The United States will rejoin UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, in July, the agency announced, following years of tumultuous relations that culminated in the U.S. government’s complete withdrawal in 2017.
In a significant development, UNESCO has announced the forthcoming rejoining of the United States (US) to the organization, effective from July of this year. This decision marks a remarkable shift, as it comes over a decade after the United States ceased critical funding to the agency. The move is expected to inject much-needed financial support into UNESCO’s budget. The United States’ withdrawal from the cultural agency took place in December 2018 during US President Donald Trump’s administration, citing allegations of anti-Israel bias and mismanagement.
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Now, the United States has taken the decision to address its over $600 million in delinquent debts, showcasing a renewed commitment to its obligations. To further underline its dedication, the Biden administration has already sought $150 million for the 2024 budget, designated for UNESCO dues and arrears, contributing to the total debt of $619 million. “This is a strong vote of confidence in UNESCO and in multilateralism,” Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, said in a statement after announcing the U.S. decision to representatives of the agency’s 193 members at the agency’s Paris headquarters.
UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, stated in a statement that the Department of State had sent Ms. Azoulay a letter that “welcomed the way in which UNESCO had addressed in recent years emerging challenges, modernized its management and reduced political tensions.”
US withdrawal from UNESCO
In 1984, the United States withdrew from UNESCO for the first time, citing financial negligence and alleged anti-American bias. It rejoined in 2003 under the administration of President George W. Bush, after the agency had implemented the necessary reforms. However, the United States ceased financing UNESCO in 2011 when it admitted Palestine as a member state, which was viewed as a violation of U.S. law prohibiting funding to agencies that recognize Palestinian demands for statehood. In 2017, the Trump administration declared the United States’ complete withdrawal from UNESCO. Anti-Israel bias allegations and mismanagement within the organization were cited as the primary reasons for the withdrawal.
Motivations for rejoining
Since 1972, more than 1,150 World Heritage sites have been designated by UNESCO, including Yosemite National Park in California, Angkor in Cambodia, and Stone Town in Zanzibar. It also maintains an inventory of humanity’s most valuable creations, such as the French baguette, as part of its “intangible cultural heritage” program. The organization is also well-known for its educational initiatives, which include the promotion of sex education, literacy, clean water, and women’s equality. It also serves to establish standards for a variety of issues, such as ocean protection and artificial intelligence ethics. Over the past decade, however, it had been affected by a lack of funding and accusations of political prejudice, particularly in matters concerning Israel and the Palestinians. Member states of UNESCO have utilized the organization to rehash historical disputes, fight over competing claims to cultural heritage, and challenge their competitors’ international legitimacy.
The decision to rejoin UNESCO is influenced by a number of factors. The statement noted that the United States has presented a “concrete financing plan” that must be accepted by UNESCO, adding that the decision to rejoin was made possible by a law passed by Congress in December that authorized financial contributions to UNESCO. The statement lacked specifics regarding the proposed action. It displays a renewed dedication to multilateralism and international cooperation.
In addition, there is mounting concern that China has filled the void left by the United States in UNESCO policymaking, particularly in artificial intelligence and technology education. The United States recognizes the need to engage actively with international organizations in order to shape global standards and maintain its influence in a world that is becoming increasingly competitive.
Implications of joining UNESCO
The decision of the United States to rejoin UNESCO has significant effects on the organization and its operations. The re-entry of the United States will provide a much-needed financial stimulus to UNESCO. Prior to its withdrawal, the United States provided approximately 22 percent of UNESCO’s total funding. The return of the United States will not only restore this financial support, but also demonstrate renewed faith in the mission and activities of UNESCO.
The reintegration of the United States into UNESCO has geopolitical ramifications as well. The absence of the United States has allowed other nations, particularly China, to exert influence and shape the policies of UNESCO. By rejoining, the United States intends to reclaim its position as a leading influencer of global technology and scientific standards, particularly in artificial intelligence.
A UNESCO diplomat expressed hope that the return of the U.S. would bring “more ambition, and more serenity” — and energize programs to regulate artificial intelligence, educate girls in Afghanistan and chronicle victims of slavery in the Caribbean. The American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israel U.S.-based Jewish advocacy group, welcomed the decision. “Continued U.S. absence from UNESCO — an agency that supports educational efforts to fight anti-Semitism and preserve Holocaust memory, and which under current leadership has halted the adoption of one-sided resolutions prejudicial to Israel — did not serve American national interests and values, or those of our allies,” the group said in a statement.
According to Seth J. Frantzman, a commentator for the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli English-language newspaper, the decision to rejoin UNESCO is perceived as “natural and positive.” On social media, he expressed his views, stating, “Leaving UNESCO didn’t help the U.S. or Israel. In fact, in Israel’s case, it was an incredibly short-sighted decision driven by spite rather than constructive dialogue.”
To conclude, the United States’ decision to rejoin UNESCO represents a significant transition in its approach to multilateralism and global cooperation. The United States has decided to rejoin the organization after withdrawing in 2018, citing concerns about China’s expanding influence and a desire to contribute to global policymaking in areas such as artificial intelligence and technology education.