What is UNESCO – and why did America just pull out of it?

One major reason is "anti-Israel bias."
Publish date:
Updated on

By now you've probably caught the news about the U.S. leaving UNESCO – aka the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

So why is the story making such urgent-sounding headlines – and how big a deal is it?

First, it's worth noting what UNESCO actually is, and what it does. 

In basic terms, the agency promotes "human rights, tolerance and learning throughout the world" through educational and cultural programs. But you probably know it for its maintenance of "World Heritage" sites like Stonehenge and Moscow's Red Square. 

An arm of the U.N., it's made up of 195 member countries and is based in Paris, France. 

Why is the U.S. leaving it?

The U.S. has had various disagreements with the organization over the years, but they came to a head on Thursday when the State Department announced it would be withdrawing membership.

"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO," a news release says.

Breaking that down a bit further, the Washington Post says America owes UNESCO $550 million because we stopped sending our membership dues to the organization in 2011. Cutting off those payments was a protest against the recent "admission of the Palestinian Authority as a full member."

And there lies the crux of the matter – the "anti-Israel bias" the State Department mentioned.

It's basically all related to the complex and long-running conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians (here's a refresher on that if you're interested).

But concerns over this alleged bias have been intensifying lately, because, as the Post points out, UNESCO is gearing up to vote for a new director-general – and the leading candidate is a Qatari diplomat who's said to have a "record of fostering anti-Semitism."

However, the U.S. will remain a "non-member observer state" in the group. 

So what does the withdrawal actually mean?

The decision to pull the U.S. out of UNESCO, which will go into effect Dec. 31, 2018, is largely symbolic.

As Vox points out, the agency does some important work (like promoting women's rights and international Holocaust education), but is more or less toothless when it comes to real geopolitical influence. 

Therefore, Vox says, it's become a "natural venue for countries that want to engage in ideological grandstanding and symbolic protest votes without actually causing too much chaos in the international system."

In other words, this kind of news would be a much bigger deal if America were withdrawing from, say, something as influential as the UN Security Council.

And it's not the first time the U.S. has walked away from UNESCO, either. 

The Reagan Administration pulled out of the agency in 1984 – over concerns about "an ideological tilt toward the Soviet Union" – and the U.S. didn't rejoin until 2002, Foreign Policy says

But the people who work for and run UNESCO will sure notice America's absence – and the lack of American funding.

According to the New York Times, U.S. funding has at times made up a whopping 22 percent of UNESCO's budget.

There's already been one real consequence of the pull-out: Israel has announced it's following America's example and leaving UNESCO as well. 

Next Up