The withdrawal follows long-standing issues the U.S. has had with UNESCO and does not necessarily foreshadow a further retrenchment of U.S. engagement with the United Nations, where the Trump administration has been pushing to bring about structural and financial reforms.
“This is pragmatic, not a grander political signal,” said John McArthur, a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the United Nations Foundation.
The most immediate impact is that the U.S. will halt the arrears it has run up since it stopped funding the organization in 2011 to protest UNESCO’s admission of Palestine as a full member. By the end of this calendar year, the unpaid U.S. bill will amount to $550 million. With no sign that U.S. concerns would be addressed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to pull out after Dec. 31, 2018, when the unpaid balance will top $600 million.
State Department officials said they hope the withdrawal will help push UNESCO to make changes that would satisfy Washington so the U.S. can resume full membership.
“It sends a strong message that we need to see fundamental reform in the organization, and it raises everyone’s awareness about continued anti-Israel bias,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity under department ground rules.
The United States helped found the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after World War II, but has been at odds with it in recent years. State Department officials cited a 2012 decision not to expel Syria from its human rights committee after the civil war in that country began, and repeated resolutions that refer to Israel as an occupying power.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the last straw was when UNESCO this summer designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Palestinian World Heritage site.
Calling UNESCO’s politicization a “chronic embarrassment,” Haley added, “Just as we said in 1984 when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”
Haley said the United States will evaluate all U.N. agencies “through the same lens.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision to leave UNESCO “brave” and “moral.” Other Israeli officials, from both left and right, also praised the decision. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal as well.
“UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it,” he said in a statement.
Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” over the decision.
“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations leading these issues,” she said in a statement, calling it a “loss for multilateralism.”
The withdrawal marks another decision by the Trump administration to distance itself from the international community.
“The continued retrenchment of the U.S. administration from active participation in international diplomacy efforts and dialogue is deeply concerning to the scientific community,” said Rush Holt, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
UNESCO is perhaps best known for the World Heritage program, which helps maintain major cultural sites around the globe. But it runs a wide range of international programs. It trains Afghan police officers how to read and write, and is the only U.N. agency that has a program to teach the history of the Holocaust.
The withdrawal decision comes as UNESCO members are voting on a replacement for Bokova. Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab in the first voting rounds. Israeli officials and American Jewish groups have expressed concerns about Kawari for what they have said is a record of fostering anti-Semitism.
UNESCO was established to help promote global cooperation around the flow of ideas, culture and information. UNESCO’s mission includes programs to improve access to education, preserve cultural heritage, improve gender equality and promote scientific advances and freedom of expression.
After the 1984 withdrawal, for what was described as pro-Soviet Union bias, the U.S. didn’t rejoin until 2002 when the George W. Bush administration said it wanted to emphasize a message of international cooperation. “America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning,” Bush said at the time.
Tensions have returned in recent years. Israel recalled its ambassador to the Paris-based organization last year after some governments supported a resolution that denounced Israel’s policies on religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Bokova said the partnership between the United States and UNESCO “has never been so meaningful,” despite the withholding of U.S. funding.
“Together, we have worked to protect humanity’s shared cultural heritage in the face of terrorist attacks and to prevent violent extremism through education and media literacy,” she said.
She added: “The American poet, diplomat and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, penned the lines that open UNESCO’s 1945 Constitution: ‘Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.’ This vision has never been more relevant.”