The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s withdrawal from UNESCO is a huge gift to the Palestinians

UNESCO’S new elected director-general, Audrey Azoulay, speaks to the media at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris last week. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)
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Crystal Nix-Hines served as United States ambassador to UNESCO in Paris from 2014 to 2017. 

In the latest in a series of complete abdications of U.S. leadership, the Trump administration has announced plans to withdraw from UNESCO — an organization that promotes core U.S. strategic interests around the world. Rather than stepping up to combat the politicization they decry at UNESCO, the Trump administration has chosen to turn tail and run, completely ceding influence to other powers such as China, Russia and the Arab states in an organization that makes decisions on everything from Holocaust education to protection of Christian World Heritage sites to tsunami warnings and education in the developing world.

To justify its “go it alone,” anti-multilateral agenda, the administration claims “anti-Israeli bias” and “mounting arrears.” Neither rationale withstands scrutiny.

To be sure, particularly in recent years, the Palestinian delegation and their sympathizers have pushed through a series of inflammatory resolutions that disregard Jewish history and sovereignty in the region. These resolutions are patently offensive and unacceptable, and member states, including many key allies, should never have permitted them. But withdrawal from the organization we helped found after two world wars to build peace and international cooperation is a wrong and self-destructive response.

Notably, these politicized resolutions occur at UNESCO meetings every six months, and then disappear into the ether with nothing but rhetoric for domestic Palestinian consumption to show for them, while the real, constructive work of the organization continues on a daily basis. In fact, aside from driving out the most powerful country in the world, the resolutions have achieved nothing in the region, at UNESCO or anywhere else — to the growing frustration of the Palestinians. Why? Because the United States, through its seat on UNESCO’s Executive Board — the key decision-making body — has prevented enforcement of these anti-Israeli resolutions. Since the current director-general only enforces resolutions adopted by consensus, the United States’ “no” vote — often the sole “no” vote — has been crucial in blocking implementation of these resolutions. With the Trump administration abandoning the United States’ seat at the table, and Israel joining that decision, the Palestinians and their supporters are now free to advance their politicized agenda, moving UNESCO further from its core mission.

Fortunately, the cut-and-run decision, and its remarkably poor timing amid the election of a new director-general, did not derail the hard-fought victory of the centrist French candidate. But with the United States taking itself out of the game, the Arab group that successfully pressed to have Hebron inscribed this year as a Palestinian world heritage site will feel emboldened to press for other such cases, which America — as an observer — will be unable to block, with little to no sympathy from European allies who the administration just blind-sided. UNESCO’s valuable role as the only international organization teaching Holocaust education around the world will also be at risk of elimination at a time when extremist violence and anti-Semitism are on the rise.

The administration’s purported concern about “mounting arrears” rings hollow. If the Trump team really cared about the nearly $600 million in dues that have accumulated since a 1980s era-law forced an automatic cut-off of U.S. funding after the Palestinians gained membership to UNESCO in 2011, it could pressure the two houses of Congress for a waiver to resume payments. Although the Republicans’ string of legislative failures certainly does not guarantee that the Trump administration would be any more persuasive than the Obama administration, which pressed hard for a congressional waiver, a concerted White House campaign to explain why full participation in UNESCO advances important U.S. interests, including protection of Israel, would have a good chance of success.

It was precisely because the United States provided centrist, constructive leadership at UNESCO that many countries supported, even encouraged, us to seek reelection to UNESCO’s main decision-making body, despite our significant arrears. As the U.S. ambassador leading our election bid in Paris, it was surprising to me just how much countries, even non-aligned nations, wanted and valued our proactive leadership. Sadly, under the Trump administration, they will no longer find it at UNESCO — or anywhere else.