The United States is withdrawing from UNESCO, the United Nations agency that promotes education and cultural understanding and names those World Heritage sites you’ve been forced to visit on family vacations. The State Department, making a formal announcement Thursday morning, cited “anti-Israel” bias and financial reasons for its departure from the organization it helped establish after World War II.
The United States said it would formally pull out of UNESCO at the end of 2018, and seek to remain a nonmember observer state. Rex Tillerson had made the decision weeks ago, informing French president Emmanuel Macron during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, reports Foreign Policy. France’s U.N. ambassador encouraged the U.S. to remain part of the global agency this week, but the administration moved ahead despite the objections from close allies.
The Trump administration’s planned departure from UNESCO comes as the president has withdrawn — or threatened to withdraw — from multiple international agreements, including the Paris climate accords. Critics were quick to point out that trend, which is recasting the United States as an increasingly unreliable global partner.
But, despite the current administration’s “America First” track record, the United States has had a bit of a rocky history with UNESCO long predating Trump. President Ronald Reagan broke with the organization in 1984, claiming the agency was succumbing to Soviet influence. The United States only officially rejoined nearly two decades later, in 2002, under George W. Bush, who, at the same time, happened to be selling the U.N. on taking action in Iraq. In 2011, under President Barack Obama, the United States stopped paying its UNESCO membership dues after the body voted to make the Palestinian Authority a full member of the organization. It was a decision the administration was required to make, based on a law, passed in the 1990s, that bars the U.S. from funding any U.N. group that allows for Palestinian membership. Because the U.S. hadn’t been paying its bill — which, as UNESCO’s biggest contributor, was a big one — it lost its voting rights in 2013.
Trump’s withdrawal from UNESCO may deal another blow to America’s soft-power influence — something a president who loves “his generals” and chooses his top diplomat based on height never really a fan of, anyway — but the U.S.’s practical role in the organization has been hamstrung for the past few years. Still, UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said the U.S.’s decision to withdraw was met with “profound regret.”
“At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack,” she said in a statement, where she also listed some UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United States, the Statue of Liberty among them.