19 June 2019
The United States announced two months ago that it is quitting UNESCO due to the UN world heritage body's 'continuing anti-Israel bias'. Photo: Reuters
The United States announced two months ago that it is quitting UNESCO due to the UN world heritage body's 'continuing anti-Israel bias'. Photo: Reuters

Under Trump, US is well on its way toward ‘unsplendid isolation’

Despite being engulfed by scandals at home, US president Donald Trump hasn’t slowed down the pace in leading his country away from globalization.

In October, the US government announced its decision to quit the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). After the move takes effect on Dec. 31, 2018, Washington will only remain engaged as a non-member observer.

According to the State Department, the official ground for the US withdrawal from UNESCO is that the UN agency unilaterally passed a resolution to accept Palestine as a full member in 2011, a decision that amounted to acknowledging Palestine’s statehood.

Then earlier this year, the UN body again declared the city of Hebron located in the southern West Bank a Palestinian world heritage site regardless of fierce objections from both the US and Israel.

On the surface, it is the “continued anti-Israel bias” adopted by the UNESCO that prompted Washington to quit the organization in support of its ally.

However, perhaps the true reason for the decision could have been that President Trump was trying to demonstrate his resolve to say “no” to the status quo by withdrawing from some “irrelevant” international organizations.

Yet the question is, is UNESCO really an “irrelevant” international body?

Unlike other subsidiary bodies of the United Nations such as UNICEF and UNHCR, the UNESCO has often been at the center of controversies over the years, not least because of the fact that it has to face the constant challenge of handling the sensitive issue of political correctness.

As we all know, one of the major tasks of the UNESCO is to set a benchmark for the historical and cultural value of heritage sites around the world. Yet the problem is, due to historical, ethnic and religious reasons, countries usually have different or sometimes even conflicting interpretations of the cultural value of these sites in order to serve their own political agendas.

As a result, the UNESCO has often found itself caught in the firing line for its decisions.

Over the years, the UNESCO has been fighting a losing battle trying to transcend national influence and establish a set of universal and impartial values over world heritage sites.

If anything, UNESCO’s declaration of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site was just the last straw that prompted the US to quit the UN body.

It is because the bad blood between the US and UNESCO actually dates back to the former Obama administration, which called a halt to its budget contribution to the agency in 2011 as a protest against the latter’s decision to accept Palestine as a full member.

And Hebron is not the only example that exemplifies the predicament that UNESCO has been constantly facing.

For example, in 2008, the UNESCO declared the Preah Vihear temple lying on the border between Thailand and Cambodia a Cambodian world heritage site. The decision immediately sparked a widespread backlash among the Thais, which eventually culminated in a 3-year-long border clashes between the Thai and Cambodian forces. The dispute was eventually taken to the International Court of Justice for settlement.

A few years ago Japan had also taken issue with the UNESCO over its release of some historical documents regarding the Nanjing Massacre in 1937. At one point, Tokyo, too, withheld its budget contribution to the agency in protest against its decision.

As far as the US is concerned, it wasn’t the first time it withdrew from UNESCO.

In 1984, the then President Ronald Reagan also announced an exit from the organization on the grounds that the agency had become too politicized and “pro-Soviet”. It wasn’t until after the September 11 attacks in 2011 that the US rejoined the UN body.

However, even though President Trump has a precedent to go by when it comes to quitting the UNESCO, the current international background against which he made this decision is fundamentally different from the time when Reagan was in office.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration was mounting an all-out strategic offensive against the Soviet Union and working aggressively to extend US commitment to international affairs, whereas the US under President Trump is now in full strategic retreat in pursuit of its “unsplendid isolation”.

No wonder many Chinese academics have mocked that Donald Trump is actually “making China great again” by handing over the world leadership in the age of globalization to Beijing through his isolationist policies.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 7

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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