U.S. under Team Biden rejoins UNESCO; Pay at the door

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler, July 9, 2023

UNESCO is one of those United Nations agencies that most people feel pretty comfortable with.

The group’s designated World Heritage Sites form a growing global roster of iconic natural, cultural and historic locations ranging from the Grand Canyon and Independence Hall in the USA to places ranging from the city center of Rome or Florence to India’s Taj Mahal and the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

UNESCO has equally designated unique foods as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage: Ukrainian Borsht soup, the delicious French Baguette and Korean Kimchi. All Good.

Nonetheless the United States has long had a tumultuous relationship with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization.

The bone of political contention centers on what’s seen as inherent anti-Israel bias in the Paris-based organization. That’s why even the Obama Administration withheld American funding in 2011 when the group extended membership to Palestine.

The U.S. has rejoined the UN cultural agency UNESCO six years after President Donald Trump withdrew it.

President Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from UNESCO in 2017.

At that time Nikki Haley, who was the American UN Ambassador lauded UNESCO’s purpose but charged the organization’s “extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment.”

America is now back among UNESCO’s 193-member states thanks to a curious initiative by the Biden Administration to “counter China’s influence” in the consultative body.

By the way, the USA owes considerable contributions in arrears, back dues if you will, amounting to $619 million!

The U.S. State Department “welcomed the way in which UNESCO had addressed in recent years emerging challenges, modernized its management and reduced political tensions.”

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay told Member states, “It’s a great day for UNESCO and for multilateralism. Building upon the momentum achieved in recent years, our Organization is once again moving towards universalism with this return of the United States.”

Following a two-day special session held at the body’s Paris headquarters, UNESCO’s members overwhelmingly voted to readmit the USA; but ten countries voted against Washington among them Belarus, China, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Nicaragua, Palestine, Russia and Syria.

The US. is assessed to pay 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual operating budget of $534 million dollars; That’s an approximately $150 million annual contribution also counting towards toward budget arrears. The United States remains UNESCO’s largest financial contributor, yet following Washington’s withdrawal under President Trump, China became the biggest donor state.

The United States previously pulled out of UNESCO in 1984 during the Reagan administration because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined in 2003.

Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated, “If we are not engaged in international institutions, we leave a void and we lose an opportunity to advance American values and interests on the global stage. Wherever and whenever new rules are being debated, Americans need to be at the table.”

Clearly this is a done deal and Antony Blinken’s State Department is celebrating. But what about some measures and metrics to test whether the American investment in a renewed UNESCO is worth our millions?

France’s left-leaning Le Monde newspaper opines that the UNESCO deal opens the “return of American financial resources.” This editorial adds that the breakthrough will enable Washington to “settle a debt of $600 million and is bound to revitalize the institution.” It’s noted that Frenchwoman Audrey Azoulay heads UNESCO “with an uncontested mastery.”

Clearly this is a done deal and Antony Blinken’s State Department is celebrating. But what about some measures and metrics to test whether the American investment in a renewed UNESCO is worth our millions?

First: Form a bipartisan Congressional Committee to oversee UNESCO to make certain they are keeping to their promise of transparency and reform. Demand accountability.

Second: Begin serious renegotiation of Washington’s onerous 22 percent financial assessment. These numbers are based on outdated contribution assessments which don’t take into account the economic rise of many of the G-20 countries, especially China.

Third: Given that China has become UNESCO’s largest donor, thus holding widening political clout, let’s also reduce Beijing’s annual contributions so we don’t fall victim to the “He Who pays the Piper Syndrome” but rather equably spread the financial responsibility.

Fourth: Let’s carefully assess and monitor what we actually gain from UNESCO and how it
helps or hinders America’s global soft power agenda.

Designating noted World Heritage Sites and unique Cuisines are laudable but does this cost $543 million annually?

Admittedly UNESCO notably works with girls education projects in developing countries. And I’m particularly happy they’re coordinating the reconstruction of Iraq’s historic city of Mosul which was under barbaric ISIL control for three years.

One rationalization Biden Administration used for rejoining UNESCO is countering China’s growing influence and diplomatic footprint in the UN. Fair point. But let’s see if our wider investment is really warranted or wasted.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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