Why the United States Should Join UNESCO — THE INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS REVIEW

On October 12, 2017, the Department of State formally notified officials of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) of its intention to have the United States withdraw, citing “the need of fundamental organizational reform and the pursuit of anti-Israeli prejudice at UNESCO.” Then, the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden was seen as a new opportunity for the United States to re-engage with the international community, including UNESCO. But, nearly two years later, the Biden administration has taken no official steps to join UNESCO as a full member state. By not joining UNESCO sooner rather than later, the United States is missing an opportunity to re-establish itself as a leader in the international community and in the development of science, culture and education.

From 1945 to 2022

UNESCO was founded in 1945 after World War II to build peace through international cooperation in education, science and culture. One of its founding members was the United States. During the organization’s early years, UNESCO led key initiatives, such as sponsoring the adoption of the Universal Copyright Convention, which created the “©” symbol, indicating that convention protects any work bearing this symbol.

In the 1970s, Western members of UNESCO began to sense that the organization was heading in an undesirable direction. The United States found that the organization “has externally politicized virtually every subject it covers; has shown hostility to the basic institutions of a free society, especially the free market and the free press and exhibited unbridled fiscal expansion”. This is why, in 1984, the United States withdrew from UNESCO.

However, the United States joined UNESCO in 2003 following the election of UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura. He replaced the entire senior management, adopted zero growth nominal budgets and introduced a new oversight mechanism. With these changes, the United States felt it could rejoin UNESCO with then-President George Bush declaring, “This organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance the human rights, tolerance and learning.”

However, some critics were still concerned about the organization’s politicized nature and management issues. Some of this criticism materialized in 2011 when UNESCO member states voted to admit Palestine as a member state. As a result, the United States stopped funding UNESCO as it violated Public Law 101-246 and Public Law 103-236. According to the laws, the United States cannot fund any organization that “grants the Palestine Liberation Organization the same status as member states.”

UNESCO immediately felt the effects of the US withdrawal, leading to a funding crisis and cuts to several programs. The United States paid about 22% of UNESCO’s budget, or about $240 million. Moreover, when the United States stopped paying its dues, it lost its right to vote because, according to the UNESCO constitution, a member state loses the right to vote if it does not pay its dues consecutively during two years. Consequently, the official withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO in 2017 did not have any notable repercussions. Yet many saw this as a lack of US engagement with the international community.

President Biden delivered his inaugural address in 2021, expressing keen interest in the United States re-engaging with the world, stating that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy” . One of the first steps taken by Joe Biden in power was to sign the documents allowing the United States to join the Paris Climate Accord, from which the United States had also previously withdrawn. Many also hoped or expected Joe Biden to take similar action with UNESCO; however, this has not yet happened.

The benefits of re-engagement

The United States should join UNESCO for two main reasons. One for the United States to re-establish itself as a world leader and to rebuild trust between the United States and its allies. Second, to support the development of science, culture and education, which would benefit both people around the world and the United States.

President Biden said in his inaugural address that “we will mend our alliances and re-engage with the world.” By joining UNESCO, Biden can keep his promise. The United States has taken steps to demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism and democratic ideals, such as hosting the Democracy Summit, but traditional allies remain wary. Michael Kergin, Canada’s former ambassador to Washington, said that “from a strategic perspective, countries have already begun to look at alternatives and will weigh (things) very carefully as they move forward in their relationship with the United States”. By joining UNESCO, Joe Biden will assure key American allies of his commitment to cooperation.

For the United States to join UNESCO would also mean an expansion in the development of the organization’s work, which would benefit people around the world and the United States. For example, the United States directly funded two programs that UNESCO had to cut, a Holocaust campaign that also covers human rights and genocide, and a tsunami research project. Joining UNESCO would also mean reviving and strengthening the partnerships that have directly improved the lives of Americans. For example, for several years, the local school district of Three Rivers in Cleves, Ohio, has benefited from UNESCO by allowing students to participate in UNESCO-sponsored events. But since the United States withdrew from UNESCO, American schools have been cut off from the organization’s global resources and knowledge networks.

The road to follow

There are many moving pieces in the puzzle of the United States joining UNESCO. By rising to the challenge, Joe Biden can demonstrate a genuine commitment to peacebuilding and international cooperation. For the United States to join UNESCO, three steps must be taken. First, Joe Biden must express interest in UNESCO to join. Second, Congress must amend the two statutes barring the United States from joining UNESCO. And third, for the United States to have voting rights at UNESCO, Congress must also agree on the contributions the United States will pay to UNESCO. In the pursuit of peace, political and economic agreements are not always enough. The development of peace also lies in cooperation and mutual understanding. Therefore, for the culture of peace to thrive, the United States must join UNESCO.

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