Why The United States is Rejoining UNESCO

Back in 2017, the Trump administration announced that the United States would formally leave UNESCO, the UN’s education, science and cultural organization. When the Biden administration came to office it promised to reverse course and rejoin UNESCO.  On June 12 this year it announced a plan to do just that.

Joining me to discuss America’s complicated relationship with UNESCO and explain why the Biden administration is seeking to rejoin is Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign and Senior Vice President at the United Nations Foundation.  We kick off discussing what exactly UNESCO does and how it supports American interests before having a longer conversation about the recent fraught history between UNESCO and the United States. Peter Yeo then explains the process by which the Biden administration is seeking to rejoin UNESCO, which includes a plan to pay back arrears the United States owes to UNESCO.

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Transcript edited for clarity


Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:41] To kick off, can you just explain what UNESCO does for listeners who might be unfamiliar with the organization? 

Peter Yeo [00:03:48] UNESCO is the UN’s agency that deals with educational, scientific and cultural issues. It’s based in Paris, and most U.N. members are also a member of UNESCO’s. It creates international standards and norms around educational and scientific issues. It works on projects around the world to improve educational systems, to advance scientific progress, and to protect important cultural and historical sites. 

[00:04:26] It’s a very effective and changing organization designed to make sure that the world’s scientific knowledge is advanced and that, among other things, that women are increasingly brought into scientific endeavors and in in cultural issues, that conflict and other types of rapid change is not used to undermine cultural progress and forget the history of countries. 

[00:05:00] So there’s a lot of really important work that UNESCO’s does that I think advances the overall progress in the world and certainly advances the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:11] So I know that day to day you work to advance American interests at the U.N. and to advance and enhance U.S -U.N. cooperation. How does UNESCO as an entity, in your view, advance American interests? 

Peter Yeo [00:05:29] I would say a couple of things. First of all, it’s important that the US work effectively with other countries to tackle global challenges. U.S. taxpayer dollars always go further when we work with like minded countries as opposed to going it alone. We’re also operating an increasingly interconnected world where we have to work effectively with other countries. 

[00:06:06]  We have to work with other countries’ entities to try to advance progress, and UNESCO’s allows us to do that. So first of all, UNESCO, by working in the context o scope, we can advance progress by working with other countries in other countries organizations. I think the second area is the US has strategic interests in Africa, Europe, around the world, whether it’s Ukraine or Mali or Yemen or Colombia. 

[00:06:40] UNESCO’s In all of those countries, it’s working to advance the educational systems in those countries, which are very important in terms of promoting stability, enhancing community development and giving kids an alternative to violence. So UNESCO’s work in those countries very much advances US foreign policy, national security priorities in some countries that are pretty front line to our interests. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:10] So the United States formally left UNESCO’s during the Trump administration, but it was a process that was set in motion during the Obama years. Can you just explain and describe the circumstances that led the United States to leave UNESCO?

Peter Yeo [00:07:32] Well the US left UNESCO because in 2011, the member states voted to admit Palestine as a full member state. This triggered to US laws from the 1990s that prohibit the U.S. from funding any multilateral organization that admits Palestine as a full member state, and there wasn’t a waiver in the law. They gave the President no discretion to make an alternative decision about whether to stay in or stay out. 

[00:08:01] And so as a result, the US withdrew all funding from UNESCO. And then in 2017, the Trump administration made the decision to withdraw. The U.S. actually is a member of UNESCO. We hadn’t, of course, given them any money for 60 years. We were in extensive financial arrears. Our participation in UNESCO at that point was fairly minimal because of our failure to pay. And the Trump administration did not support continued US participation in UNESCO. So the US withdrew. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:36] Since the United States stopped paying its payments to UNESCO, I have to imagine that included a huge financial hit to the organization. How did UNESCO react or how did that financial hit impact UNESCO’s operations around the world? 

Peter Yeo [00:08:55] Well, the US national contributions to UNESCO, as they are for all U.N. agencies, is set at 22%. So for UNESCO’s to lose 22% of its funding in one year, let alone the many following years where the U.S. did not make a financial contribution, was really quite a blow to UNESCO’s operations. 

[00:09:22] I also want to stress that it’s not just U.S. national contributions, which are required for participation in the organization, but the U.S. has made voluntary contributions to UNESCO that were also important to the work of the organization, including US voluntary contributions to strengthen them in our schools, work around Holocaust education. UNESCO is known for its very important and groundbreaking work to make sure that the world never forgets the Holocaust and fight against those forces in our world today that would have us forget the Holocaust or change its interpretation. 

[00:10:01] And so what happened was other countries did up their financial contributions to UNESCO. But UNESCO’s itself really slimmed down its work in some areas and really came up with a strategic plan that refocused UNESCO’s on its most important mandate. And so as a result, the UNESCO we’re seeing today is a better run organization and is really focused on its most important mandates, where it can have a transformative impact as opposed to doing work where other U.N. organizations are also well in the space. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:43] Did you see over the years since the United States lost its vote at UNESCO — owing to its lack of making its contributions to UNESCO — then eventually leaving UNESCO, there to be any significant political impact to UNESCO work? Did other countries step up and sort of fill the vacuum that would normally be occupied by the United States? 

Peter Yeo [00:11:08] The other countries of the world, particularly our friends in Europe, certainly filled the gap in part left by the U.S. departure. It required other countries not only to step up financially, but also to step up in terms of battling back against a series of bad ideas. UNESCO’s resolutions, UNESCO’s programs, were not consistent with our values, were not consistent with Democratic values. 

[00:11:39] So other countries, I think, were quite successful in helping to fill the space left by the U.S. departure. But during this exact same time, we have seen the incredible rise of other actors in U.N. organizations, including in UNESCO, particularly China. China is now the largest national contributor to UNESCO in terms of its assessed dues. It’s not the largest contributor in terms of its voluntary contributions to UNESCO, but it is the largest contributor in terms of assessed contributions. 

[00:12:18] That gives it much more influence over UNESCO’s work. As UNESCO tackles important things like standards on artificial intelligence, freedom of the press, protection of journalism. China has more say than it ever has on UNESCO. This is the time for the U.S. to get back to work with our allies to ensure that UNESCO’s work reflects democratic values and our commitment to the U.N. charter. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:48] So we’re speaking at this unique moment in which not long ago, the United States announced that it would rejoin UNESCO, but the United States has not yet rejoined UNESCO. There are a few steps in that process. But can you just explain to listeners what went into that decision to rejoin UNESCO and what are some of the immediate steps that need to be taken? 

Peter Yeo [00:13:13] The Biden administration, since it came into office, has prioritized rejoining UNESCO, along with rejoining other U.N. agencies or refunding other UN agencies that the Trump administration had pulled out of or defunded. And it wasn’t just UNESCO. There were a few other agencies like the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate Accord, like UNWRA, that the Trump administration had either withdrawn from, thought to withdraw from, or taken away all of the money from. 

[00:13:44] So from the beginning of the Biden administration, they have prioritized this rejoining UNESCO. But there’s been some key Hill allies, Senator Chris Coons, who’s the chairman of the state Foreign Ops Appropriations Subcommittee, who have also prioritized getting the US back into UNESCO. 

[00:14:02] So last year, in the context of the big omnibus spending bill, Congress granted the administration a waiver authority from these 1990 laws to allow the U.S. to rejoin UNESCO’s, but didn’t provide any funding to do that. And so the administration has cobbled together some money that would allow us to pay this year’s bills to UNESCO’s should we succeed in rejoining. And then the Biden administration has submitted a plan to go that would, over time, allow us to pay back the money we owe UNESCO in financial arrears. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:47] These financial arrears accrued when the United States was forced to stop paying UNESCO’s by those 1990 laws but still remained a part of the organization. It just wasn’t paying. 

Peter Yeo [00:14:59] Right. It was a 67 year period where we weren’t paying and now we owe the money. Hindsight’s 2020, maybe the U.S. would have withdrawn sooner and we wouldn’t owe these arrears, but we do. And payment of these arrears or a plan to pay these arrears is important because we need to get our vote back and we need to be in the executive board of our scope and both of this has depended upon on us paying our dues. 

[00:15:29] So UNESCO has called for a general conference at the end of June of UNESCO’s member States to consider the US plan to rejoin in US CO, including the plan to pay back our arrears over time. So that’s another hurdle that has to be cleared before the US could officially rejoin. But my understanding is that the US decision to seek rejoining UNESCO has been very well received in Paris, very well received among UNESCO’s member States. 

[00:16:06] There was wild applause when it was announced, and my sources are telling me that the diplomats who represents their countries in UNESCO very much want to see the US return to go and play an important role not only in financially supporting UNESCO’s work, but also assist with the normative work that UNESCO’s does. The US can play an important role in steering these negotiations, these discussions in a positive direction. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:37] So from UNESCO’s side, you don’t see much of a challenge. That indeed, UNESCO’s will want the United States back in UNESCO for a number of reasons. But the real challenge, if I’m understanding you, is on the American side: finding that money to pay the arrears, which would give the United States more heft, more voice, and possibly even a vote at UNESCO. 

Peter Yeo [00:17:04] Yeah, the biggest challenge at the moment is working with Congress to free up this year’s contribution to UNESCO — that’s currently pending on Capitol Hill — and then work with Congress over time to begin to pay back the arrears while it stays up to date on next year’s dues and the following year’s dues. So it’s an ongoing project working with Congress to make sure the Congress appreciates the value of UNESCO, why we participate. 

[00:17:40] We need to make sure they understand that, in this era of managed competition with China, why leaving UNESCO to other countries — where China has a more important role than ever — is a mistake. It’s important that the West get back to the table. It’s important that the US advance our values together with our allies in our scope. And the only way we can do that is if we pay our dues. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:04] Are you seeing that argument framed around great power competition gaining traction in Congress? I have to imagine there are reluctant members of Congress — probably more on the Republican side than the Democratic side, I would imagine — who might be less willing to want to support the United States rejoining UNESCO and paying its dues. 

[00:18:25] Is it exclusively the great power competition argument that you’re seeing gaining traction on that side of the aisle, or are there other arguments you’re seeing also supporting the cause of rejoining UNESCO? 

Peter Yeo [00:18:39] There are two major streams of arguments that I think are new to the UNESCO debate that are helping to move the needle. Number one, as you noted, is the great power competition. And I think many members of Congress appreciate that US withdrawal from U.N. organizations leaves the playing field to others who do not share our values and who are aggressively trying to run down U.S. influence wherever they can. So US failure to pay our dues, U.S. non membership in UNESCO leaves the playing field to others. That’s a mistake in terms of American interests. 

[00:19:18] Second area that works for UNESCO is looking at ways in which UNESCO is advancing interests that are very similar to American interests. So they’re helping to build rebuild the city of Mosul in Iraq, for instance, which was dominated by ISIL, where they destroyed the most important mosque. The US has a long-term interest in the stability of Iraq, and UNESCO’s is working side-by-side with us to help create that stability. 

[00:19:49] UNESCO is in Ukraine again, working with teachers, working with students, working to make sure that the next generation of Ukrainian kids are going to be educated and are going to be able to become leaders in their own country. They’re not letting the war stop their efforts to work with the Ukrainian government to educate these kids. In fact, they’re stepping into the breach. 

[00:20:15] So those are just a couple of examples where Ukraine and Iraq are core to our interests as Americans and the UNESCO’s working side by side with us. I think those two basket of arguments can really work effectively with members of Congress. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:34] Peter, thank you so much for your time. This is helpful. And, you know, we’ll see how this unfolds in the coming weeks and months for sure. 

Peter Yeo [00:20:41] Thanks for having me, Mark.