19 October 2019
The US withdrawal means the UNESCO is going to lose not only one of its most important founding member states, but also billions of dollars in funding. Photo: Reuters
The US withdrawal means the UNESCO is going to lose not only one of its most important founding member states, but also billions of dollars in funding. Photo: Reuters

US withdrawal from UNESCO signals rise of ‘new unilateralism’

During the election campaign last year, Donald Trump promised to put the interests of the American people above everything else in his foreign policy. He also vowed to tear down the current international order where allies have been enjoying a free ride on the US defense and economic train for decades.

Now it has become increasingly apparent that Trump wasn’t just talking tough; he is determined to fulfill his campaign promises.

On Thursday last week, the US government announced its decision to quit the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which will take effect on Dec. 31, 2018.

The US withdrawal means the UN’s world heritage body is going to lose not only one of its most important founding member states, but also billions of dollars in funding.

According to the US State Department, the White House has decided to pull out of the UNESCO because of issues such as overspending, the need for fundamental reform in its organizational structure, and above all, its “continuing anti-Israel bias” over the years.

However, Washington also stressed that it would “remain engaged as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise to UNESCO” after its withdrawal, suggesting that the US is not ready for a full rupture with the organization yet.

It wasn’t the first time the US decided to withdraw from the UNESCO. In 1983, then President Ronald Reagan also decided to quit the organization on the grounds that it had become too politicized and “pro-Soviet”. It wasn’t until after the 911 attacks that Washington rejoined it.

To be fair, Washington’s accusation of “continuing anti-Israel bias” against the UNESCO is not totally unfounded. The UN agency passed a resolution to accept Palestine as a full member in 2011, a decision that amounted to acknowledging Palestine’s statehood, and drew condemnation from both the US and Israel.

Protesting the admission of Palestine as a full member of the UNESCO, the administration of President Barack Obama had called an immediate halt to its budget contribution to the UNESCO.

In our opinion, what is truly concerning about the US withdrawal from the UNESCO is that the decision just signals the beginning of President Trump’s plan to reshape the post-World War II international order by putting an end to the “Pax Americana” paid for by US taxpayers and demanding that western allies start paying their fair share.

It is widely believed that the World Bank is likely next on Trump’s demolition list. Washington is not only fiercely opposing the proposal to increase funding for the institution, but is also urging drastic cutbacks on its aid and cooperation programs for middle-income countries such as China.

Apart from the UNESCO and the World Bank, Trump has also announced that he would not continue to certify the Iran nuclear deal concluded by his predecessor back in 2015 unless Congress agrees to toughen the conditions on Tehran.

Worse still, during his recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump also vowed that if talks among the US, Canada and Mexico over renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) fail, “it would be terminated”, suggesting that he is really serious about his election pledge to pull out of the trade bloc unilaterally unless drastic reforms are carried out.

The fact that Washington is seeking to overturn multilateral agreements and withdraw from international organizations one after the other clearly indicates that the US under the Trump administration is retreating massively into isolationism and unilateralism. Under such a policy, everything, including international cooperation, coexistence and co-prosperity, will be taking a backseat to America’s unilateral interests.

And if things do continue down that path in the days ahead, the rest of the world is likely to witness a radical transformation of Washington’s role in major international bodies such as the UN, the IMF and the WTO, turning from being the leader and team player into the ultimate subverter.

This could only give rise to more power vacuum, controversies and conflicts across the world!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal