By Jan Servaes*
When former US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017, it seemed like an essential part of his determination to make America great again. Meanwhile, China has filled the gap left by the US’s absence from UNESCO.
Now the US wants to close a ten-year dispute over Palestine’s membership and will pay $600 million in back dues. The move is intended to counter China’s influence in UNESCO’s policymaking, particularly in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.
UNESCO is already leading in sustainable development related to education and is the only UN agency with a mandate for secondary education. UNESCO’s Futures of EducationCommittee is at the center of the global response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education sector, bringing together education ministers from around the world.
Other educational initiatives include journalist training and investments in information literacy that can reduce disinformation. UNESCO also leads discussions on international standards for artificial intelligence.
US vs China
US Secretary of State for Management John Bass said in March that the US absence from UNESCO has strengthened China and “undermines our ability to be equally effective in promoting our vision of a free world.” He said UNESCO is key in setting and shaping standards for technology and science education around the world. “So if we’re really serious about competing in the digital age with China, we can’t afford to be out any longer,” Bass told the AP.
Since the departure of the United States in 2017, China has attempted to move the organization’s International Bureau of Education from Geneva to Shanghai. It may seem inconspicuous, but this small subsidiary supports governments in developing curricula for classrooms in developing countries.
This is just one of the latest maneuvers to bend UNESCO to China’s interests. Others include the failed nomination of Qian Tang, a Chinese national and UNESCO Assistant Director General, to the position of Director General; the signing of a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between UNESCO and China’s Belt and Road Initiative; a joint statement by Africa and China on heritage protection for monitoring heritage sites; a partnership between UNESCO and Chinese tech giant Huawei for development in Central America; and a proliferation of heritage sites to divert attention from the environmental and social decline of the Belt and Road Initiative.
China is interested in UNESCO for the same reasons as other UN agencies: power and influence in the multilateral system. But China is not alone in this ambition.
Not the first time
After all, the United States previously withdrew from UNESCO under the Reagan administration in 1984, deeming the agency mismanaged, corrupt and used to further Soviet interests.
US President George W. Bush rejoined in 2003 after internal advocacy and coordination between UNESCO and the government’s “No Child Left Behind Act.” In his announcement, Bush acknowledged the organization’s sweeping reforms, including new transparency around hiring practices and 25 percent headcount cuts.
In 2012, despite Israeli objections, Palestine was recognized by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip—areas captured by Israel in 1967 in the Middle East war – for an independent state. Israel says the Palestinians’ efforts to gain recognition at the UN are aimed at circumventing a negotiated settlement designed to pressure Israel to make concessions.
The Trump administration decided in 2017 to withdraw from the agency altogether the following year, citing a perceived long-running anti-Israel bias and management problems. Israel joined in and stopped funding from UNESCO.
A diplomat within UNESCO now said the agency would “welcome” Israel to rejoin. However, there was no immediate response from the Israeli government.
Five years of working on re-entry
With the beginning of June across the Americas In a letter submitted to the Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, the deputy secretary of state for Management and Resources, Richard Verma, formalized the re-entry. Verma noted that progress has been made in depoliticizing the Middle East debate and reforming the agency’s management.
“This is a strong act of trust, in UNESCO and in multilateralism. Not only in the centrality of the organization’s mandate – culture, education, science, information—but also in the way this mandate is being implemented today,” said Azoulay.
China’s ambassador to UNESCO, Jin Yang, said his country “appreciates” UNESCO’s efforts to bring the US back. “Being a member of an international organization is a serious issue, and we hope that the return of the US this time means it recognizes the organization’s mission and goals,” Yang said.
Since her election in 2017, Director General Azoulay has worked to address the reasons why the US left, through budget reforms and building consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions. Ms. Azoulay—who is Jewish—received high praise from UNESCO ambassadors for her personal efforts to address US concerns around Israel in particular.
The US decision to come back “is the result of five years of work, during which we have eased tensions, particularly in the Middle East, improved our response to contemporary challenges, resumed key initiatives on the ground and modernized the organization’s operations,” said Azoulay.
According to a UNESCO diplomat, she met with Democrats and Republicans in Washington to explain those efforts. Thanks to those bipartisan negotiations, UNESCO diplomats expressed confidence that the US decision to return is for the long haul, regardless of who wins next year’s presidential election.
Under the plan, the U.S. government would pay its 2023 dues plus $10 million in bonus contributions this year, earmarked for Holocaust education, cultural heritage preservation in Ukraine, journalist safety and science and technology education in Africa, Verma’s letter said.
The Biden administration has already requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to go towards UNESCO contributions and arrears. The plan provides for similar requests for years to come until the $619 million total debt is paid off.
That makes up a large part of UNESCO’s annual operating budget of $534 million. Before they left, the US contributed 22% of the agency’s total funding.
One diplomat expressed hope that the return of the US would bring “more ambition and more serenity”—and boost programs to regulate artificial intelligence, train girls in Afghanistan.
A new role for UNESCO?
According to the authoritative journal Foreign Policy in 2021, President Joe Biden should have pushed for a focused relationship with UNESCO in exchange for the US re-entry, building on his comparative advantages in development.
This requires a relationship focused on education, including digital education and information literacy, to push back autocratic trends in the developing world. “In doing so, U.S. membership in UNESCO will both revitalize the organization and provide the United States with an opportunity to advance Western values of free, open, and pluralistic education systems.”
At a meeting in 1944, the US mission, led by future Congressman J. William Fulbright, urged the future UNESCO organization to focus on peace, security and education, which would enable it “to do more for peace in the long run than any number of commercial treaties.”
At a time when nationalism and authoritarianism threaten international stability, UNESCO may be able to help revive that approach.
* Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411