I serve as a United Nations non-governmental organization (NGO) representative for the American Humanist Association. I am mostly proud of the work of the UN. I am certainly proud of the work of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Yet, I am desperately ashamed of my country for resigning its membership in this organization and as a leader on the world stage.
Disconnecting from the world eliminates possibilities and opportunities to lead and to effect change. UNESCO has served to maintain the cultural dignity of indigenous populations, has protected the relevance of endangered cultural and historical sites, and also assists to ensure access to information and education.
Breaking from this group, as announced October 12, is, in my opinion, a betrayal of seven decades of global leadership and a sign of our continued retraction from the world stage by the Trump administration. That said, the United States has not paid its dues to UNESCO since 2011 under an Obama era decision to limit the organization’s political pronouncements and the inclusion of Palestine as a member.
The purpose of non-payment also served as a counter-balance to geopolitical accountability regarding Israeli human rights abuses. The main claim has been that by just focusing on Israel, the body ignored the abuses of Palestinians against other Palestinians and violence against Israel as well.
But this longterm Arab-Israeli feud, which has intergeneration implications, is like a Semitic Hatfield and McCoy battle cry for justice for one group rather than justice for all. Since both ancient Jews and their Arab counterparts have claimed the same ancestral land, a several thousand-year tug-of-war has taken place and an ethnic competition for ownership of the land has ensued. Overlay the auspices of religious history and tribal memory, and we see that each group’s modern claim for autonomy has geopolitical advocates and adversaries.
In 2013 the UN took away the United States’ voting rights at UNESCO for non-payment of its dues. But a full withdrawal from the body means that the US won’t participate or have access to direct ongoing discussions on UNESCO actions or matters.
UNESCO was founded in 1945 and ratified in 1946, and the United States played a significant role in developing the organization’s constitution, which states the organization’s goal is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.” UNESCO also works to ensure the flow and access to information and equal education. With the US plan to withdraw from UNESCO (effective December 2018), such ability to plan, direct, or influence the organization will disappear.
In experiential terms, this means essentially that you can’t complain (with any relevance at least), about what UNESCO will do or say in the future if you’re not a representative part of the group. It’s like people complaining about politicians but not voting. You lose credibility when you do not fulfill your obligations to be part of something bigger than what you are as an individual.
As with any US retraction in political global leadership, other nations will certainly take the lead. And as we know, other equally powerful nations, many of them non-Western, do not share the United States’ values or positions. They will indeed fill the vacuum of the loss of US diplomatic influence. As someone who has seen UN politics up close, I can tell you that there are indeed no power vacuums for long at the UN.
This is not to say the US doesn’t have its warts or its own history of imperialism and injustice. I clearly recognize them. But I also know that the US has helped those harmed by religious and dictatorial tyranny as well. I’ve also gone on record with my distaste for UN politics. But a world without the UN would be a much more unstable and dangerous place. And a UN without the United States in a leadership role regarding diplomacy and UN policy and action only makes the world less safe.
President Barack Obama was a globalist. His international policies meant that our world connections grew. For better or worse, the US both accompanied and confronted the UN world body. And yes, the US tried to use its veto and other powers to capitalize on America’s global priorities. But with a nationalist like President Trump at the helm of US diplomacy, a darker and less connected world is not a theoretical possibility but a full-blown reality.
We are seeing in real time what it means to filter out the world in favor of this administration’s “America First” stance. Such nationalism doesn’t make the world safer and it means that America is not quite the diplomatic juggernaut it once was, which may result in decades of unrealized opportunities and global conflict ahead.
There may be two essential ways for the Trump administration to reengage with UNESCO prior to or even after the US leaves the agency. The first would be to address the US financial commitment. Perhaps a reduction in how much the US shoulders could be negotiated and perhaps UNESCO could even cancel past unpaid US dues. The second way, which may be more difficult, would be to give the United States a larger diplomatic say in UNESCO policymaking. But offering such preference would call into question UNESCO’s relationship with other nations as well as its autonomy. I personally fear a worse-case scenario for American diplomatic influence whereby after the United States fully steps away, UNSESCO adapts to the “new normal” and finds that it doesn’t need or want American comment or support.
The pullback in UNESCO support, begun by President Barack Obama and now fully obstructed by President Trump should concern humanists in the US and around the globe. Both the Humanist Manifesto and the UN Charter work toward greater global peace and understanding. Both are aspirational yet rational documents of inclusion. Leaving UNESCO because Trump doesn’t like its policies while forgetting all the human rights and justice it provides to the world is shameful.