By Don Alltoada, January 11, 2023
The crusade against President Trump’s decisions still continues nearly three years after he left office. Last week, we learned that the U.S. can rejoin UNESCO despite its inherent problems with corruption and the recognition of Palestinian statehood, while Israel followed the U.S. in both cutting off its funding to UNESCO in 2011 and withdrawing from the organization in 2019.
At the time, the former Obama administration abided by a U.S. edict that called for the withdrawal of US funds from UN bodies that recognize Palestinian statehood prior to the conclusion of a final-status agreement for a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. In 2011, Washington immediately halted its funding to the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO). The Trump administration withdrew from the organization in 2019.
The Biden administration, however, has sought from day one to rejoin UNESCO and restore U.S. funding to the globalist body. The bill, which Congress approved just before the Christmas recess, contained provisions that would allow the Biden administration to restore the discontinued funding.
This is unfortunate. UNESCO is doomed and Joe Biden should not attempt to save it just because Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw from it. It is becoming pitiful to watch the efforts of President Biden and his team to dismantle all the decisions of the former administration, except the one to secure COVID vaccines for which Biden even sought to take credit. If President Trump had passed a law allowing for the total and final annihilation of all enemies of the United States at once, even that law would have been repealed by Joe Biden solely because it was passed during the Trump administration. Pathetic.
UNESCO was founded with the aim of advancing peace, development and the well-being of humanity through education, science and culture. UNESCO’s founding fathers stated that they believed that the rule of law, respect for human rights and freedom of expression would be effectively strengthened through international cooperation. Seventy-five years later, this belief has proven to be totally wrong.
These days, UNESCO is known mainly for operating the Committee that has awarded World Heritage status to more than 1,100 historical sites and established a global network of some 700 biosphere reserves. Withal, UNESCO failed on its core missions – education, culture and science, but also on press freedom and building a culture of peace. In short, commensurate with the unlimited ambitions of its mandate, UNESCO is a bureaucracy that has little or no impact on contemporary challenges and is therefore, at best, a costly waste of taxpayers’ money.
Appalled by its rampant politicization, financial mismanagement and unfair treatment of Israel, in the past, the American government put an end twice to the romance between UNESCO and the U.S. government. Rejoining the UN agency now would be an unsubstantiated and costly move against America’s interests and a serious political mistake by President Biden.
The first real punch-up came in 1974, when UNESCO voted sanctions against Israel, because it allegedly altered the city of Jerusalem during archaeological excavations and ‘brainwashed Arabs’ in the occupied territories. Hence, the 18th General Conference of UNESCO, held in November 1974, condemned Israel for its attitude which was considered in contradiction with the aims of the organization as set forth in its Constitution. The U.S. Congress promptly suspended UNESCO’s appropriations, which forced the agency to soften its sanctions. In 1976, Israel was readmitted and in 1977, the U.S. funding resumed.
In 1980, at the UNESCO General Conference in Belgrade, a majority of Communist and developing nations called for a ‘new world information order’ to compensate for the alleged pro-Western bias of global news organizations. The goals were the licensing of journalists, an international code of press ethics and increased government control over media content. Although UNESCO backed off under pressure from the West, it still allocated some US$ 16 million for a two-year program to study ‘media reforms’.
The U.S. Administration was rankled further by the financial scandals, the communist orientations and by the bloated bureaucracy based exclusively in Paris despite UNESCO’s affirmed concern for the ‘Third World’ and especially Africa. As a consequence, with mounting tensions due to the intense politicization of UNESCO during the Cold War, after years of sparring with Third World and Soviet Bloc members, Washington finally ran out of patience and the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan formally announced on December 30, 1983 its intention to withdraw from the agency ‘in a year’s time.’ President Reagan justified his decision with UNESCO’s “hostility to a free society, especially a free market and a free press.” Thatcherite Britain and Singapore followed two years later. The Reagan/Thatcher duo sought to remove international obstacles to its economic and political transformation and at the same time to defeat communism. Their struggle with UNESCO was an extension of the confrontation with the Soviet Union and their satellites from the Non-Aligned Movement of decolonized nations.
Reagan was a resolute president, and his decision to leave UNESCO was based on the legitimate assumption that there would not be sufficient improvements within the UN agency to justify a change in the U.S. position. His move to withdraw was not a negotiating ploy to push UNESCO to change its ways, but rather a condition to set the limits of U.S. tolerance.
Years after President Reagan left office, returning to UNESCO was not considered a priority. The aftermath of World War II had dissipated and the United States had won the Cold War, so most of Washington’s original reasons for being in the agency had simply faded. Also, rejoining the organization would have been a hard sell to Congress in the 1990s, especially with Reagan’s stalwart Jesse Helms chairing the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
After an almost twenty-year absence, the United States rejoined the organization in October 2003, when the country’s foreign relations calculation changed once again. The announcement came around the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and was part of Washington’s efforts to rally the international community around its global war on terrorism. Ironically, it was not under the so-called champion of multilateral cooperation, Democrat Bill Clinton, but under Republican Bush that the United States rejoined UNESCO.
Yet this decision was not a renewal of cooperation with UNESCO, as the State Department was well aware that there was no real benefit for the U.S. interests in making such a decision. Rather, the Bush administration sought to display a sense of commitment to multi-lateral-ism at the same time as it was preparing for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In another paradox, it was the Obama administration that paved the way for President Trump’s decision to withdraw for the second time. Obama froze U.S. contributions to UNESCO in 2011, after the UNESCO General Conference voted in November to admit Palestine as a member state of the organization, with the support of Bulgarian Director-General Irina Bokova, a proud communist heir, who later failed in her bid for the post of UN Secretary General in 2016.
Then, in October 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would again leave UNESCO, citing mounting arrears, the need for fundamental reform of the organization, and the persistent anti-Israel bias at UNESCO as key reasons for the decision. His justifications echoed the strong arguments made by President Reagan’s administration in December 1983 and politically closed the loop that should not be reopened now.
Following the surprising election of the French tenderfoot Audrey Azoulay in 2017, the financial abyss accelerated and accentuated its political and programmatic crisis. Without the U.S. funding, and with escalating financial strain, UNESCO was forced to reduce its limited activities, abolish posts and pay for early retirement of its staff. In order to survive, it started operating mainly with extra-budgetary funding provided by interested states.
Instead of reducing tensions, this led to the even more increased politicization of UNESCO with governments funding the agency ‘a la carte’ according to their national political priorities with a battery of conditions laid down for prior and docile acceptance by UNESCO before approving any of their ‘voluntary’ contributions.
Western diplomats have regularly complained about UNESCO’s weak leadership and the increasing politicization of its activities. That’s why, at the last elections in 2017, all candidates running to lead UNESCO vowed serious structural reforms and major efforts to depoliticize the agency. This unfortunately proved to be an insurmountable task for former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay. Her candidacy was decided at the very last moment by the former French President and eminent socialist François Hollande against his initial commitment to support a candidate from the Arab region.
Since the election of Audrey Azoulay, the financial crisis at UNESCO combined with a crisis in the management of the reform, a crisis of visibility and a crisis of credibility, has engulfed any chance of the agency’s regeneration. In less than five years, the French socialist Azoulay has transformed UNESCO into a subdivision of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has directed UNESCO’s work towards initiatives of primary interest and priority to the French government.
During her tenure, UNESCO also lost its influence in the two key areas of its mandate – education and culture. The agency has also lost its role in the reform of the UN System. The lack of transparency and accountability is another serious problem that reflects the current mismanagement of the agency. UNESCO suffers severely from a ballooned bureaucracy, resulting in a painfully slow and damaging decision-making and a series of operational failures. Mismanagement always has a cost, and UNESCO has lost millions in mismanaging its staff and programs.
Over time, UNESCO has been stripped of the substance of its programs. It also dismantled most of its expertise hubs, some of which had been created with American assistance. This process of weakening the agency was complemented by the total lack of accountability of senior UNESCO appointees, which led to a lawless environment conducive to the pursuit of French self-interests.
UNESCO is not an accountable and effective partner organization for America to rely on. Rejoining it would be another major mistake by the Biden administration. Before taking the final step in this wrong direction, Joe Biden must consider all the facts, past experiences and historical incidents illustrating the problematic relationship between the United States and UNESCO. As an organization in a state of deep and irreversible moral and financial crisis, mired in corruption scandals, and suffering from a lack of intellectual leadership, UNESCO certainly does not deserve to be kept in business with U.S. taxpayer dollars.