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US flip-flops on UNESCO raises many questions

By Thorsten J. Pattberg | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-07-05 15:28

File photo of UNESCO logo. [Photo/Agencies]

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has agreed to readmit the United States as a member after its 2017 withdrawal. The US' membership will become official once Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or a designee, formally accepts the invitation, according to White House.

The relationship between the United States and Paris-based UNESCO is marked by a history of denial, withdrawals and re-engagements. Previously the US pulled out of UNESCO in 1984 and rejoined in 2003.

The UNESCO was founded in 1945 as part of the UN's educational, scientific and cultural body in the postwar world. Today, UNESCO has 193 fund-contributing member states, without the United States and Israel.

China's relation with UNESCO has always been good, especially because the UN body promotes all cultures and global peace, and despite the US dominating postwar Europe. Incidentally, the US also thought UNESCO could be used as a tool to hijack "international collaboration in education, science, and culture" — which for Washington means US-led Western education, science, and culture.

Naturally, ideological differences and cultural clashes between the East and the West started to emerge. During the Cold War from 1947 to 1991, UNESCO faced criticism from Washington for allegedly being influenced by Soviet interests.

When it comes to cultures, the US' was a bloody beginner. What today are referred to as Americans did not exist in earnest before the 18th century. When UNESCO adopted the much celebrated Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, the US felt humbled.

While Europe and Asia (including the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia) cherished their ancient civilizations, the American forefathers had, well, demolished the remains of ancient civilizations by massacring the Indigenous people. The Aztec, the Maya, the Inca and the Native Indian civilizations were all gone. No wonder the US has only 24 UNESCO Cultural Heritage sites, while Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Britain — whose combined land area is less than one-fourth of the US' — have more than 230.

In 1984, citing mismanagement and anti-Western bias, the US under the Ronald Reagan administration withdrew from UNESCO. Withdrawal is not the right word, perhaps. The US cannot actually leave the UN because it is the United Nations. So it twisted UNESCO's financial arm until its demands were fully met. Moreover, the Reagan administration had strong reasons to anticipate the US would soon emerge victorious in the Cold War (which it did) and move threateningly closer to Russia and China (which it is doing by extending NATO eastward).

So it thought why give money to your cultural enemies?

After almost a two-decade absence, the US rejoined UNESCO in 2003. The reason for the change of heart was paradoxically exactly the same why it had pulled out of UNESCO in the first place: too much anti-US sentiments at UNESCO.

Since then, Washington has launched military interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria and many other countries. In fact, after the terrorist attacks in the US on Set 11, 2001, Washington decided to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq, and possibly Iran. Financing peaceful UNESCO was seen as a strategic move to convince the world that cultural heritage sites would not suffer damage, and instead would be protected from "Muslim terrorists".

Tensions resurfaced during the Barack Obama administration in 2011 when UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member state, drawing the ire of US lawmakers who prohibited funding any UN organization that granted membership to "Muslim Palestine".

The US and Israel withdrew from UNESCO again in 2018 when Donald Trump was the US president. Incidentally, Trump turned out to be Israel's staunchest supporter. Until 2018, Washington's financial contribution accounted for about 22 percent (about $150 million) of UNESCO's budget. In comparison, in 2020, the US provided $3.5 billion military aid for Israel.

Besides, the US eagerly participated in cultural programs aimed at advancing American values, US-style democracy, media freedom, and safeguarding so-called human rights.

On June 12 this year, the Joe Biden administration informed the UNESCO that the US has officially notified the director-general of the organization about rejoining UNESCO in July 2023. It looks like an ultra-fast, emergency re-admission.

It is not clear at this point if Washington plans to retroactively pay five years of absent financial contributions to UNESCO, or whether extraordinary conditions have to be met for the Empire's return.

The author is a German writer and cultural critic. His latest books include the China Hands Handbook. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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