The folly of UNESCO withdrawal

The folly of UNESCO withdrawal
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This month, the Trump administration abruptly announced its intention to withdraw U.S. membership from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This is bad policy. The president threw away his most credible source of bargaining leverage over the organization without getting anything in return. If we are serious about reforming UNESCO and other international organizations, we should work together with our allies to secure meaningful reform.

What are the stakes of United States not participating in UNESCO? A simple answer to this question can be found in a 2002 fact sheet published by the George W. Bush administration when it rejoined the organization. President Bush explained that U.S. membership was a “symbol of our commitment to human dignity” and that the United States would support UNESCO’s mission to “advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”

According to the Bush administration, “UNESCO’s mission and programming reflect and advance a wide range of U.S. interests,” including supporting education for all, promoting tolerance and civic responsibility, building democracy, combatting terrorism, protecting natural and cultural heritage, and promoting the freedom of the press. By implication, the United States not participating in the institution will make it more difficult for the United States and the international community to achieve these objectives.

As I show in my book, “Renegotiating the World Order: Institutional Change in International Relations,” threatening to withdraw funding or membership from an international organization can be an effective strategy to secure reforms or policy changes. U.N. agencies are contested frequently because they tend to adopt “one country, one vote” principles while assessing disproportionate financial contributions from large economies like the United States, United Kingdom and Japan. Policymakers from these countries often complain of taxation without commensurate representation.

Although UNESCO withdrawal looks like the latest example of Trump’s “America first” anti-globalism, it is actually fairly common for the United States to withdraw its membership from international organizations. Withdrawal is also not an obviously partisan issue. Harry Truman withdrew from Interpol in 1950, Jimmy Carter withdrew from the International Labor Organization in 1977, Ronald Reagan withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBipartisan infrastructure win shows Democrats must continue working across the aisle Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' Biden rolls dice by getting more aggressive on vaccines MORE withdrew from United Nations Industrial Development Organization in 1996. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Singapore, have also withdrawn from UNESCO over similar concerns. Japan recently threatened to withhold funding from the organization after its recognition of the Nanking massacre.

What stands out about Trump’s withdrawal from UNESCO is the absence of any upside for the United States. We have just given up the most valuable leverage the we have over the organization, which is our membership status and financial contributions, without attempting to receive anything in return. The U.S. withdrawal document cites the “need for fundamental reform in the organization,” but the Trump administration has not articulated a clear set of objectives or engaged in an active negotiation with UNESCO to advance U.S. interests. UNESCO officials were blindsided by the abrupt US decision.

Two previous episodes when the United States threatened to withdraw from international organizations are instructive. In 1984, the Reagan administration withdrew from UNESCO. The United States had legitimate concerns about UNESCO at the time, when the organization was seen as corrupt and often favoring Soviet priorities despite receiving the bulk of its funding from the West. However, rather than seeking to reform UNESCO from within, the United States announced its intention to withdraw on short notice and gave the organization little time to respond. As a result, we lost our influence and international prestige without any clear benefit. The United States became a passive actor, only rejoining the organization after its concerns were rendered moot by the end of the Cold War and reforms by then director general Koichiro Matsuura.

The U.S. strategy towards the International Fund for Agricultural Development was much more effective. In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration was sharply critical of the fund for reasons similar to UNESCO, as it overrepresented the interests of other countries, in this case members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, even though it imposed a heavy financial burden on Western states. Rather than unilaterally withdrawing from the institution, the United States acted in concert with other developed countries, demanding greater influence over the organization while threatening to curtail funding. Although reform took time, the United States ultimately achieved its objective: In 1995, a major reform of the fund’s structure gave the United States and other developed countries much greater formal control over the organization.

President Trump promotes himself as a shrewd negotiator. He will hopefully recognize that the United States has more to gain from cooperating with its allies and using its leverage to negotiate for reforms from international organizations. There is nothing wrong with renegotiation if international organizations are not serving U.S. interests. Walking away without trying is the height of folly.

Phillip Y. Lipscy is an assistant professor of political science and the Thomas Rohlen Center Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of “Renegotiating the World Order: Institutional Change in International Relations.