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US leaving UNESCO is a truly bad idea

As Published in The Hill - 11.17.2017

In Independence Hall — one of the few UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United States — our nation’s founders laid out a vision that protected human rights, the rule of law, education and culture.

U.S. leaders again championed these values in 1945, when UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, was created to foster dialogues and bridge inherently conflicting human perspectives. They did this because they understood that elevating human dignity and promoting development work aligned with U.S. interests around the world.

The truth is that the U.S. needs UNESCO more than UNESCO needs the United States.

That sad truth — and not the rhetoric clouding the issue — makes the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw from the UNESCO strategically baffling. As with the Paris climate accords and other multinational agreements, by leaving the stage the U.S. is allowing other nations to have a greater influence in shaping the world’s future.

The United States, its institutions, its businesses, its military, its universities and its allies all benefit from a more literate and educated world. Better-educated populations create states that are more stable, economies that are more productive and companies that are more robust trading partners.

So why is our government severing an already strained relationship with a global agency where the U.S. can deploy its soft power?

The flashpoint for more than a decade has been Israel. In UNESCO, even though the U.S. and the majority of its members have usually been on the same side, when it comes to Israel and some other hot-button political issues, the majority of UNESCO member nations and the U.S. have sometimes found themselves on opposite sides.

Because UNESCO — as the U.S. insisted at its founding — is a fully democratic body that gives each member nation a single vote, the majority truly does rule. As in any democratic system, disagreeing with the majority is rarely a good reason to disengage.

In the U.S., politicians and the press often present the UN and its specialized agencies like UNESCO as a huge beneficiary of U.S. largesse. Indeed, the U.S. pays the largest percentage of any country that supports UN regular budgets, about 22 percent, a percentage calculated based our share of the entire global economy. This was deemed fair by the US.. when the UN supported key American policy goals, such as the U.S. efforts in the Korean War, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in a whole host of other issues, depending on U.S. interests.

But it’s crucial to remember that largest part of UNESCO’s budget is spent on education initiatives in developing countries. And in those areas — such as efforts related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals — we share views with the vast majority of member nations. This includes school-based health programs in the Andes, mobile phones to support student learning in South Africa, saving cultural heritage in Timbuktu, and promoting women’s literacy in Afghanistan.

The U.S. State Department has also decried UNESCO’s finances, which is truly ironic. The U.S. hasn’t paid its UNESCO dues over nearly a decade, and our nation’s tab is now more than $500 million. The only way for UNESCO to improve its finances is for the U.S. to begin paying what it had already agreed to pay.

But the people who need UNESCO the most — people living on the equivalent of $2 a-day, especially women and children, refugees and migrants — will suffer because of U.S. political grandstanding. This suffering contributes to a less secure and prosperous global community, and undermines U.S. foreign policy.

In a complex world with multiple and often competing political narratives, the U.S. needs to be able to advance its views on freedom, justice, sustainability and numerous other core values. Just this week, Audrey Azoulay takes the reins as the new UNESCO director-general. Azoulay is a French citizen of Jewish heritage, and she is supported by Israel.

Soft power is one of our most potent forces, which is why the U.S. needs to re-engage with UNESCO as soon as possible.

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