top of page

US Withdrawal from UNESCO and Implications for the Art/Cultural World

After years of staggering relations, the United States formally announced its break from UNESCO earlier in October. The decision is expected to take effect by the end of 2018, when the country will continue to participate in the organization as a nonmember observer. The Trump administration has met with mounting criticism for its decision to withdraw from the world’s most prominent cultural organization. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s current director general, expressed regret over the decision and stressed universality as the key to UNESCO’s mission. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also issued a statement from its president, Daniel H. Weiss, in response to the event. “President Trump’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO,” Weiss wrote, “undermines the historic role of the United States as a leader in this effort [to support the world’s artistic traditions] and weakens our position as a strong advocate for cultural preservation.”

UNESCO Director, Irina Bokova © Pedro França

While Weiss’ statement may demonstrate the cultural sector’s shock and anger, U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO has not come as a surprise. The Reagan administration withdrew from UNESCO amid the Cold War in 1984 over what it believed to be a pro-Moscow tendency and anti-Israel bias. Although the country rejoined in 2002 under President George W. Bush, relations deteriorated again when Palestine was recognized as a member in 2011. The United States had to cut its funding for the organization, representing 22% of UNESCO’s entire budget at the time, in compliance with an outdated 1990s law that forbids US funding for any U.N. agency with Palestine as a member. Funding was not restored despite the Obama administration’s efforts to persuade a Republican-led congress. As a result, the United States has accumulated a large sum of dues with the organization and lost its voting rights in UNESCO’s main decision-making body, the General Conference, as of 2013.

The United States cited three main reasons for its decision to withdraw, including UNESCO’s growing “anti-Israeli” bias, the need for reforms within the agency, and its own escalating arears. Among the three, the media refers most frequently to UNESCO’s antiIsraeli stand and its recent decision to announce the ancient core of Hebron a “Palestinian World Heritage Site” as the major cause for U.S. withdrawal. The contentious area in historic Hebron is home to a holy site for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike – an ancient shrine known as the Cave of the Patriarchs to the Jewish world and the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims. Hebron is under Palestinian administration according to the Oslo peace accords, but the Israeli military currently occupies the historic center. The UNESCO decision places Hebron on its list of endangered heritage sites, controversially downplaying Jewish connections to the site and arousing discontent within Israel.

Despite expressions of disappointment and concern over the withdrawal, the event is expected to have little immediate effect on museums and cultural organizations in the United States. American institutions will remain subject to UNESCO conventions that regulate the preservation of cultural heritage, including the 1970 treaty on illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Notably, the 1970 treaty prevents institutions from acquiring artifacts exported out of its country of origin after the 1970s. Since its creation, the convention oversaw a number of restitution cases that led to the returning of looted artifacts from American museums. U.S. withdrawal will also have a limited impact on decision-making and budgeting within UNESCO as the country has already lost its voting power and has not provided funding since 2011.

While the U.S. cultural sector foresees few practical impacts, the symbolic effect of the event should not be underestimated. The country’s withdrawal from UNESCO signals a decline in support for multilateral forums of cultural exchange, sending an alarming message to those already concerned over its growing isolationism. US museums have also voiced concerns over the loss of opportunities to engage in conversation with institutions overseas. Maxwell Anderson, former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, states that UNESCO “is the only world body to foster dialogue on matters of substantial interest to the museum establishment.” U.S. cultural institutions will likely have a smaller voice in such dialogues as the United States becomes a nonmember observer.

The decision also came at a moment of uncertainty for UNESCO. The organization’s financial management has been under criticism as members grow concerned over high costs generated at its Parisian headquarter. Moreover, the U.K., Japan and Brazil have failed to pay dues to the organization in 2017 for varying reasons. On top of its questionable financial situation, UNESCO is currently undergoing a change of leadership. Its newly elected director general, Audrey Azoulay of France, inherits the organization at a moment of escalating challenges. The United States ironically asserted an influence over Azoulay’s election, which took place days after its announcement of withdrawal, as it remained a member of UNESCO’s executive committee until the decision takes full effect in 2018. It seems that the grandiose goal stated in UNESCO’s founding constitution is now more relevant than ever: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”


Recent Posts
bottom of page