US-Israeli withdrawal from UNESCO is a blow to multilateralism

By Sumantra Maitra
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, October 13, 2017
Adjust font size:

Donald Trump's doctrine of withdrawal continued, as the United States decided to pull out of UNESCO, due to past dues, alleged misuse of funds and bias. This is dubbed by pundits, as a further manifestation of Trump's America First principle.

The U.S. helped establish UNESCO, after the Second World War, and withdrew once before, and the irony isn't lost on international commentators. The BBC stated that the reason for Trump to hate UNESCO is quite natural. In any case, the new US administration doesn't like multilateralism much. That has been evident in its handling of climate change and human rights. UNESCO is therefore a predictable target. It deals with heritage sites and women's rights.

This isn't the first time. Ronald Reagan took the U.S. out, saying a similar line that the agency is biased, and in the name of culture and heritage, it spreads Soviet propaganda and bias. George W Bush rejoined as part of diplomatic efforts during the lead up to the Iraq war. Obama cut off its funding as UNESCO accepted Palestine. And finally, Trump took the U.S. out of the organization.

Israel followed soon after. In a tweet Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned that he has ordered his government to follow the U.S. in leading out of the organization. He also said that the decision was brave, and moral. UNESCO chairperson Irina Bokova noted profound regret in the U.S. decision of withdrawal.

However, nothing much on the ground will change. UN agencies reflect their membership, and calls and claims of bias therefore are strange. Yes, it may be biased, but there's no way of proving it. It is like saying the UN General Assembly is against wars and interventions. Well, of course they are as most of the members came out of colonialism in the 1960s, and are naturally opposed to interventionism and fearful of losing sovereignty.

There are however two bigger questions. Overall, this indicates a pattern in the Trump administration. No on in the administration is interested in multilateralism, which has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since 1993. Trump is unwilling to spend extra cash on soft power, or rights promotion, or cultural aspects.

The American administration calculated that regardless of how much they contribute, there is no commensurate benefit. The amount of cash spent on these organizations does not translate to global favor for American policy, in fact it is mostly the reverse. Therefore, the Trump administration calculated that there is no need to carry on such a failed strategy any further.

That is all theoretically good, however, the question remains then who will fill the American leadership role in this organization? Vacuums don't last long. Sooner or later some great power or country needs to rise up to the occasion to step up in the leadership role. During the climate debate we saw first China and then Germany take on the mantle of leadership. What will happen now?

The second question is even more vital. International organizations have no implementation or punitive power. They depend on the whims and good will of great powers. For substantial mutual benefit, powers pull together and have established such a post Second World War order. However, recent global developments raised questions about this order.

If one takes lessons from history, the League of Nations collapsed, simply because great powers just simply moved out of the league and started to pursue their own foreign policy. What is stopping them from doing that now? If tomorrow, for the sake of a hypothetical scenario, a great power decides to leave the Security Council, or General Assembly, and others follow, will the UN crumble like the League of nations did before?

These are important questions to ask. Of course, the UNSC is not the same as UNESCO or UNHRC. The former has a much higher stake in the stability of the globe, and the latter two are constantly accused of partiality. Nonetheless, the undermining of institutions has ramifications in the long term. Most importantly, it leaves other opportune powers to understand that their time probably has arrived for the leadership role. The U.S. and Israeli withdrawal therefore is a deep blow to multilateralism. Whether that's for good or bad, time will tell.

Sumantra Maitra is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

Follow on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
ChinaNews App Download
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from