Biden Should Rejoin UNESCO—but Not Without Getting Something in Return

If it comes back, the United States can push the organization to focus more on initiatives that further the country’s foreign-policy goals.

The UNESCO logo is seen at the organization’s headquarters in Paris on Oct. 12, 2017.
The UNESCO logo is seen at the organization’s headquarters in Paris on Oct. 12, 2017. Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

When U.S. President Donald Trump took the United States out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017, it seemed part and parcel of his determination that the United States would do better on its own. It has not. Meanwhile, China has filled the gap left by the U.S. absence in UNESCO, which is the leading U.N. agency for international goals on education. Understanding all this, the new Biden administration should work quickly to rejoin.

However, in return for U.S. participation, President Joe Biden’s team should push for a focused relationship with UNESCO, building on its comparative advantages in the development space. This will require a relationship centered on education, including digital education and information literacy, to push back against autocratic trends in the developing world. In that way, U.S. membership in UNESCO will both revitalize the organization and offer the United States an opportunity to advance Western values of free, open, and pluralistic education systems.

Since the United States left UNESCO, China has been making a pitch to move the organization’s International Bureau of Education from Geneva to Shanghai. That may seem unremarkable, but this small subsidiary office supports governments in crafting curricula for classrooms across the developing world. And the proposed move is just the latest in a number of maneuvers to bend UNESCO to China’s interests, including the unsuccessful nomination of Qian Tang, a Chinese national and UNESCO assistant director-general, for the post of director-general; the signing of a memorandum of understanding for cooperation between UNESCO and China’s Belt and Road Initiative; a Africa-China joint declaration on heritage protection for monitoring of heritage sites; a partnership between UNESCO and the Chinese tech giant Huawei for development in Central America; and a proliferation of heritage sites designations to distract from the environmental and social degradations of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is interested in UNESCO for the same reasons that it is interested in other U.N. agencies: power and influence in the multilateral system.

The fact that it has made so much progress comes down to the United States’ absence. The 2017 U.S. withdrawal came after the country had accumulated arrears of $500 million in back dues over six years. In explaining its decision, the U.S. State Department cited the agency’s “anti-Israel bias” including allowing Palestine to join UNESCO in 2011. While the move fit within Trump’s broader foreign-policy agenda, his was not the first administration to take this stance. In 1983, the State Department surveyed 96 international organizations and identified UNESCO as the most “contentious” toward U.S. interests. The result, just like in 2017, was a decision to depart.

In the 1980s, in the waning days of the Cold War, the United States’ exit was controversial and dramatic. It followed Joseph McCarthy-era investigations of American staff at the organization by their own government. In 2017, by contrast, the stakes around the U.S. departure may have felt quite low because of limited visibility about China’s expanding interests and the scant evidence to support claims of anti-Israel bias. In actuality, though, the ramification may have been greater than in 1984. These days, China’s expanding influence in the organization has implications for global rule-setting around infrastructure and development. And the United States needs to pay attention.

After the United States’ first departure from UNESCO in the 1980s, U.S. President George W. Bush rejoined in 2003, following internal advocacy and alignment between UNESCO and the administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. In his announcement, Bush recognized the organization’s significant reform, including new transparency around hiring practices and 25 percent reductions in staff.

Likewise, current UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay has laid out a “strategic transformation” platform to improve the organization’s efficiency. She has also tackled (real and perceived) anti-Israel bias through a new consensus mechanism and resources on anti-Semitism in schools. Already, UNESCO leads on the sustainable development goal on education and is the only U.N. agency with a mandate for work on secondary education. UNESCO’s Futures of Education commission is the center of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on the education sector, bringing together the education ministers from around the globe. Other educational initiatives include journalist training and investments in information literacy that can help push back on misinformation. UNESCO is also leading discussions on international standards for artificial intelligence.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to reengage UNESCO through precise investments in education activities, especially those programs that directly support U.S. strategic objectives to limit the spread of authoritarianism in the developing world. Rejoining will require both executive and congressional action. When rejoining UNESCO the last time, Congress offered $75 million in budgetary support, far less than the government actually owed under the terms of its membership. These back payments of membership dues provided sufficient leverage for Congress to require an audit by the State Department Office of Inspector General of UNESCO practices, including staff qualifications, hiring, and expenditures related to U.S. priorities.

Today, the United States is also in a strong bargaining position when it comes to reentry; UNESCO’s strategic reform agenda and its attention to ending its anti-Israel biases signal the importance it places on drawing the United States back in. Washington has an opportunity to negotiate the terms of its membership to include a decrease in dues from 22 percent of the organization budget to 15 percent, a decrease in payment of residual arrears, and an annual audit process to measure progress on the organization’s strategic transformation. A political statement of intent to rejoin would provide the overhead to work with UNESCO on this rebalancing, to which it is likely to be amenable.

During negotiations the United States should also push for placing Americans in a position of leadership and as junior professional officers throughout the organization. At home, the U.S. government should consider shifting UNESCO affairs from the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs to a representational coalition made up of USAID, the Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution, the Peace Corps, and the Office of the First Lady.

These changes have the potential to shift the benefits of membership domestically in support of the American middle class and train the organization’s focus on tasks like getting kids back in school and grappling with the United States’ own difficult history. On the latter point, UNESCOs “intangible heritage” lists recognize non-location-specific cultural practices. Potential designation of intangible heritage in the United States could offer an entry point for healing. Examples might be the collective languages or cultural practices of indigenous people in the American West or African American musical storytelling in the antebellum South.

Finally, in addition to education-related activities, Washington should also work to build a member state coalition within UNESCO to promote accountability and environmental compliance for formal UNESCO World Heritage sites. Currently, China has undercut the designation by treating it as a branding tool to provide credibility to Belt and Road Initiative projects. One example of many is the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in Bangladesh that has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1997 but is now struggling with the pollution created by a nearby Belt and Road power plant.

In a 1944 meeting, the U.S. mission, led by future congressman J. William Fulbright, pushed the future UNESCO organization to focus on peace, security, and education, which would allow it to “do more in the long run for peace than any number of trade treaties.” Perhaps now, in a moment when nationalism and authoritarianism threaten international stability, the United States can help UNESCO reinvigorate that approach.

UNESCO may not be the household name that the World Health Organization or Paris climate agreement have become, but it is no less critical. And it tells us much of what we need to know about the broader world order: The United States has departed, China is busy asserting its strategic influence, and global alliances hang in the balance. But so too can UNESCO help us measure the progress and recommitment of the United States going forward. For that reason, Biden cannot overlook it.

Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Her views are not representative of her home institution.