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Society & Culture

Adieu, UNESCO: American Isolationism on Display

Oct 26, 2017
  • Lu Chen

    Consultant, United Nations


The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization Headquarters in Paris, Nov. 9, 2015 during the 38th Session of the Unesco General Conference. (Christophe Petit Tesson-EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

On October 12th, the U.S. announced its retreat from the UN's world heritage body, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO is a body of the United Nations that promotes international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication, though it is perhaps best known for its designation of "world heritage" sites.

The pull-out will take effect on December 31, 2018. In a statement, the Department of State pointed out that one of critical reasons for the United States’ exit is “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.” Although the statement did not point out what type of reform was desired, we can infer from the speech delivered by President Trump during the UN General Assembly in September that an uneven distribution of financial burdens, bureaucracy and mismanagement are the key words.

Unlike the UN Security Council, which grants the United States veto power, in UNESCO, the voting system is simple majority. Hence, the U.S enjoys only one vote and no veto, even though it pays the lion’s share of UNESCO’s regular budget—up to 22 per cent ($80 million per year). Further, the U.S has had its UNESCO voting right suspended since 2013, after it ceased funding the organization to protest its admission of Palestine as a full member in 2011.

Since Trump took office, the United States has already announced its withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement. It has also refused to increase its capital contribution to the World Bank and has threatened to exit the Iranian nuclear agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Given the expansiveness of this series of exits, the fundamental reason for America’s pull-out from UNESCO is likely not due to its purported dissatisfaction with UNESCO’s mechanisms, but the deep-seated isolationism in American culture. 

Although the U.S. considers itself the foremost global superpower and self-purported global policeman, isolationism runs deep in American culture. In his Farewell Address, the first president of the U.S., George Washington, cautioned against "permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” saying that the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests.

This strain of isolationism is different from the historical practice of the oriental countries, such as China and Japan, which cut off their countries from the outside world not only politically but also in terms of trade, culture, science and technology exchanges. American isolationism instead advocates the nurturing of economic relations with other parts of the globe. Hence, this isolationism is categorically utilitarian: a cautious engagement with the rest of the world to appropriate economic benefits, while undertaking as few political obligations as possible.

A flashback over American history proves this theory: its decision to participate in two world wars was based on its shrewd calculation of costs and gains. The United States had not announced its intention to join WWI until a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 people, including 129 Americans. The revelation of the ‘‘Zimmermann Telegram’’ — a signal offering the Mexicans the return of territories lost to the U.S. if they joined the war on Germany’s side, helped generate support for the war. Before that, the U.S. actually sold arms to both the British and the Germans as a war profiteer. In WWII, if it had not been for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which inflicted heavy losses, America would have remained aloof from the conflict, merely providing limited material support for its allies.

In this case, quitting UNESCO could save the U.S. $550 million of mounting arrears and more “unwarranted” liability in the future. Meanwhile, the U.S can still exert influence over UNESCO by remaining an observer state, partaking in debates and activities. Maintaining a crafty distance from responsibility with UNESCO fits with the country’s ideology, as dated back to its establishment.

Noticeably, the U.S. became more enthusiastic in world affairs after WWII. However, this increased international engagement did not mark the country’s fundamental shift to globalism and multilateralism, but instead showed its isolationism and unilateralism. Deploying the Marshal Plan in Europe and upholding Japan was due more to a need for deterrence against the communist Soviet Union than an embrace of globalism. During the Korean War, the United States formed an army to defy Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), exploiting the UN’s multilateral cooperation mechanism to achieve its strategic interests in the Far East, rather than promoting the principle of international peace as described in the UN Charter.

The constitution of UNESCO declares that "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed." A quote from American poet Archibald McLeis, it highlights how significant ideology is in motivating human actions.

There is a chance that the United States may rejoin UNESCO when the commitment is again congruous with the country’s interests, as it did in 2002 to show its dedication to international cooperation before the Iraq War (following its exit in 1984.) However, as long as American culture is not rid of its isolationist underpinnings, which are exacerbated today by populism, international institutions need to be alert to the United States’ unreliable devotion and make relevant arrangements. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to UN, has already warned “The United States will continue to evaluate all agencies within the United Nations system through the same lens.” Washington is currently also reviewing its membership of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.

When the U.S. last ceased funding UNESCO, in 2011, UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova said she would be forced to close as many as 20 out of UNESCO’s 60 field offices, of which 55 are in less-developed countries (LDCs). UNESCO’s “regular program” budget, accounting for 49 per cent of the total budget, relies heavily on the U.S. contributions. Comparatively, other types of contributions to UNESCO’s budget are trivial, with voluntary contributions from governments constituting 24 percent, multi-donor special accounts 13 percent, multilateral institutions constituting 8 percent, and the private sector and UN system contributing a combined seven percent. Against this backdrop, one critical issue for UNESCO is how to increase the share of other sources of funding.

After Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement, Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York and founder of the Bloomberg News Agency, offered to contribute $15 million to compensate for the loss. This money would cover the U.S.’s share of the operating budget for the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, the arm of the UN that coordinates the Paris agreement. This provides a valuable lesson for UNESCO, which should consider enhancing its efforts to attract donations from private enterprises and non-governmental organizations to close its funding gap.

International institutions will also need to keep an eye on the growing global distrust of multilateral institutions and recent, self-serving sentiments on the part of governments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow the U.S. and withdraw from UNESCO, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.” Meanwhile, for differing reasons, Britain, Japan and Brazil, among other states, have not yet paid their UNESCO dues for 2017. Coincidentally, these situations follow on from the Brexit vote last year, which is generally believed to be down to the British public’s belief that the UK contributed disproportionately to the EU. 

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