“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
So begins the preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They were words written in 1945 by the American poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, who served on the organization’s governing board at its founding at the end of World War II. With the recent announcement by President Donald Trump of the United States’ intention to withdraw from membership in the organization, Americans will lose a voice at an important venue for bettering lives all over the globe and for securing our vital national interests.
UNESCO’s notable accomplishments over the years are numerous, including international collaborations that led to the creation of the modern internet as well as early-warning systems for hurricanes and tsunamis. Perhaps UNESCO’s best-known role today is as administrator of the World Heritage Sites, including the Alamo, which received this honor along with four other San Antonio Spanish missions in 2015.
In recent years UNESCO also has spearheaded a creative cities network encouraging international collaboration in fields such as crafts and folk art, design and film. Austin was named one such creative city (in media arts), one of only six cities in the United States carrying that designation.
This past August, I had the opportunity to visit UNESCO headquarters in France with a group of undergraduate students from The University of Texas at Austin. The Paris-based headquarters is an imposing edifice, a monument to mid-20th century optimism surrounding the U.N.’s mission and filled with artwork designed to inspire hope for cross-cultural dialogue. Today, however, the office building looks a bit worn and in need of refurbishment.
UNESCO has suffered budget shortfalls ever since 2011, when the U.S. stopped paying $70 million in annual dues (22 percent of the organization’s total revenue) in response to the organization’s admittance of Palestine as a full member. UNESCO critics, including the Trump administration, have claimed this vote as a confirmation of the organization’s anti-Israel bias. But with 195 member states, UNESCO cannot be controlled by any faction. Furthermore, the American decision to withdraw, along with Israel, only means that we will have even less ability to register dissent in this international forum.
This is not the first time the U.S. and UNESCO have been at odds. We left the organization in the 1980s after it accused Western media companies of cultural imperialism, and the U.S. did not rejoin the group until 2003. With a preponderance of both hard and soft power in the world at the end of the Cold War, we may not have felt the loss of their participation in UNESCO during those years. But today is different. As global power becomes more diffused, the U.S. must work with others if it hopes to achieve its strategic interests abroad. The organization’s efforts include good governance initiatives in Iraq and literacy programs in Afghanistan, critical missions that support key American objectives in the region.
Despite America’s failure to pay its dues over the past several years, UNESCO has continued to solicit our participation in the organization, re-electing the country to its executive board in 2015. That position will be untenable after 2018, when the United States becomes a mere “non-member observer.”
The international community continues to look to the U.S. for leadership on many issues including human rights and global development. Yet the Trump administration seems convinced that it can address these challenges on its own terms, and it questions the necessity and even the validity of our current international partnerships.
Our strategic interests will be hurt, not helped, by the country’s withdrawal from UNESCO. And the tough but noble project of constructing the defenses of peace in the minds of humankind has just become that much tougher.
Michael R. Anderson is the director of the International Relations and Global Studies program at The University of Texas at Austin, and he is a board member of the Austin chapter of the United Nations Association.