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The US flip -flop on UNESCO

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Earlier this month, Richard Verma, the former ambassador of USA to India, and now a Deputy Secretary in the US State Department submitted a letter the UNESCO director general, Audrey Azoulay, formalising the Biden administration’s plan to re-join the oldest intergovernmental body of the UN for the second time. It bears recall  that the US flip flop on UNESCO began in 1984 when President Ronald Regan quit the organization to protest ‘poor management and values opposed to our own’. After nearly two-decade George Bush announced a return to UNESCO, praising reforms to the management structure and the group’s renewed dedication to the values of press freedom and universal education. This was the time when the US wanted to friends and allies in its war against Iraq. Although under the Clinton regime, the US did not quit the UNESCO in 2011 on the issue of admission of Palestine as a member country, the funding to UNESCO was cut down substantially and the level of representation was lowered. In 2017, President Trump withdrew his country from UNESCO altogether citing ‘extreme politicisation as a chronic embarrassment’.

Understandably, the director general and most member nations applauded the return of the US, which will also ensure that the organization gets more political and financial muscle. Probably the US too realised that its absence from UNESCO had strengthened China, deeply affected the ability of the US as an effective instrument in promoting its vision of a free world”. This became even more significant in the context of shaping standards for technology, pedagogy for education, norms for selection of ‘cultural and heritage sites’, and it could no longer afford to lose out on the digital age competition with China. Incidentally, Israel too may reconsider its decision to pull out of UNESCO in a haste.

However, the Chinese foreign ministry has reacted with a caustic remark that the ‘U.S. should demonstrate its sincerity to abide by international rules and respect the international rule of law, and only by doing so will it win the trust of the international community’, and gain the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) members before its return.

The implications are clear. In a multipolar world, no one country – whether it be the US or Russia or China can afford to ‘walk alone’. Second, when intergovernmental agencies like the UNESCO and UNICEF (as illustrative examples) are able to connect directly with citizens and communities beyond the state apparatus, raise resources through public subscriptions and establish a direct connect with the stakeholders, governments have to follow suit. Third, it shows that decisions taken in a haste without bipartisan consensus do not truly reflect ‘national will’ with regard to the commitment and involvement in multilateral fora. Any attempt to play ‘dog- in- the -manger’ will be rebuffed. And to re-join, the recalcitrant nation will have to pay back dues, even for years that it missed out on its participation.

When you join a club, you better follow the rules and avoid the flip-flops.