Mon | Sep 24, 2018

Editorial | America's misguided insularity

Published:Saturday | October 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The United States says it will withdraw from UNESCO at the end of 2018 in what could be interpreted as a move to push the body to make fundamental changes being demanded by Washington. The reason given was UNESCO's anti-Israeli bias.

Indeed, this decision by the US could very well foreshadow further retrenchment of US engagement with the United Nations system in general, in the face of the administration's call for changes to its structural and financial arrangements.

This UNESCO withdrawal is the latest in a series of disengagement by Donald Trump's administration, which has been busily scrapping international trade deals and other global arrangements as it seeks to fulfil the campaign promise to 'Make America Great Again' and perhaps score public-relations points with its conservative base.

It's akin to the divorce of estranged partners, because the relationship between the US and UNESCO has been strained since 2011 when Palestinian territories were admitted to the organisation as an independent member state called Palestine. The US responded by cutting off funding to any organisation that recognised independent Palestine and its 22 per cent share of the annual UNESCO budget, which was then US$80 million, was also suspended.

In 2012, the US was peeved at a decision not to expel Syria from UNESCO's human rights committee after the civil war began. Then in 2013, after the US had missed several payments to UNESCO, its voting rights were suspended. Its unpaid obligations have now passed the US$500-million mark.




What might have hastened this withdrawal decision was the July declaration of the ancient city of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage Site.

This is not the first time that the US has withdrawn from UNESCO. It did so in 1984 because the Reagan administration felt the organisation was susceptible to Moscow's influence and was too critical of its important ally, Israel. It, however, rejoined in 2002.

Well known for designating and protecting international landmarks called World Heritage Sites, UNESCO was founded after World War Two on the broader principles of confronting extremism and promoting peace around the flow of ideas and culture. The work of the 195-member organisation has focused on matters of global development, including sex education, gender equality and literacy.

Hatred, human-rights violations and violence continue to confront peoples all over the globe, and a body like UNESCO needs strengthening, not shattering. Winning the war over evil requires global collective action. The withdrawal, therefore, of one of the founding fathers of UNESCO will damage the international collaborative effort to achieve its goals and objectives.

The pattern is, however, clear. America is now looking inward, and its willingness to quit a global accord like the Paris climate agreement and trade agreements like NAFTA are highly symbolic steps that send the message that the Trump administration feels comfortable wearing a protectionist coat.

UNESCO may not be perfect. Like any other body, it most certainly requires reforms. The Trump administration's attitude seems to be like the child on the playground who doesn't get his way and reacts by taking up all his marbles and goes home.

We frankly do not believe that withdrawing into itself is the way to make America and its interests great.