US’ Return To UNESCO After Five Years A Political Stratagem Rather Than A Humanitarian Concern

UNESCO is a UN agency tasked with furthering international cooperation and peace by promoting educational, scientific, and cultural causes. For instance, it designates locations globally as World Heritage Sites, which means international recognition and possible funding. The United States was a founding member of UNESCO in 1945.

Amusingly, the US has a chequered history of making in and out of UNESCO, primarily owing to differences in policy matters over the last four decades.

Former President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that the US was pulling out of UNESCO, accusing the body of bias against Israel. The decision took effect a year later, in 2018.

Trump’s accusation cannot be rejected outright because instances show political interests supervening in some policy decisions of the UN subsidiaries at one time or the other. These could have crept inadvertently, of course, but as a matter of principle, the UN and all of its subsidiaries have a track record of impartial assessment of issues. 

The Christian Science Monitor of June 12, 2023, quoting UNESCO, said the “US planned to rejoin – and pay $600 million in back dues – after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organization’s move to include the territory of Palestine as a member.” It added that US officials say the decision to return was motivated by “concern that China is filling the gap left by the United States in UNESCO policymaking, notably in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.”

US’ return to UNESCO did not happen overnight. Sustained diplomatic efforts, carried out behind the curtain, especially by the Director General, Audrey Azoulay, for more than five years, ultimately met with success. 

US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma submitted a letter to UNESCO Director-General formalizing the plan to rejoin.

According to the hand-delivered letter, the official noted progress in depoliticizing the debate about the Middle East at UNESCO and reforming the agency’s management.

UNESCO/Representational Image

In the letter under reference, Washington acknowledged efforts by Azoulay to change the organization’s approach to Middle East issues.

“Since our withdrawal from UNESCO on December 31, 2018, we have noted UNESCO’s efforts to implement key management and administrative reforms and its focus on decreasing politicized debates, especially on Middle East issues. We are grateful for your work, and that of the member states, in achieving significant progress on these and other issues,” the letter read.

Financial Element

The financial element was also why the UNESCO Director-General took great pains in paving the path for US’ return to the fold. Under the plan, the US government would pay its 2023 dues plus $10 million in bonus contributions this year earmarked for Holocaust education, preserving cultural heritage in Ukraine, journalist safety, and science and technology education in Africa.

The Biden administration has already requested $150 million for the 2024 budget toward UNESCO dues and arrears. The plan foresees similar requests for the ensuing years until the total debt of $619 million is paid off.

This is a big chunk of UNESCO’s $534 million annual operating budget. Before leaving, the US contributed 22 percent of the agency’s overall funding.

The Christian Science Monitor praised Director-General Azoulay in these words, “Since her election in 2017, Director General Azoulay has worked to address the reasons the US left, through budget reforms and building consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions. Azoulay –- who is Jewish –- won broad praise from the UNESCO ambassador for her efforts to address US concerns around Israel in particular.”

Commenting on US’ decision to return to UNESCO, Azoulay told AP, “It is the result of five years of work, during which we calmed tensions, notably on the Middle East, improved our response to contemporary challenges, resumed major initiatives on the ground, and modernized the functioning of the organizations.

Subtle Politics

Citing AP, the US News of June 30 reported that the UNECO governing board voted 132 – 10 to accept the US proposal to rejoin the Paris-based agency. According to Biden administration officials, America’s membership will become official once Secretary of State Antony Blinken or a designee formally accepts the invitation.

The countries that voted against the resolution were Russia, North Korea, Belarus, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua, and Syria. The Chinese representative remarked that the resolution endorsed US hegemony. He said that the era we live in needs unity and not division.

Commenting on the non-consensus resolution of UNESCO’s General Conference, the spokeswoman of Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, said the resolution would only consolidate the West’s ideological dominance.

The resolution contradicts the fundamental principle of the sovereign equality of countries. She doubted the document would strengthen genuine the multi-polarity or mutually respectful dialogue. “Its representatives have publicly declared their intentions to counter China’s influence on the organization’s platform,” she added.

However, the majority opinion was that working within the organization, the United States can also play a pivotal role in fostering educational opportunities, sharing best practices, and addressing educational challenges on a global scale.

Xi Jinping Joe Biden G20
Photo: Chinese Consulate-General in Melbourne

This re-engagement will provide a platform for cooperation, knowledge exchange, and innovation in the field of education, enabling the United States to contribute to global efforts to achieve inclusive and equitable education for all.

Apart from the statement of Secretary Blinken, the statement of John Bass, Under Secretary of State for Management, said in March that “US’ absence from UNESCO had strengthened China. It undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free work,” reported the Christian Science Monitor.

The official further said that UNESCO is key in setting standards for technology and science teaching around the world. So “if we are serious about the digital-age competition with China — we can’t afford to be absent any longer.”


However, the exercise that the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has made for five years ever since the US left the organization shows how special treatment has been given to the power and influence of the United States.

Its demand that Palestine would not receive the status of independent territory has been conceded, and the return of the US has been voted massively.

Palestine is not the only flash point threatening peace in the region. Global terrorism, with a known epicenter, is no less serious a threat to humanity. This issue is not outside the realm of ECOSOC.

The destruction of the world-famous Buddha statue in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, is a living example of a threat to our common heritage. A global program of restraining and finally eliminating moles of terror deserves to be a priority with almost all subsidiaries of the United Nations.

Taking up other prioritized issues with as much persuasion as was the case in paving the way for readmission of the US in the ECOSOC would send a message of the UN’s deep interest in and concern for universal peace and well-being.