UNESCO was founded for the stated objective of advancing peace, development and the welfare of mankind through education, science and culture. When 37 nations created UNESCO as a human rights-oriented organization in November 1945, it was essentially a western entity, dominated by western funding. School systems in Europe were undergoing denazification and, as part of that process, the U.S. wanted to be sure that they taught World War II accurately. UNESCO was a way to influence those curricula. Likewise, during the Cold War, American officials imagined UNESCO as an advocate for free speech in an era of communist propaganda.
Since that time, UNESCO has attained the largest membership of any organization in the United Nations family with 193 members and 11 associate members. The founding fathers of UNESCO said they believed that the rule of law, respect for human rights and freedom of expression would be effectively strengthened through international cooperation. 75 years later, this belief proved wrong.
All plans for smooth operation had to be reviewed with the increasing number of countries dominated by the Soviet Union joining UNESCO. Thus, the original UNESCO club of Western States working on establishing a post-fascist, liberal order in Nazi-destroyed Europe, gradually lost its predominant influence when membership of ‘Third World’ countries surged in the course of the great waves of decolonization. The U.S. found that it was losing money to an organization over which it had limited influence and for which it had little use.
At the time of UNESCO’s founding, however, the United States was an enthusiastic supporter and funder and helped to mold the institution into one based ostensibly on the principles and values of the western free world. Americans were an important part of UNESCO’s creation and, for instance, Archibald MacLeish, the first American member of UNESCO’s governing board, wrote the preamble to its 1945 Constitution.
Today, 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, building a culture of peace and internet knowledgeable societies. 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 a costly waste for taxpayers at best.
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. Despite the recurring appeals by lousy intellectuals to return to UNESCO, rejoining the Agency would be an unsubstantiated and costly move against the interests of America and a political mistake by President Biden. This article offers good reasons for the Biden administration to keep the United Stated out of UNESCO.
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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.
Israel was namely slammed because “it persisted in modifying the historical features of the city of Jerusalem and in undertaking excavations which constitute a danger to its monuments, as a result of its illegitimate occupation of that city” (Resolution 3427). 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. Indeed, 2,428 of its 3,380 employees worked in Paris at that time. Also, some of the staffers were better connected than qualified: the central post of Director of Personnel, for instance, went to Serge Vieux, the cousin of UNESCO’s Director-General at that time Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow’s wife.
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.’ The U.S. decision was personally handed to M’Bow in Paris by Ambassador Jean Gerard.
In issuing the formal announcement, Alan D. Romberg, a State Department spokesman, said this decision was taken because “[UNESCO has] politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, [and] has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” Added Assistant State Secretary Gregory Newell: “There is no conceivable way that UNESCO could change so that we would be enticed to remain.”
Besides, 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.
At the United Nations, Perez de Cuellar, then Secretary General of the U.N., expressed concern about the U.S. decision. In response, Secretary of State Shultz, in a letter to Perez de Cuellar, stated that since the U.S. would remain a full member of UNESCO until 1984, the Agency would have the opportunity to make changes that would cause the U.S. to rescind its decision before it went into effect. ”This year will give UNESCO a potential opportunity to respond to the serious concerns that have caused our withdrawal,” Mr. Shultz wrote. ”We remain open to indications of significant improvement.” However, these improvements never took place.
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.
In fact, UNESCO’s policies for years have served anti-U.S. political purposes, and the Reagan administration frequently had advised UNESCO on where to draw the line in confronting the U.S. with its misguided policies, biased agendas, and extravagant mismanagement.
In 1983, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Newell provided a comprehensive description of U.S. concerns: “The time and resources earmarked for projects that the United States does not believe should be dealt with by UNESCO, such as spending $750,000 in discussing Soviet-inspired disarmament proposals; the ‘collectivist’ trends in the group, which promotes ‘group rights’ at the expense of individual human rights; efforts to promote the licensing of foreign reporters and the setting up of a ‘new world information order’ that was supplementary to the so-called New International Economic Order, in which wealthy countries were supposed to transfer resources to the poorer ones; UNESCO’s request for a budget increase of nearly 10 percent while other United Nations agencies were abiding by requests to keep their budgets at near zero growth”.
UNESCO’s budget was about US$ 200 million a year, with the U.S. contributing a quarter. Several U.S. officials soured on the organization because, despite new members, the United States still had to pay a disproportionate amount of UNESCO’s budget. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who represented the U.S. at the United Nations put it unambiguously: “The countries which have the votes don’t pay the bill, and those who pay the bill don’t have the votes,” as TIME reported in a January 9, 1984, article.
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.
In announcing that the U.S. would rejoin UNESCO, President George W. Bush stated: “As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. This organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”
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 multilateralism 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, who later failed in her bid for the post of UN Secretary General in 2016.
In short, President Reagan rightly decided to withdraw from the organization at the height of the Cold War, citing mismanagement, corruption and what he saw as an ideological tilt in favor of the Soviet Union against the West. President Bush reinstated the organization, claiming that it had gotten its books in order, cleaned up its act and expunged some of its more virulent anti-Western and anti-Israel biases.
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 ever.
In late September, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told French President Emmanuel Macron that Washington was considering leaving during a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Macron then sought Trump’s support for UNESCO, with France’s Audrey Azoulay just getting the top job at the Agency. That didn’t work out.
The Trump administration had little interests in supporting France by paying the U.S. debts piling-up since the Obama administration. Moreover, multilateralism did not fit with President Trump’s ‘America First’ global foreign policy vision. As Trump’s former security adviser John Bolton famously said in 1994: “if the United Nations Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” As a result, UNESCO’s problems sharply increased with the cumulated arrears of near one billion U.S. dollars resulting from the legitimate decision by the U.S. Government to halt payment to the Agency of its annual contribution.
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 extrabudgetary 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 four 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.
The three and a half years of Audrey Azoulay’s leadership are best summed up by a senior diplomat in Paris: “UNESCO is today an Agency in decline that has lost its effectiveness, visibility and credibility; an Agency with too few ideas, inconsistent funding and impact, but with too much politics; an organization with a fading international reach, with a feckless Secretariat and no hope or vision for its future.”
Under Communist Chinese financial and political influence, UNESCO is certainly not an accountable and effective partner organization for America to rely on, and there is no room for the Biden administration to consider returning to it. Instead, President Biden should take into consideration all the facts, past experiences, and historical incidents illustrating the relationship between the United States and UNESCO.
Whatever the additional causes of its failure and chronic deficiencies, there is no doubt that this is an organization in a state of deep and irreversible crisis, mired in scandals, suffering from a lack of direction and with a morally ambiguous outlook.
Ill-equipped to meet the demands of the 21st century and heading for irrelevance, UNESCO today is best described as an old international body crushed against the wall of history and waiting for a blood transfusion. The blood for that transfusion must not come from the American people.