UNESCO member states meet later this week on the Biden administration’s bid to rejoin the Paris-based U.N. scientific and cultural body, a move that will inject hundreds of millions of welcome dollars into its coffers and give the United States a say in shaping programs ranging from climate change to education and artificial intelligence.
Few expect any surprises on the outcome of the deliberations, which will be held at an extraordinary UNESCO session Thursday and Friday. There have been no reports of serious objections by the agency’s 193 members, although China and Russia have offered some critical and cautionary remarks.
Yet even as many welcome Washington’s move to rejoin over concern that competitors like China are filling the void, some observers wonder how long that welcome will last. Next year’s U.S. presidential elections are looming, potentially ushering in another administration hostile to UNESCO’s policies and membership.
Still others suggest Israel, which similarly defunded and ultimately left the body, should follow Washington’s footsteps in returning.
UNESCO itself has given an enthusiastic thumbs up to the U.S. request to rejoin earlier this month. Secretary-General Audrey Azoulay — who has taken pains to erase perceptions UNESCO was biased against Israel and woo Washington back — called it “a historic moment.”
“The reason why the U.S. is coming back is a strong signal that UNESCO’s mandate is more relevant than ever,” said UNESCO’s New York office head, Eliot Minchenberg, in an interview, laying out a raft of UNESCO programs reflecting U.S. priorities including fighting antisemitism and Holocaust education.
“In the absence of the U.S., of course others have stepped up and helped, but it is definitely not the same as the U.S. presence and engagement — both financially, diplomatically and politically,” he added.
Also welcome are U.S. dues that once accounted for 22% of UNESCO’s budget. The Biden administration has proposed slowly paying off the $619 million in arrears, starting with $150 million in 2024 dues and back payments.
French baguettes and the Everglades
Located not far from the Eiffel Tower, the small agency — known officially as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization —runs a raft of programs from promoting education and free press, to fighting against climate change and antisemitism.
Many know it best for helping to preserve and showcase the cultural and physical heritage of member states. French baguettes, Tunisian harissa, Finnish sauna culture and Colombian marimba music have all landed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
More than a thousand sites have also made UNESCO’s World Heritage List, including two dozen in the U.S., from the Statue of Liberty to the Everglades and Yellowstone national parks.
Even today, some U.S. universities and other private groups continue collaborating with UNESCO.
That includes the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, whose deputy director for climate and energy programs, Adam Markham, says without membership the U.S. cannot weigh in on key discussions around climate change and World Heritage sites.
“You’re seeing China taking a lot of leadership roles,” said Markham, who can still participate in scientific meetings as a member of a nongovernmental organization. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just changing the geopolitical relationships that the U.S. has with other UNESCO partners.”
The U.S. first quit UNESCO in 1984 under the Reagan administration, over corruption concerns and an allegedly pro-Soviet tilt. It rejoined under another Republican president, George W. Bush, then suspended dues under Democrat Barack Obama, when Palestine became a member.
In 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out altogether over perceived anti-Israel bias and management issues, with Israel following suit.
Now, politics are again driving America’s return — this time, over concerns Beijing may otherwise have an outsized say in sensitive programs like artificial intelligence.
“Joe Biden’s administration has realized that the empty chair policy is incompatible with the defense of the country’s interests and that its absence from this forum ends up serving those of its great rival, China,” wrote France’s Le Monde newspaper in an editorial — even as it warned against Washington’s “fickleness.”
“The succession of departures and returns can only raise questions about the durability of the…decision, less than two years before a presidential election that could bring the party of ultra-nationalist retreat back to the White House” it added, referring to the Trump administration.
China’s ambassador to UNESCO has indicated Beijing was ready to work with a newly rejoined Washington. But the state-backed China Daily was blunter.
“Whether the U.S. will play a positive role in the agency remains a conjecture,” it wrote in an editorial. “If… its return is just for regaining its own influence against that of China in the organization, the U.S. will likely just be a troublemaker.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said it, too, was willing to welcome back the U.S., but warned Washington needed to follow UNESCO’s rules and “should pay back its astronomical debt unconditionally and in full.”
In Israel, Michael Freund, a former communications advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cast the U.S. return as a “fiasco” and UNESCO “as an appalling club,” in an opinion in The Jerusalem Post.
But the newspaper’s own editorial suggested Israel might consider rejoining the agency — picking which programs to support while boycotting others — to counter Palestinian “disinformation.”
Mixed reactions over UNESCO have been sounding in the U.S. as well.
“Returning to UNESCO is a waste of time and money, and not an effective riposte to China,” John Bolton, a former national security advisor under President Trump, wrote in the New York Post. He called on Congress, with the House of Representatives now controlled by Republicans, to block UNESCO funding and said no current Republican presidential candidate appeared to support rejoining the agency.
But Markham, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says he saw a different reaction when he spoke recently to a group of historic preservationists in New Jersey.
“The one thing they burst out spontaneously in applause was when I said the US had announced it was going back to UNESCO,” he said. “And I’m certain there were Republicans as well as Democrats in that audience.”