The announcement that the United States is withdrawing from UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education, science and culture, is one more sign of President Donald Trump’s isolationist tendencies, and of the distrust of multilateral agencies that has guided his foreign policy since he took office. Just hours after he occupied the White House, he announced that his country would leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership and expressed his determination to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to this, the United States withdrew from the Paris climate agreement last June, the international treaty that has attained global consensus after being signed by 197 countries, and to date has been ratified by 168 countries.
According to the State Department, the decision to abandon UNESCO “was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.” This last point has been causing tension between Washington and UNESCO since 2012, when Palestine was made a full member. Since then, in compliance with a law passed in the 1990s that prohibits payments to any United Nations agency that recognizes Palestine as a state, the United States has stopped meeting its financial obligations to UNESCO, which has raised that country’s debt to the organization to more than $500 million.
However, the withdrawal announced Oct. 12 goes beyond questioning the decision to admit Palestine. It also reflects Washington’s open distrust of the way that organization works. Although this is not the first time that the country has abandoned UNESCO — it did so in 1984 during the Ronald Reagan administration, when it denounced the agency’s pro-Soviet tendency — the situation this time is quite different. Trump’s recent decision, added to the withdrawal of the United States from other multilateral agencies during recent months, could end up weakening the role the country plays at the global level, putting in doubt other promises made by Washington, with unavoidable consequences for the international system. China, for example, has recently been strengthening its role in UNESCO as part of its strategy of soft power, and Trump’s decision leaves a clear path for it.
Thus, although the decision to leave UNESCO reflects the isolationist policies of the current president, the episode opens the possibility of taking a closer look at many of the fundamental criticisms raised by the United States. There are the obvious problems of the efficiency of the management of resources within the different U.N. agencies. But there are also questions about the influence that a number of its decisions, frequently made in isolation from local realities, have had on the domestic policies of member states. The United Nations system must be thoroughly reformed, 70 years after its creation and almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War. The current situation, and the recent appointment of a new secretary general, present a valuable opportunity to tackle that challenge.