Following the series of controversial decisions for which the Trump administration has come to be known, this month the US Department of State has notified the UNESCO Director-General of its decision to withdraw from the organisation. Amongst the reasons presented are ‘concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO’, ‘the need for fundamental reform in the organisation’ and a ‘continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO’. What is perhaps most startling about the decision is that the US is one of the founding members of UNESCO and has 23 designated World Heritage sites, one of which – the Statue of Liberty – is a national emblem. In fact, barely twelve months ago the US showed great support to a cause that lies in the origins and heart of UNESCO, through its enactment of the US Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act. As such, the fact that it currently wishes to quit the organisation it once helped create is truly disheartening.
Nonetheless, withdrawing from UNESCO is not unprecedented for the United States. The country previously left the organisation in 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, with the same justification of an alleged anti-Israel bias. The US would only re-join UNESCO almost two decades later, in 2002. If history can teach us anything, perhaps the lesson can be for us to hope that the US will re-join UNESCO at some point. The same hope goes for Israel, when it decided to follow the US’s footsteps by announcing its withdrawal from the organisation.
Ultimately, even if there would be an anti-Israel institutional bias, by withdrawing from UNESCO, the US is showing to the world how it is not ready to work in a team and perform the role that the international community would expect of one of its leaders. As the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bolkova, stated: ‘At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.’ After all, one would argue that the solution is not to be found in dropping the ball and walking away from the game. Quite to the contrary, any criticism the US may have on UNESCO should only serve as further reason to remain a member and advocate through the adequate institutional channels all the ‘fundamental reform’ it deems necessary.