The United States Is Rejoining UNESCO

The country’s tumultuous relationship with the organization stretches back 40 years

Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of UNESCO, announcing the United States' request to return to the organization Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images

Late last week, UNESCO voted 132-10 to readmit the United States, which left the organization in 2017.

“It’s a great day for UNESCO and for multilateralism,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, in a statement. “Building upon the momentum achieved in recent years, our organization is once again moving towards universalism with this return of the United States.”

The U.S. announced its departure during the Trump administration, but it had already stopped funding the organization in 2011—the year UNESCO granted Palestine full membership. Laws passed in the ’90s prohibited U.S. participation in any United Nations organizations that recognized Palestine as a full member. As the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger and Scott Sayare reported in 2011, U.S. contributions made up 22 percent of UNESCO’s yearly budget at the time.

The U.S. has left—and rejoined—UNESCO once before. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan claimed that the organization was corrupt and showed bias toward the Soviet Union. Nearly two decades passed before the U.S. rejoined under President George W. Bush in 2003.

A few months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his case to Congress that the country should rejoin once again. The Biden administration earmarked $150 million for the organization and has agreed to make payments toward the more than $600 million of debt it accrued between 2011 and 2017.

Blinken told a Senate committee that the U.S. would rejoin “not as a gift to UNESCO, but because things that are happening at UNESCO actually matter,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). For example, he added, the organization is “working on rules, norms and standards for artificial intelligence. We want to be there.”

While an overwhelming majority of members voted to reinstate the U.S., the ten dissenting votes came from Russia, North Korea, Palestine, Belarus, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua and Syria, reports Matthew Lee of the Associated Press.

“The United States has already withdrawn twice. We're not sure how many more times we're expected to welcome them back,” an unidentified North Korean diplomat tells AFP.

UNESCO was founded alongside its parent organization, the United Nations, in 1945. Based in France, the agency is known for its list of world heritage sites and its initiatives to preserve cultural heritage and historic places around the world. It also works on a slew of other projects related to education, climate change and other subjects.

Across the federal government, U.S. officials voiced their support for the reinstatement. 

“It is so important for us to rejoin, to be part of this very, very important multilateral organization,” Denise Bauer, the U.S. ambassador to France, tells AFP. “We are just incredibly grateful for the leadership that was shown by key members.”

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