State Department officials announced this week that the United States will withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. President Donald Trump says that the international body displays bias against Israel.
In an announcement Thursday morning, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the United States would exit UNESCO in December. Rather than serving as a member, the United States will “seek to establish a permanent observer mission” instead.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” Nauert’s statement read.
She went on to say that the United States hopes to “remain engaged with UNESCO” and that the White House plans “to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization” despite the exit.
UNESCO head Irina Bokova issued a written statement in response, underscoring the important work undertaken by the agency.
“Universality is critical to Unesco’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” Bokova wrote. In an interview with The New York Times, she added that she “thought the decision was coming” but regretted its timing, as UNESCO is in the midst of electing someone to take her place.
“It’s very weird that it’s today,” she told the Times. “It’s very, very regrettable.”
UNESCO is well-known for its efforts to protect world heritage sites. But the agency has also worked on a number of other critical endeavors, including combating anti-Semitism, funding literacy efforts, and promoting both human rights and intercultural understanding.
The exit is in line with the larger foreign policy shift President Trump’s administration has implemented since January. Since taking office, the president has pushed his “America First” doctrine, one that has shifted the United States out of a number of global agreements and endeavors and toward a conservative and singular trajectory.
In June, Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, a 2015 landmark effort that brought together virtually every country in the world in an attempt to limit rising carbon emissions and assist in the development of sustainable technology and infrastructure. That move infuriated world leaders.
Since January, Trump has also introduced several versions of a ban targeting refugees and citizens from multiple Muslim-majority countries. Scuffles with both Cuba and Turkey have resulted in the suspension of non-immigrant visa processing (and immigrant visa processing more generally, in Cuba’s case), while an ongoing spat between Trump and North Korea’s authoritarian government has sparked nuclear concerns across the globe. The president also appears set to destroy the Iran Deal, a hard-won diplomatic effort achieved under President Barack Obama.
Leaving UNESCO is not an unprecedented move for the United States. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States withdrew in 1984, in protest of both a perceived slant towards the Soviet Union and alleged corruption. President George W. Bush rejoined the organization in 2002, announcing that U.S. priorities aligned with UNESCO’s efforts. But rejoining did little to change the antagonism coloring the relationship — particularly over the issue of Palestine.
In 2011 the United States ended its budget contribution to the agency over the admission of Palestine as a full member, in keeping with a mandate prohibiting U.S. financing of U.N. agencies fully acknowledging Palestine. Two years later, nonpayment issues cost the United States its UNESCO vote. At one point, U.S. funds accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. (The United States retains its vote on the agency’s executive board.)
Israel, a close ally of the United States, has routinely criticized UNESCO for its stances, as well as the admission of Palestine. Compounding the issue is the ongoing search for Bokova’s replacement: Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay are considered the top candidates for the spot, with Kawari looking more likely to secure the position. Neither Israel nor the United States has been receptive to Kawari; Israel has sparred with Qatar on a number of occasions and Trump himself has repeatedly singled out the small Gulf country as a source of regional discontent.
According to a Foreign Policy report, cost may also be a motivating factor in Trump’s decision to exit UNESCO. U.S. arrears have grown rapidly following U.S. funding cuts; more than $500 million is now owed as a result, something that has reportedly sparked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ire. While many officials reportedly sought to hold off on the exit until after Bokova’s replacement was chosen, the White House still chose to accelerate the process.
Some world leaders fired back over the decision this week, emphasizing the importance of UNESCO’s work. French President Emmanuel Macron took the opportunity to stress UNESCO’s importance during a speech made to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. France’s Ambassador to the U.N. Francois Delattre also sounded off about the decision earlier in the day.
“UNESCO is about promoting our ideals and values through culture, education and science,” Delattre told CBS. “This is why it is so important to have our American friends on board, now more than ever, as these values are contested and as we need an America that stay committed to world affairs.”
At least one U.S. ally is pleased by the decision. Shortly after the U.S. announcement, Israel declared that it too would be exiting UNESCO.