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Friday, October 13, 2017, 18:44
What's behind abrupt US withdrawal from UNESCO?
By Xinhua
Friday, October 13, 2017, 18:44 By Xinhua

In this Oct 17, 2016 file picture, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization logo is pictured on the entrance at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.  (FRANCOIS MORI / AP)

WASHINGTON - The world has long been used to US President Donald Trump taking a stance against multilateralism. Still, the sudden US announcement Thursday to retreat from UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- raised eyebrows worldwide.

According to a State Department statement, the decision "reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO."

But the fundamental issue is the Trump administration's distrust of multilateral organizations and a growing frustration over America's place in an increasingly multipolar world.


Since taking office this January, the new White House leader has made no secret of his penchant for challenging multilateralism.

Having already scrapped the historic Paris climate deal, the comprehensive pact signed by 195 countries last year to reduce gas emissions, Trump also wants to "decertify" the landmark Iran nuclear deal. The critical Iran nuclear deal was signed two years ago with the five permanent UN Security Council member countries plus Germany, to avert the likelihood of a nuclear crisis in the Middle East.

READ MORE: US, Israel to exit UNESCO over its alleged anti-Israel bias

Trump also lashed out at the UN in his first speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last month, saying, "Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution's noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them."

In the specific case of UNESCO, Washington has long hammered it for so-called corruption, low-efficiency and mismanagement.

As early as 1984, the Ronald Reagan administration pulled the United States out of the agency, citing what it called the UN body's ideological tilt toward the former Soviet Union against the West, and the US stayed away till 2003.

The return, however, hasn't saved Washington from having its ambitions thwarted at the multilateral institution.

Since he became president, Trump has held back from appointing an ambassador to the agency. The withdrawal has been proved to be well calculated as it was announced right ahead of the election result of the UNESCO chief, according to observers.


During the Republican administration of George W. Bush, the United States stopped providing funds for UNESCO right after the organization voted to give Palestine official membership in 2011.

The decision recognized Palestine as an actual sovereign country, something unacceptable to the United States and Israel. Yet Washington has still maintained an office at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France.

The American reluctance to pay due membership fees has negatively impacted the agency's routine operations and staff employment

In July, UNESCO declared the old Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank a World Heritage Site, a move that further irritated Washington.

As a long-time ally of Tel Aviv, Washington is also reviewing its membership of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, citing an anti-Israel tilt within the agency.

Trump's decision has received the expected welcome in Israel, with the latter saying it too will quit UNESCO soon after the United States.


In 2011, the US government announced it would halt making financial contributions to UNESCO, which accounted for 22 percent of the group's whole-year budget, in reprisal for Palestine's full membership.

The government said it had to cut funds because a 1990s law prevents the US from funding any UN agencies recognizing Palestine as a state.

Consequently, US arrears at UNESCO have been snowballing each year. Currently, the United States owes over US$500 million to the organization.

The American reluctance to pay due membership fees has negatively impacted the agency's routine operations and staff employment. After a complete withdrawal, it is highly likely that Washington will welsh on its arrears, analysts say.

UNESCO, founded in 1946, is dedicated to promoting cooperation among countries through education, science and culture.

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