It’s worth unpacking this a little. Just six years ago, the United States was a member of UNESCO’s key decision making body in good standing. The US championed the candidacy of UNESCO chief Irina Bokova and by all accounts positively engaged with the organization. Then in October 2011, Palestine sought membership to UNESCO, over US objections. Still, UNESCO member states overwhelmingly decided to admit Palestine as a member. This triggered a set of laws on the books since the 1990s which required the United States to withdraw funding from any UN agency that admits Palestine as member. The US stopped paying membership dues to fund UNESCO’s work, and two years later lost it’s vote at UNESCO for being so deep in arrears.
Now when issues of importance to the United States and its allies (like Israel) arise, the United States does not even have a vote and its influence has been sharply reduced.
This manifests itself from time to time on resolutions concerning cultural properties and heritage in Israel, including a vote last year that referred to certain holy cites in Jerusalem by their Arabic and not hebrew names, which Israel took as ignoring Jewish connections to these holy sites. The US could not effective press its case, and the resolution passed. In this case, the decision to defund UNESCO over admitting Palestine (which was congressionally mandated, but opposed by the Obama administration) became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy of anti-Israel bias.
UNESCO’s work on education, freedom of the press and cultural heritage advances the kinds of pluralistic values that the United States has historically sought to promote around the world. It also undertakes tasks that more directly serve American security interests, like the “Literacy Empowerment for Afghan Police (LEAP) Project,” which teaches Afghanistan’s overwhelmingly illiterate security forces how to read and write. UNESCO also manages the global Tsunami Early Warning system, which includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
The point is, UNESCO does good work around the world that advances American interests and values. Though it has not been a full member since 2014, it nonetheless is in American interests to engage as productively as possible in this organization. The Trump administration’s decision to pullout of UNESCO is yet another example of this administration’s general retreat from America’s traditional role as a global leader in these forums.