requiring that the U.S. to halt payments to any UN agency accepting Palestine as a full member. And this year, UNESCO designated the West Bank city of Old Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage Site, a move decried by Israel.
Daniels said that at the time Palestine was admitted, there was a flawed presumption by some at UNESCO that the U.S. could and would change the law easily. But a Republican-controlled House meant that even though the Obama administration wished to change the statute, it still remains on the books. Now, the United States owes in the region of $550 million to UNESCO, a sum that would keep growing should the U.S. remain in the organization and not foot its bill—the “mounting arrears” highlighted by the State Department. This ever-increasing figure was a significant factor contributing to the U.S. decision to leave.
When picking among the reasons cited by the State Department for leaving UNESCO, Daniels said he believes that the dues issue was the most important factor. Simon also said that his interpretation is that the U.S. was motivated by financial considerations and a desire to cap the increasing arrears, which, Simon added, do not go away even after the U.S. withdraws and must be paid back should the country return to UNESCO.
Still, there are real questions about UNESCO’s financial management and the impact of its cultural programs. Following the end of the Cold War, UNESCO started doing more direct in-country programming. The agency employs 2,000 staffers primarily based in Paris, creating overhead costs that have been a source of concern even among proponents of the organization, Daniels noted.
What is the impact of withdrawal?
In terms of tangible financial and legal impact, experts say, the answer is few. The U.S. had its UNESCO voting rights suspended in 2013 after failing to pay dues (though the country did get a vote Friday in elections for the agency’s next director general because it is on UNESCO’s executive board). The U.S. hasn’t been paying anything to the agency for years, but leaving UNESCO does stop the arrears from piling up.
The withdrawal may have knock-on effects by emboldening the U.K., Japan, and Brazil, three other nations which, for differing reasons, have all not paid UNESCO dues in 2017. America’s annual contributions amounted to roughly $80 million, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget.
The overall impact is significant for an organization that Daniels described as in “dire financial straits.”
UNESCO treaties signed, ratified, and incorporated into domestic U.S. law will not be impacted by the withdrawal. This includes the important 1970 treaty on illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts and the 1972 World Heritage Convention, pertaining to World Heritage Sites, both of which are on the books in the United States. As a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, the U.S. can continue to nominate one site per year for ratification as a World Heritage Site.
But will UNESCO members penalize the U.S. withdrawal from the organization by putting the kibosh on America’s World Heritage nominations?
It’s an open question given U.S. government’s “antagonism to UNESCO” and its “continuing failure” to contribute the cost of operating the heritage convention, said Andrew S. Potts, a partner at law firm Nixon Peabody who formerly served as executive director of the United States National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
The answer will at least partially depend on whether voting member nations disentangle the importance of U.S. cultural sites from the actions of the U.S. government. Potts noted the withdrawal is potentially a blow to those within the United States that “poured their hearts and souls” into assembling world heritage dossiers for potential nomination.
What signal does this send to the world?
Simon noted that even if U.S. participation in UNESCO was limited prior to the withdrawal, leaving sends a profoundly negative message, akin to the U.S. announcing its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord earlier this year.
“It tells the world that there is no trust in multilateralism.” said Simon, who called the withdrawal “irresponsible” and “very short-sighted.” Dialogue is crucial, especially in today’s fractured political climate, he added, even if the U.S. was unhappy with the addition of Palestine to UNESCO. “You need to have all those voices at the table,” he said. “You can’t just drop your toys and run away.”
According to the State Department statement, the U.S. plans to maintain some level of presence at UNESCO as a non-member observer state. While the U.S. still had “substantial” leverage while not paying dues as a member, said Daniels, the observer status reduces the importance and power of the U.S. in international cultural decisions.
“When you are a non-member state and you begin with the letter U, you speak at the end of the day,” said Daniels. “You speak after all the other countries are done speaking, after everybody has gone for coffee or drinks.”
To some extent, the U.S. long ago withdrew from such dialogues—refusing to sign the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, for example. But actually withdrawing from the agency entirely further undermines the U.S. position on the discussions that happen as part of UNESCO—including conversations around intellectual property rights.
The extent to which the U.S. is able to participate in UNESCO’s programs not enshrined by domestic law remains to be seen. Even if the U.S. can continue to reap some benefits from UNESCO, the wealthiest country on earth not contributing to the agency sends a bad signal to the world.
“We’re expecting all the other countries of the world, including poor nations, to pick up the tab for us to participate as an observer,” said Potts. “The optics, politics, and reality of that are really untenable.”
What is the future of UNESCO?
This is not the first time the United States has withdrawn from UNESCO, and the agency did endure. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan pulled out, citing many of the same issues raised today, though critics at the time voiced that UNESCO was “anti-family” and essentially anti-West in the polarized era of the Cold War. It wasn’t until 2003 under President George W. Bush that the U.S. rejoined UNESCO.
There have been rumblings the U.S. would pull out again, Daniels said, but the announcement was expected after the next director general was elected to replace Bokova. Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay defeated Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari after five rounds of voting today in Paris in what was a close election. “In this time of crisis we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it,” she told reporters.
Azoulay inherits an agency that is in a precarious financial and political position but perhaps not a mandate after the fractious voting process. Even with mounting problems, UNESCO isn’t going to disappear or fold, said Daniels. “I see it limping along.” he said. “These kinds of agencies die hard.”