The United States And UNESCO: A Contentious History – Analysis


By Dr. Opangmeren Jami

During an extraordinary session of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference on 30 June 2023, with a majority of 132 votes in favour, the United States (US) was re-admitted to UNESCO. The US left the organisation in December 2018 under President Donald Trump, citing anti-Israel bias after the UNESCO designated a historic site in the West Bank City of Hebron as the Palestinian World Heritage Site. 

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General termed the US rejoining as “a great day for UNESCO and for multilateralism”.1 Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, though, stated that “international organizations are not parks. Countries can’t just come and go as they please.”2 The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the “reintegration of the United States” but noted that the US should not violate the UNESCO constitution.3         

Previous US withdrawals from UNESCO  

The 2018 withdrawal, though, was not the first time when the US left the UNESCO. It did so previously in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan and rejoined only in 2003 under President George Bush. 

UNESCO was founded on 16 November 1945 to promote the humanistic value of ‘international peace’ through education, science and culture. Realising this aspiration however proved challenging, mainly due to Cold War politics.4 The contest on the UNESCO stage not only reflected the East–West tensions but also the divide between North and South. Cultural diplomacy, or combating the negative impression of the US through culture, education and media, was vigorously executed by the US during the Cold War to counter the Soviet bloc. UNESCO was considered an important partner by US administrations in promoting ‘American values’.5

The US, despite being an ardent supporter of UNESCO, almost from the outset, had an ambivalent relationship with the organisation. The education sector, an utmost priority for UNESCO to combat worldwide illiteracy, came under intense scrutiny from the US. It was accused of being ‘pro-communist’ and the US alleged that several education programmes initiated by the organisation contradicted ‘American ideals and traditions’.6 Being the largest financial contributor, the US also charged UNESCO with mismanagement and over-staffing, among other issues. Analysts noted that the US adopted an attitude of ‘benign neglect’ towards UNESCO.7    

Animosity was further fuelled when in the 1970s, the Non-Aligned Movement countries bought a proposal of New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) to UNESCO, calling for major changes in communication media. The US considered the NWICO as an assault on the freedom of press and accused UNESCO Director General Amadou-Mahtar of promoting and supporting an illiberal proposal and threatened to withhold funding to the organisation. With the backdrop of all these contentious issues, in the notice of withdrawal in December 1983, US Secretary of State, George Shultz charged that the UNESCO was serving “improperly the political purpose of few member states”.8

The US rejoined the organisation in September 2003. President George Bush stated that UNESCO “has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning”.9 Organisational reforms were indeed carried out by Director General Koichiro Matsuura, who took over in 1999. However, as Patrick Mendis, former American Commissioner of the United States National Commission for UNESCO notes, the US re-joining was also “possibly an attempt to promote goodwill and gain broader support from the international community” for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and “to repair America’s global image by using soft power instruments within the UN system”.10 During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, UNESCO, which designates World Heritages sites, played a critical role in restoring cultural centres that had been destroyed. 

The relationship again became strained when UNESCO in July 2011 admitted Palestine as a full member state. President Obama suspended funding to UNESCO, as US domestic law prohibits the payment of funds to any UN body accepting Palestine as full members. Antagonistic feeling was further fuelled when in July 2017, UNESCO designated the historic Tomb of Patriarchs in West Bank city of Hebron as Palestinian World Heritage Site. Consequently, President Trump, citing ‘anti-Israel bias’, pulled the US out of the organisation in December 2018.11

The China Factor

If the Israel–Palestine conflict was the primary reason for the US to leave UNESCO in 2018, then the return of the US for the second time is more about China’s growing influence. US Under Secretary of State for Management, John Brass in March 2023 noted that US absence from UNESCO only strengthened China and undercut US “ability to be effective in promoting our vision of a free world”. Brass added that “if we are really serious about the digital-age competition with China … we can’t afford to be absent any longer”.12 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that returning to UNESCO should not been seen “as a gift to UNESCO, but because things that are happening at UNESCO actually matter” as the organisation was “working on rules, norms and standards for artificial intelligence. We want to be there.” Blinken noted that China was the single largest contributor to UNESCO and “We are not even at the table.”13

As per Article 2 of the UNESCO Constitution, the US has the right to withdraw from and to re-join the organisation. But former US Permanent Representative to UNESCO, David Killion’s warning that withdrawal from UNESCO and several other UN agencies only “paves the way for other powers to play a more powerful role at UNESCO” turned out to be true.14 It was also pointed out by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that US withdrawal disrupts international scientific collaboration, reduces confidences of US scientific leadership and forfeiture of the rights to participate in governance of UNESCO-led scientific initiatives.15    

Tellingly, the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the US has been filled by China, which has become one of the largest contributors to the UNESCO budget, as shown in Table 1. 

Table 1: UNESCO Budget 2023—Top 5 Contributors

RankCountryRate of Assessment 

2023 contributions in USD
1China19.70427 916 914
2Japan10.37714 702 285
3Germany7.89411 184 334
4France5.5787 902 992
5Italy4.1195 835 859
SourceSector for Administration and Management Bureau of Financial Management, UNESCO, Paris, 1 December 2022.   

With 56 Chinese heritage sites protected by the World Heritage Committee, China has become the second most protected nation in the world after Italy. China’s commitment to promote cultural dialogue and diversity through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been appreciated by UNESCO.16 Moreover, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, joint collaboration between UNESCO and BRI has been initiated on several science and education projects.17

Going Forward 

The UNESCO is not just a UN specialised agency. The mission of the UNESCO is lofty as stated in the opening words of UNESCO Constitution: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” Catalysed by the Second World War and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientific community in particular raised concerns about “what scientists will do to us next”. The founding of UNESCO was intended to transform the “minds of men” by constructing the ‘defence of peace’ through the medium of humanism of science, education and culture in the hope of preventing another atrocity from occurring again.18    

In the immediate term, the US return will certainly give a big financial boost to the UNESCO as it will have to pay more than US$ 600 million in dues. In the longer term, however, the rising Sino-US rivalry casts a shadow over the working of the UNESCO.19 Science and technology is increasingly being framed within the language of national security and geopolitical competition. It remains to be seen if the UNESCO will become another platform for US–China contentions or it will realise its lofty goals as enshrined in its constitution.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

About the author: Dr Opangmeren Jamir is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *