The withdrawal of the US from UNESCO

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The withdrawal of the US from UNESCO


October 13th 2017. The United States of America decide to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The decision of the Trump administration, still fresh, has shocked the world in what is believed to be one of the most appalling decisions of 2017. Why did this happen now and what will this mean for the institution of the United Nations for the years to come?

As any reader would ask, what happened that made the US decide to leave UNESCO? As many interviews have bene aired and as statements have been going around, it is said that the United States Administration decided to withdraw from the institution in part due to the “anti – Israeli bias” that has been noticed in the organization, as the Trump Administration stated. But is this all? This cannot be the solemn reason behind such a move, as cultural policy experts have mentioned.

What is the role of UNESCO?

After the events of World War II, the founders of the organization believed that the best way to educate the public and especially the youth about such catastrophes would be through education, science and culture. Founded on the 16th of November, 1945, the organization has taken various steps towards educating and sensitizing the public as well as preserving historical monuments and cultures which would otherwise seize to exist.

The most known programme UNESCO has created is the World Heritage Sites list, which include international monuments in need of preservation and protection. 23 of these monuments can be found in the United States, with the emblem of the States, the Statue of Liberty being one among the top landmarks of the list.

The reason behind the withdrawal

As the US Department of State’s representative mentioned, it has been quoted that since there is a “need of fundamental reform” as well as the “continuous anti – Israeli bias” have been noticed within UNESCO, the United States have noticed these concerns and have taken the decision to withdraw from the institution. Aside from the aforementioned points, there have also been “concerns with mounting arrears” which are owed by the US to the organization and hence, the Trump Administration decided to make the United States one of the nations which will not be part of the organization anymore and will take on the role of the observer during deliberations and discussions.

However, although the Media has decided to focus solemnly on the second reason behind the withdrawal, the issues between the United States and UNESCO started taking place 6 years ago, in 2011, back when the Trump Administration hadn’t yet entered in office. Back then, when the institution decided to allow Palestine to join as a nation, the US and Israel voiced their concerns but they remained unanswered. Hence, the US stopped funding the organization based on a “forgotten” as the New York Times mentioned law stating that the US would be able to freeze or halt any payments to any UN agency supposing they accepted Palestine as member. The 15 – year – old law, unknown to most, was additionally supported by the Trump Administration in 2017 by the declaration of Old Hebron as a Palestinian World Site, an act condemned by both Israel and the US.

Today, the US owes UNESCO around 550 USD. The sum could keep increasing should the US not pay the organization, a spark which further fuelled the decision to withdraw from the institution.

What happens if the US indeed leaves?

Concerning the financial and legal status of the institution after the withdrawal, experts have stated that there would be little impact on the institution. Having had their rights suspended back in 2013, after failing to pay their dues, the arrears have been piling up for the US. Hence, a possible withdrawal would enable the US to forget the money that hasn’t been paid yet and withdraw from the organization without this having any implication on the nation as a whole. However, although this might not sound too bad, the annual contributions of the US amounted to roughly 80 mil USD, which is the 22% of UNESCO’s annual budget.

This is indeed when things get serious.

The withdrawal would indeed put UNESCO at a position with “dire financial straits”, as Brian Daniels, director of research and research related programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre at the University Of Pennsylvania Museum, mentioned.

The treaties and conventions which have been signed and ratified in the US won’t be affected at all and their terms will continue to be in force.

Does the Trump Administration wish to send a message?

Even if the US didn’t participate fully in the events taking place under the umbrella of UNESCO and even though it owed an x amount of arrears, the decision to withdraw from the institution as a whole sends a strongly negative message bearing in mind the decision the US made to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in the same year. It is as if the US wishes to send the message that there is strong negativism as far as cooperation and multilateralism is concerned. And their moves make their messages even bolder in the era of globalisation.

The US Department of State mentioned that the US would still keep some sort of contact with the organization and would try to maintain their presence as an observer state of the UN Body.

Even if the US indeed manages to keep the contact it has promised with the organization and act as much accordingly and together as possible, their decision to withdraw from the UNESCO still remains a large shock for the international community as a whole.  

There has been a similar move back in December of 1984 as well, when the US decided to withdraw from the organization once more under the Reagan Administration due to UNESCO’s budget and what was characterised by the US as “ideological bent against Israel moves and free capitalism”. The US re-joined the organization in 2002 under the Bush Administration but tensions between those two haven’t exactly evaporated.

As the Former French minister, Audrey Azoulay, stated “in this time of crisis, we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it”, it is evident that the US is doing the exact opposite.

Concluding remarks

In this time of period, we see the US being in the foreground of every change and of every alteration of event as we knew them. Change and especially profound one, has evidently risen in every aspect of human activities. And the question isn’t why, but why now?

The Trump Administration wishes to make their message heard on an international scale. They want their voices to be heard, hence both of their decisions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and now from the UNESCO institution.

As analysts have mentioned, the moves haven’t been made without being calculated at first. The US wishes to take an active stance against global change and against developments on an international scale, thus taking a step against globalization as well. Behind the current presidency of the United States, one understand that their moves have been made in order for the US to take a backward step in certain conventions and agreements and show their opinion on issues in a too – bold manner.

We understand that we are living in a world full of radical and extreme change. Nations can change their decisions from one day to the next, with severe international implications. But what we want to express in this article in neither that changes of such magnitude are good, nor that we must not act upon the situation. We have found ourselves in the centre of profound change of an international scale. Unless leaders and nations take action, we will continue to live in unrest for the decades to come.


Editorial, Artsy, and Isaac Kaplan. “The U.S. Is Withdrawing from UNESCO-What Happens Now?” Artsy, Artsy , 13 Oct. 2017,

Greshko, Michael. “U.S. to Withdraw From UNESCO. Here’s What That Means.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 12 Oct. 2017,

Shugerman, Emily. “Israel Joins US in Pulling out of Unesco after Netanyahu Praises America for ‘Brave and Moral’ Decision.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 12 Oct. 2017,

Cowan, Richard, and David Morgan; “Haley Says U.S. to Stay in Iran Nuclear Deal ‘Right Now’.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 15 Oct. 2017,

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