US Withdrawal From UNESCO Exacerbates Growing International Isolation

Francois Mori/Associated Press
Francois Mori/Associated Press

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations. The organization was established in 1945, and its headquarters are located in Paris. Consisting of almost two hundred states, UNESCO is an international intergovernmental organization of which only sovereign states can become members. It is one of the UN’s largest specialized agencies in the world, and it is called upon to develop the humanitarian sphere.

Recently, the United States authorities announced that the superpower will withdrawal from UNESCO in 2019. They cited two official reasons: arrears on membership fees and "anti-Israel bias.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US withdrawal and announced his nation’s intention to follow.

"This is a brave and moral decision,” Netanyahu said, “because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it."

In October 2016, the UNESCO Executive Committee supported a resolution proposed by Egypt and Palestine, which denied the connection of the Jewish people with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and Israel was called an "occupying party" that restricts Muslim access to the holy places of the eternal city. US allies such as Great Britain and Canada have concurred that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law; however, the longstanding relationship between the US and Israel remains firm.

Leaving UNESCO is a very important indicator that the US is giving up world leadership. Over time, this will weaken the authority of the US, the country’s image, and its ability to influence other countries through cultural connection. The announcement of the US withdrawal from UNESCO continues a Trump Administration trend; they also recently withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and very noticeably from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This trend marks a return to unilateralism in American foreign policy. Unilateralism is a very old US foreign policy approach, and traditionally correlates with Republican administrations.

President Donald Trump's unilateralism has reached a qualitatively new level. While he pursues this “America First” agenda, Trump is achieving the opposite of international goodwill and cooperation.

The US withdrawal from UNESCO is also a turning point in mercantilist, egoistic and unilateral foreign policy. Naturally, the international reaction will be extremely negative. We already saw a preview of the response after Trump’s September speech at the UN, in which he noted that the US would no longer fund global initiatives and countries that don’t bring direct tangible benefits to the American economy. The one-sidedness of this logic is absurdly selfish and an extreme case of hegemonism.  

After the United States declared its withdrawal, UNESCO announced that it will not affect the image of UNESCO: “UNESCO’s task is not over, and we will continue taking it forward, to build a 21st century that is more just, peaceful, equitable, and, for this, UNESCO needs the leadership of all States.”

This is not the first time the US has withdrawn from UNESCO for ideological reasons. In 1984, the Reagan Administration adopted the same decision, accusing the organization of corruption and excessive loyalty to the Soviet Union. Full membership of the United States was restored only in 2003 under George W. Bush. Considering Bush was widely criticized for unilateralism, the fact that he supported US involvement in UNESCO underscores the extremity of Trump's move.

The Trump Administration’s decision is not necessarily representative of the American people’s attitude. This move will likely deepen the internal split between US Republicans and Democrats, who favor a more multilateral foreign policy. Going forward, it is likely that most US collaborations in the fields of science, education, and culture will happen bilaterally.

As America descends into unilateralism, China is filling the vacuum. In a savvy move, the Chinese withdrew their candidate for UNESCO’s director-general position and endorsed Egypt’s candidate. China's dynamically increasing power in the world compels the nation to play a more active role in world politics. They cannot ignore the Middle East. The rapidly growing Chinese economy requires more energy resources, including hydrocarbons. About 70 percent of China's oil and gas imports come from the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran. The economic aspect of China's Middle East policy is also not limited to the energy sphere; China has become one of the most important economic and trade partners of the countries of the region. Beijing has made multibillion dollar investments in Iran, Iraq and the Arabian monarchies, as well as the Persian Gulf countries, including with US ally Qatar. The Middle East is essential to the implementation of Beijing's plans for the creation of the economic belt of the Silk Road. These megaprojects are designed to gradually and deeply involve the economy and markets of the Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries in the orbit of China's trade, economic, and geopolitical interests.

Until recently, China tried to "stay away from the confused policy of the region," but their development ambitions increasingly force China to take steps to ensure its own security, especially energy security. As a result, China is increasingly involved in resolving conflict situations in the Middle East. For example, China supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, stands for the cessation of violence and the settlement of the Syrian crisis exclusively by political and diplomatic means. The PRC facilitated the convening of the Geneva-2 conference on the Syrian settlement, and Beijing participates in the work of the international support group for Syria. China's military-technical cooperation with Middle Eastern states is also developing. 

Therefore, the purposeful and active expansion of multifaceted relations with the Middle Eastern countries, the strengthening of their authority and influence in this region of the world, is one of the priorities of China's modern foreign policy.

In contrast to these moves by China, the US is putting itself at a great disadvantage. Such a selfish style of politics will only harm the United States. With this exit, Trump seems to threaten UNESCO and other international organizations: Either they have to change and adapt to American demands or they risk being without American money.

Trump's strategy declares to the international community that he is not concerned with the production of global public goods nor with issues that interest all of humanity. He only seeks to promote US interests. As a result, in the eyes of global leaders, the authority of the United States has largely been undermined. It’s clear that when Trump says he wants to "Make America Great Again" it will come at the expense of making the world great.