Thursday morning, Americans woke up to some news that felt like it was out of left field: The Trump administration was withdrawing the United States from membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This seemed strange because UNESCO is such an inoffensive-seeming organization: Its most prominent function is designating and protecting official international landmarks, called World Heritage Sites — places like The Alamo and the Great Barrier Reef. What possible reason could the US have for quitting an organization devoted to culture and science?
The reality, though, is bit a more complex, as the US and UNESCO have actually been at loggerheads since 2011.
The key issue, as with many US-UN disputes, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October 2011, UNESCO admitted the Palestinian territories to the organization as an independent member-state called Palestine. This triggered a US law which cut off American funding for any organization that recognized an independent Palestine. The US had previously paid for 22 percent ($80 million) of UNESCO’s annual budget.
Finally, in 2013, after the US missed several rounds of payments to UNESCO, the organization suspended US voting rights in its core decision-making bodies. So the US hasn’t been a real UNESCO member for a while. Trump is just making that status official — and scoring a domestic public relations coup with pro-Israel, anti-UN conservatives in the process.
“It’s as if a couple who had been living apart for years finally agreed to a divorce,” says Richard Gowan, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies the UN.
What does and doesn’t matter about the US withdrawal from UNESCO
While most famous for designating various places World Heritage Sites, UNESCO also sponsors a range of international cultural and intellectual activities.
“A lot of UNESCO's work is quite pointless,” Gowan tells me. “But it also runs an odd array of worthwhile programs on issues ranging from education to tsunami warning.”
Some of these things, like supporting international Holocaust education, are really important. But the organization isn’t nearly as prominent or geopolitically significant as the UN Security Council, which sets binding international law, or UN Peacekeeping, a body literally tasked with helping war-torn countries transition to peace. That makes UNESCO a natural venue for countries that want to engage in ideological grandstanding and symbolic protest votes without actually causing too much chaos in the international system.
For instance, in 1984, the Reagan administration took out its frustration with the UN on UNESCO over accusations of anti-US, pro-Soviet bias at the UN (it took until 2002 for the US to rejoin). It’s also why the Palestinians, frustrated with the failure of US-sponsored negotiations to produce a peace agreement, pushed to be recognized as a UNESCO member-state: It was a venue in which they stood a real chance at gaining symbolic statehood status, and thus in theory putting more diplomatic pressure on Israel to sit down and negotiate.
The Palestinians won their 2011 UNESCO membership by a thundering 107-14 margin (though 52 states abstained). However, this has produced little in the way of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — and the consequences of the subsequent aid cutoff for UNESCO have been severe. Klaus Hüfner, an expert on UNESCO at the Global Policy Forum, termed it a “financial crisis.”
This funding cutoff is severe enough that UNESCO has been forced to cut back both on irrelevant bloat and the extremely valuable environmental and educational activities.
Trump’s decision, at the very least, won’t make things better.
In formal terms, though, it won’t really change much. The US will become what the UN calls a “non-member observer state” in UNESCO: allowed to send representatives to UNESCO meetings but not vote in them. Since that’s basically what the US is now, that has little impact beyond the US’s formal title.
“The organization has already adapted to losing funds from a key member, so I think the practical consequences will be small, says David Bosco, a political scientist at Indiana University.
It’s possible, though, that the symbolism of formal US withdrawal could actually makes things even worse. As the US moves further away from UNESCO, other countries that fund it might follow their lead.
“One concern for the organization might be whether the US move prompts a few others to leave or to be slow on their payments,” Bosco worries. “Organizations like UNESCO are always struggling to get members to pay their dues on time in any case.”
It might also encourage UNESCO members to punish the US by antagonizing it further on Israel-Palestine issues. Earlier this year, UNESCO designated the core area of the West Bank city of Hebron — home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, an important religious site for Jews and Muslims — as a Palestinian World Heritage Site, a symbolic slight of both the US and Israel. It’s easy to imagine UNESCO voting to take more actions like this in the future.
“Non-Western countries are already a powerful bloc in UNESCO, and their influence will increase further [after US withdrawal],” says Gowan. “Expect lots and lots more UNESCO resolutions bashing Israel, for a start.”
Ultimately, though, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration cares all that much about this. The UN is exceptionally unpopular among many conservatives, elite and grassroots alike, who view it as deeply hostile to Israel. Earlier this year, the Trump administration floated massive cuts to US funding for the UN, which were popular with some pro-Israel conservatives but ultimately impractical.
Withdrawing from UNESCO over Israel-related issues scores points with these supporters without having immediately tangible consequences for US security interests. “It's a relatively low-cost way for the Trump administration to strike a blow against the perceived flaws of the UN system,” Bosco says.
The fact that withdrawing from an international cultural organization makes the US look bad, at a time when the world’s opinion of the US is already free-fall, doesn’t appear to be a major concern.
“Trump will be able to sell the narrative that he is tough on the UN, despite actually walking back from some of his harshest demands for financial cuts. Non-Western countries like China will trumpet that this is a sign of US disengagement from the world,” Gowan tells me. “In a funny way, it's a win-win!”