USA exits UNESCO: the beginning of a new diplomatic strategy?

3 mins read

By Valentine Fantino

On October 12th, Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, declared that the United States is leaving the UNESCO. This international organisation works with the global collaboration in education, science, culture and communication. The emblematic World Heritage list is the most significant label that guarantees the protection and preservation of historical sites. This mission can only be accomplished with the support of many countries, as evident in the large number of member countries: 195 countries that used to be members. But this might change.

This unexpected withdrawal takes place during the campaign for the title of UNESCO general director. At the end of Irina Bokova’s mandate, the competition to obtain this honorable position is very tense. So the timing of this withdrawal announcement would be suitable to disturb the succession and catch the media’s attention. Yet other reasons can explain and motivate this decision.   

Firstly, the American government defends its decision with structural arguments. They put the blame on the UNESCO administration, judging it to be inefficient. For instance, the USA stopped paying UNESCO contributions in 2011, since it was considered a waste of money according to congress. As a consequence, the USA now has a debt of 600 million dollars in unpaid contributions. That is a relevant argument to leave the membership.

Nevertheless, the main reasons are political. Israel is a strategic ally for the USA to have a say in the Middle East. The organisation’s recognition of Palestine as a country pushed the USA’s leaving. For example, on July 7th, the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron was declared “human patrimony” and hence, a Palestinian monument. However, this is not the first time that such a decision is taken. Already in 1984, Reagan had declared leaving the UNESCO because of its proximity to the Soviet Union.

Moreover, it is noticeable that a new American isolation strategy has been launched in the last months. The US has retracted from various multilateral organisations, such as the Paris agreement, and now the UNESCO organisation. Undoubtedly, a political desire for independence, even a protectionist political system, is clearly defined. Could it be that all these political movements serve a bigger purpose?

As soon as the American decision turned official, Israel declared their following this example to leave the organisation. The pro-Palestinian side identified a strong disagreement with the international organisation. Israel usually devotes more than one million dollars every year to promote monument conservation and access to cultural attractions. Jerusalem is a treasure for humanity, in this multi-religious city there are fundamental monuments such as the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Their protection and access is necessary to ensure a religious balance in the region and a political way to achieve peace. However, the current atmosphere suggests otherwise.

On the contrary, there is a current risk of absorbing political matters in too large scale into UNESCO missions. Unofficially, this is already the case but the increase of this phenomenon can lead to a real crisis within the organisation. The relations of power and political conflict would prevail over cultural priorities. It could prevent international projects to go ahead and damage UNESCO efficiency even more. In fact, many critics approved of the USA’s denunciation, even coming from as high a position as the former general director, Irina Bokova. This surprisingly fast spreading crisis in the core of UNESCO can push more countries to withdraw from the organisation. This threat is real and can paralyse the cultural, educational and communicative action of the international organisation.

So, this decision signs a new era of American diplomacy. The multilateral collaboration might be damaged by this mainly political withdrawal. UNESCO now fears a massive movement that could prevent it from properly realising its task of correctly democratising culture, that is to say, to make it more accessible to the general population, even those more detached from the cultural sphere. This noble mission should be more important than political tension and unite countries instead of divide them. This is why UNESCO should review its structural organisation and financial management from the core up to be able to be perceived in a more serious manner.


Valentine Fantino is an exchange student in Uppsala university this year, normally she studies political science in Paris. She is French,  Italian and Spanish, and feels like a European citizen. She is fond of history and art that helps her to better understand the current world. 


Image: David Rodrigo

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