This is no time to leave UNESCO, but to educate for Peace

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Today, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization. The alleged reason for withdrawing is the organization ‘anti-Israel bias’. This is a major foreign policy decision, materially and symbolically. Materially, it will diminish the capacity of this UN agency to advance international cooperation in education, culture and science. Symbolically, it will either signal that the United States conditions participation in international organizations to single issue positions of those organizations, or it will signal the US withdrawal from multilateral institutions as an avenue to advance American foreign policy. More generally, this withdrawal abrogates our commitment to the shared responsibility of advancing education for all, assumed at the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, abandoning the agency created to advance the right to education for all.

This decision of the US Government makes no sense. It appears that the consequences of this decision have not been thought through. The material consequences of a world in which UNESCO is unable to continue to do some of the work it does, advancing education for all, education for Peace, are not good for humanity. They will slow down the continued education of people around the world, which is the cornerstone of social and economic process, and a foundation for Peace and Sustainability. How is a world with more ignorance in anyone’s interest? UNESCO is by no means a perfect institution, as with any complex organization there is room for improvement in its effectiveness in advancing this mission. Imperfect as the organization is, however, cutting funding and withdrawing from its governance does nothing to help improve it.

Far greater than the material consequences of the withdrawal are the symbolic consequences of withdrawing from a multilateral institution because of alleged disagreements with decisions made by the organization to grant membership to Palestine, or to declare the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered World Heritage site. The multilateral institutions created to increase peace and security after world war two were created precisely because of the recognition for the need of supranational bodies that could help resolve conflicts between nations before those conflicts could escalate into the use of violence between nation states. Those who created the United Nations understood that the commitment to multilateralism would slow down and complicate the resolution of international disputes, but this was in hopes of reducing the likelihood that war between states would be the only option available to nation State to address such disputes. The violence witnessed during World War II led many to prefer the slow process of multilateral diplomacy to the trigger happy attitude of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Should the international community conclude from watching the US abandon an institution that it helped found that we now prefer a trigger happy approach to advancing our interests and resolving disputes?

A cursory examination of the history of UNESCO reveals the grave significance of this misguided decision. It was in the middle of world war two, in 1942, that the governments of the European countries confronting the Nazi aggression convened a conference of Ministers of Education to discuss how international cooperation would help accelerate the reconstruction of the education systems the war was decimating. Three years later, in 1945, the United Nations convened a conference to design an education and cultural organization. The United States joined forty three other countries in establishing an organization that would create and sustain a culture of peace to prevent another major war. Towards the end of 1946 the first General Conference of UNESCO convened representatives from 30 governments in Paris.

Over the last seven decades, UNESCO spearheaded and contributed to a global education movement which transformed the shared experience of humanity. In 1946, the vast majority of the world’s children did not have access to school. They do today, in part, because the efforts of the professionals who work in UNESCO and the programs they advance. That about 1.2 billion people are enrolled in educational institutions today as a result of the global education movement UNESCO started, is a remarkable accomplishment for an organization to which the United States would contribute about 80 million dollars a year, accounting for about 20% of its budget. The US contribution would represent less than 0.4% of the 21 billion dollars which the US Department of State spends in international assistance.

Non-sensical as this decision to withdraw from UNESCO may be, because it does not seem to advance any global or US interest, it is however a decision consistent with a form of nationalist populism which threatens the Wilsonian approach to global engagement which has prevailed since World War II. Abandoning UNESCO, as well as abandoning multilateral efforts to address shared challenges such as climate change, is consistent with this view. If this is indeed the ideological underpinning and the real justification of this decision, we should expect other forms of withdrawing from global institutions to follow as I explain in the recent book One Student at a Time. Leading the Global Education Movement. And as the order built to prevent another world war crumbles we should fear the spread of a trigger happy approach to resolving conflicts between nations.

Before that brave new world sets in, educators should reflect on the ethical foundations of the work we do, on education as an avenue to Peace, to advance Human Rights, Freedom and Justice, and on the advancement of education as a work that necessitates solidarity across nations, the very global cooperation which those suffering the violence of World War II could so clearly understand as necessary to prevent another return to a major global conflict. Let us engage our students in thinking through and understanding the difference between a trigger happy world, and a world at Peace advancing the very global citizenship education and Peace education which UNESCO has advocated throughout its seventy years’ history. With a group of graduate students I have developed two lessons to teach about UNESCO which can be used at the high school and college level to engage students in reflection about the work UNESCO does and about the likely consequences of the US withdrawal. These lessons are included in a book just published titled Teaching Two Lessons about UNESCO and other writings on Human Rights. The recent books Empowering Global Citizens and Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons offer curricula to help students understand the significance of Human Rights and of the Sustainable Development Goals to Global Security, Peace and Sustainability. It is time to keep present the lines in the preamble of UNESCO’s constitution that read ‘since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed’.