'Not being at the table has had a cost': United States asks to rejoin Unesco

By Jessica Phelan with RFI
United States  AP - Christophe Ena
JUN 13, 2023 LISTEN
© AP - Christophe Ena

The United States plans to rejoin Unesco, the United Nations' cultural organisation, five years after the previous administration withdrew its membership over funding requirements and alleged bias against Israel.

The US wants rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation from July, director-general Audrey Azoulay announced on Monday after receiving word from President Joe Biden's White House.

She called it "a strong act of confidence" in Unesco's mandate to promote international cooperation on culture, education and science.

The US has not been a member of the organisation since the end of 2018, and has not contributed to its budget since 2011.

The country stopped funding Unesco under then president Barack Obama after its other members voted to admit Palestine. A longstanding US law forbids government financing for any UN agency that accepts a Palestinian state as a full member.

Under former president Donald Trump, the US withdrew from Unesco altogether over what it called "continuing anti-Israel bias" – as well as millions of dollars of back payments that it owed.

Over €550  million owed

The current US administration has proposed a financing plan that covers not only their resuming membership fees from July 2023 but also their arrears, "which are considerable", Azoulay told RFI.

"It's excellent news for everyone," she told RFI's Nicolas Falez. "The return of the US as a full member, with its financial obligations."

Prior to 2011, the US contributed nearly a fifth of Unesco's total budget. It's not yet clear whether it has offered to pay the full amount missing for the past 12 years, which is estimated to come to more than €550 million.

Its funding proposal is subject to approval by the 193 members of Unesco. China's representative called for the agency to demand the arrears in full, saying that "being a member of an international organisation is a serious issue".

"We also hope that the US will shoulder its international responsibilities and fulfill its obligations and assure its sincerity to comply with international rules and respect international rule of law," said the Chinese ambassador to Unesco, Jin Yang, who declared that the country's withdrawal had negatively impacted the agency's work. 

Soft power

For the US, too, "not being at the table has had a cost," Unesco's Azoulay told RFI.

In its formal request to rejoin, she said, the US cited Unesco's role in setting international standards on "strategic and emerging issues" such as artificial intelligence.

American officials have warned that staying away from Unesco would allow China – Unesco's largest remaining funder – to call the shots on AI, tech education and other key areas, giving its competitor an advantage. 

"When we're not at the table shaping that conversation and so actually helping to shape those norms and standards, well, someone else is. And that someone else is probably China," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last year.

More broadly, Unesco provides a valuable opportunity to exercise soft power, according to Annick Cizel, a specialist on US foreign policy and international relations at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris.

Rejoining will allow the US to advocate for science, education and individual liberties amid the rise of disinformation and authoritarianism, notably in China and Russia, she told RFI, saying: "Unesco is in a sense a platform for democracy."

For Biden, heading into a presidential election next year, it is also a chance to distinguish his administration from Trump and others on the right who have pushed to restrict what can be taught in schools and universities in the US itself, Cizel pointed out.

Middle East question

Israel, which pulled out of Unesco shortly after the US, has no objections to its ally rejoining, Blinken has said.

According to Azoulay, who took over the agency in 2018, Washington noted that since then "we have managed to reach consensus on resolutions relating to the Middle East".

"As for Israel, our door is open," she added.

The US had already set the wheels in motion last December when members of Congress from both parties voted for new legislation that authorises funding to Unesco to resume. 

It will be the second time that the US has quit Unesco and later come back.

President Ronald Reagan withdrew US membership in 1984 on the grounds of "poor management and values opposed to our own" – only to rejoin in 2002 under George W. Bush, who needed international allies as he prepared to launch the war in Iraq.