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This month’s Ranter is Oliver Goff
On 12 October 2017, the US department of State officially announced its intention to leave the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural organization – UNESCO. The US has informed UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova that it wishes to withdraw from the organization and instead will seek to establish itself as a permanent observer party. Withdrawal will take effect on 31 December 2018.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO offers yet another example of his willingness to forgo established avenues of, and platforms for, international co-operation. It is a worrying trend that merits greater examination.
The considerable scope of UNESCO’s work highlights the ambition – and value – of the organisation. Much of the work it does focuses on education. It prides itself on its record of providing expertise and support to countries that have historically struggled to educate their citizens. For example, UNESCO trains Afghan police officers how to read and write.
Human rights also form a cornerstone of the organisation’s remit; UNESCO has taken great strides to improve children’s rights throughout the world, whilst also striving to improve gender equality.
Whilst these noble endeavours form the bedrock of UNESCO’s work, it is perhaps best known for its World Heritage Sites. These locations and landmarks are judged to be of the utmost cultural significance to humanity.
Thus, whilst it can hardly be viewed as the vehicle to solve all the world’s problems, UNESCO should be regarded as an organisation which – rather nobly – attempts to highlight and safeguard a variety of worthy causes that are widely regarded as being imperative to civilisation.
Despite this, the US has a chequered past with UNESCO. Washington has, at times, taken the view that UNESCO is overly politicized. Presidents from both of America’s big political parties have found themselves at odds with the organisation. President Reagan withdrew the US from the organisation in 1984, claiming that UNESCO had undergone an ideological shift which aligned it more closely with the Soviet Union. It was not until 2002 until President George W. Bush attempted a rapprochement between the US and UNESCO.
It would be quite convenient to portray UNESCO as a punching bag for American conservatives. However, this is not entirely the case. President Barack Obama withdrew US funding for the organisation in 2011, a decision driven by UNESCO’s decision – in October of that year – to acknowledge Palestine as a full member of the organisation. US funding, which then came to roughly $60 million a year, amounts to between 20-25 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget. Since 2011, the US has run up £600 million in arrears to UNESCO.
This most recent White House reaction to UNESCO’s perceived political stance might also be regarded (especially given President Trump’s apparent obsession with stopping the US being ‘ripped off’ in its financial dealings with other transnational organisations) as a convenient way of turning away from its mounting UNESCO bill.
If we take the White House line to be an accurate reflection of things, it would seem that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the root of the issue. Quite who should bear the majority of the blame for the conflict is impossible to establish – it can hardly be disputed that both sides have played their part.
However, the US and Israel have worked hard to endeavour to paint Palestine and its political representatives as the culprits: as blood thirsty anti-Semites who certainly don’t deserve the recognition of legitimacy from the international community.
It is this depiction that UNESCO has openly challenged with its recognition of Palestine. It has clearly decided to try to rise above the politics and has taken the stance that Palestine, and by extension the Palestinian people, are worthy of recognition, and that the narrative on the Israel-Palestine question should not be steered entirely by the US and Israel.
The Trump administration’s response to UNESCO’s stance is to censure the organisation in the most public way. And whilst this is not the first time the White House has moved against UNESCO, this latest move represents something which is becoming a troubling hallmark of the Trump presidency: relinquishing support for international organisations and agreements.
One of Trump’s first actions of note was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Following on from this was his announcement that he wasn’t committed to the Paris Climate Accord. Perhaps the most worrying was Trump’s posturing towards NATO. Expressing his anger over the fact that the US pays more towards NATO’s upkeep than every other member state combined, Trump warned that without an increase in NATO spending from the Europeans, Washington would have to carefully consider its role within the organisation.
Trump’s concern on NATO’s spending imbalance is not without justification. However, the rough, shoot-from-the-hip manner in which he deals with these issues is deeply concerning. Difficulties litter the landscape of international relations – but we hope that political leaders respond to them in a measured and intelligent way. There is no problem which can’t be overcome by skilled diplomacy and discussion. The speed with which Trump seems willing to adopt a threat posture, and his willingness to kick at the very building blocks of international co-operation, is a worrying trend which risks doing great damage. UNESCO is the latest organisation to feel his wrath.
And it is counter-productive. His decision to withdraw is unlikely to cow UNESCO into a change of stance on Palestine. And of course, it will do absolutely nothing to address the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. What it does do is nourish the idea that governments can simply abandon things they don’t like in international relations. And it undermines still further the idea of the USA as a political exemplar that the modern world should seek to emulate.
Trump’s election was seen by many to represent a welcome kickback against ‘the establishment’. His supporters appear to relish his willingness to speak boldly and act quickly. Yet the smooth running of international affairs requires patience and the ability to compromise: these are two qualities that Trump appears to lack.
Oliver Goff has a Master’s degree in international security and counter-terrorism from the University of Dundee. His research interests include: the rise of Political Islam in Europe, the phenomenon of Islamic Revivalism in the Muslim world, and the role of modern technology within the operations of terrorist groups. Contact him at: OliverGoff@outlook.com