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Why is the United States rejoining UNESCO?

16 June 2023

The director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Audrey Azoulay, has announced that the United States is set to pay its substantial back dues and rejoin the institution in July. Doing so would conclude another chapter in the country’s chequered history with UNESCO, an organisation known almost as much for its oft-troubled financial position than for its 1972 World Heritage Convention and other initiatives.

Unpaid US dues currently total more than $500m, which have accrued since October 2011. The US suspended payment after UNESCO’s member states voted to give the Palestinian Authority full membership, falling foul of a piece of US legislation passed in 1990 forbidding funding for UN bodies accepting the Palestinians as full members. The prospects for UNESCO’s budgetary black hole worsened when, in October 2017, the Trump administration, citing anti-Israel bias, pulled the United States out of the organisation entirely.

The resumption of US membership – made, according to UNESCO, ‘on the basis of a concrete financing plan’ voted for by Congress in December 2022 – appears to have rested at least in part on mediation efforts led by Azoulay, who became director general in November 2017. According to one report, the resumption also comes at a time when the Biden administration wants to counter what it sees as China’s growing influence in the organisation, with the Western bloc of member-states agreeing to hold a seat for the United States on UNESCO’s Executive Board when elections take place this November.

This is not the first time that such geo-politicking has driven US interests at the organisation. The country was a founding member-state of UNESCO, in November 1946. Luther Evans, a former Librarian of Congress, even served as UNESCO’s fourth director general from 1953–58, the only US official to do so. But because of the United States’ Cold War concerns around Communism and anti-American action – Evans fired seven of his compatriots working at UNESCO because they refused to submit to a loyalty investigation – in the following decades the US relationship with the organisation became decidedly antagonistic.

Audrey Azoulay

Director general of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay.Photo: Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, a Senegalese politician first appointed to UNESCO’s Executive Board in 1966, was director general from 1974 until 1987. During that time, UNESCO was regarded by the Reagan administration and its allies as a seat of anti-Western sentiment. Coming after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the accompanying OPEC-induced oil crisis, M’Bow’s appointment had been promoted by the growing number of UNESCO member-states from Africa. His tenure was accompanied by initiatives that threatened to undermine the sort of promotion of market forces that the United States and other ‘Western’ countries favoured. At the United Nations, newly independent countries had tried (and failed) to create a ‘New International Economic Order’ that would allow them some control over asymmetric policies of global development. At UNESCO, those same countries promoted a ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ designed to enable the expansion of local cultural production under fair conditions.

This rebuttal of the post-war global order – and the space UNESCO provided to let it happen – faced fierce resistance in an era when some countries worked to make the rise of the market seem unstoppable. In 1984, the New York Times reported that the US Congress’s General Accounting Office was investigating UNESCO for ‘mismanagement and fraud’ (it is telling that, even today, UNESCO’s press release concerning the resumption of US membership notes that the ‘Department of State welcomed the way in which UNESCO had… modernized its management’). That March, a fire – allegedly arson, though the precise cause never seems to have been established – consumed parts of UNESCO House in Paris, prompting speculation that it was an attempt to destroy records relevant to the investigation. Copies already in hand, however, the United States left UNESCO at the end of the year. Britain followed suit and departed the organisation in 1985, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that officials had declared UNESCO ‘inefficient, spendthrift, and “harmfully politicized”’; the United Kingdom rejoined in 1997, with the United States making its way back to Paris even later, in 2003.

Plus ça change? Even now, US UNESCO membership will, for geopolitical reasons, remain qualified. UNESCO’s agreement with the United States includes a clause stating that the renewal of funding will cease if the Palestinian Authority gains the status of member-state in other UN agencies (it did so at UNESCO because there is no body there, like the UN Security Council, that can veto such moves). Renewed membership also comes closely entwined with Audrey Azoulay’s director-generalship: the Congressional bill agreeing to pay off US debt terminates at the end of September 2025, when Azoulay is scheduled to leave office. As M’Bow’s tenure as director general coincided with a distinct breakdown in US-UNESCO relations, so the end of Azoulay’s may presage similar issues. That said, if Donald Trump – or another, similar candidate – wins the US presidency in 2024, UNESCO will likely have bigger problems. Little wonder that the organisation took the deal it did.