Now that President Joe Biden has declared “America is back,” the United States should rejoin one of the most important international organizations that mirror America’s founding vision for the world: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
When Congress authorized President Harry Truman to accept the membership in 1946, he announced that the United States would “work with and through UNESCO to the end that the minds of all people may be freed from ignorance, prejudice, suspicion and fear, and that men may be educated for justice, liberty and peace.”
In light of Truman’s declaration, it is hard to believe how tumultuous and bumpy the American journey has turned out to be with the UN agency.
The United States withdrew from the Paris-based organization twice. The first time was in 1984. That’s when President Ronald Reagan accused UNESCO of corruption and ideological favoring of the Soviet Union through “extraneous politicization” and “endemic hostility toward the institutions of a free society.”
It was not until 2002 that the United States under President George W. Bush rejoined UNESCO in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That was most likely an attempt to repair America’s international image.
The second time the United States withdrew from UNESCO was in 2017 under President Donald Trump, who accused the organization of an anti-Israel bias. Indeed, Washington had already stopped paying its membership dues in protest of the elevation of Palestine to membership status back in 2011 under President Barack Obama.
If the Biden administration intends to promote and protect democratic peace when autocratic rulers emerge around the world to undermine the essence of scientific and cultural education, then the United States must return to provide global leadership. Otherwise, autocratic regimes and ideological forces will continue to fill the American leadership vacuum in international organizations.
UNESCO is meant to be the most apolitical and democratic of all UN bodies. Unlike in the United Nations, where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council run the show, each member of UNESCO—regardless of its size or power—gets only one vote. UNESCO aims at building global peace and enhancing international dialogue through the means which its abbreviation stands for: Education, Science, and Culture. These are the cogs of the perpetual motion machine in the American-led international system.
A perpetual motion machine–also known as Perpetuum Mobile in Latin–is a self-propelled machine, which can work independently and infinitely. Physicists know that it is impossible to construct such an autonomous mechanism, as it violates the most basic laws of thermodynamics. However, perpetual motion is something that may exist in an intangible dimension by driving culture, education, and science that govern human affairs.
Culture is a way of life; these are the values and ideals which motivate all actions. Democratic values and ideals–equality, freedom, justice, tolerance–should therefore shape and be implemented through education. It was most accurately described by the leading American delegate and future US Senator William Fulbright who at the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) in 1944 argued that international efforts in education should be able to “do more in the long run for peace than any number of trade treaties.” In essence, without education, there is no science—and no trust in science.
Connecting and enclosing the perpetual circle, it is science that can shape a country’s culture—including its beliefs and mindsets. Undermining science at the expense of superstitions and irrational beliefs can have consequences as deadly as terrorist acts, wars, and pandemics. This was best proven during the coronavirus pandemic when many people rejected scientific findings in favor of conspiracy theories. It was a time when egoism and ignorance triumphed, as many refused to safeguard public health and follow safety requirements such as wearing masks in accordance with the pathologically misunderstood concept of individual freedom; thus, putting in danger both themselves and everyone around.
Whether or not the United States should rejoin UNESCO does not remain open to question. However, if it was that easy, then Biden would have used the power of his pen to rejoin UNESCO several months ago. In fact, it is the Congress that needs to authorize the president to rejoin the organization with the power of budgetary appropriation.
The politics of a slow legislative process works against American interests. With every missing day and missing dollar of membership dues, unpaid over the past ten years, the financial and political gap left by the United States has been filled by its biggest competitor: China.
Following its water and rock doctrine, China has realized that the road to global domination does not lead solely through aircraft carriers and missiles. Instead, the Communist Party of China has also embedded successful strategies to win the hearts and minds of common people, entrusted governments and elites of even the smallest countries, and placed Chinese nationals in “top leadership positions” in international organizations.
Recently, the Chinese strategies have become more apparent thanks to Beijing’s influence on the World Health Organization (WHO) which, throughout the global struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, has exhibited a distinctively pro-Chinese attitude. Indeed, WHO kept the support of Beijing’s claims about the lack of clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of a new virus until Jan. 20, 2020. According to the Taiwanese authorities, WHO ignored warnings issued as early as Dec. 31, 2019, by Taiwan–a de facto independent nation of 23 million people which, due to Beijing’s global imposition of the One China policy, is excluded from WHO.
In summer 2020, Beijing celebrated the triumph of a Cuba-drafted but China-piloted resolution on Hong Kong in the UN Human Rights Council. The Cuban resolution which supported Beijing received double the number of votes cast for the one issued by the United Kingdom which condemned actions by Beijing over concerns about the “erosion of the rights and freedoms” of the Hong Kong people.
These two examples illustrate how China has been strategically and patiently gaining more and more influence on the global order—including international norms and values, standards, and practices.
If Biden expects American values and democratic ideals to prevail, then the United States needs to support cultural, educational, and scientific progress with the American spirit. Washington should make certain that the perpetual motion of culture, education, and science will not be affected by those authoritarian forces which, drop by drop, keep removing the form and shape of the bedrock of democratic values and ideals enshrined in the American foundation.
Patrick Mendis, a former commissioner of the US National Commission for UNESCO at the State Department, is a distinguished visiting professor of culture and diplomacy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.
Antonina Luszczykiewicz, an assistant professor of cultural studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—Poland, is a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica in Taipei. Both served as Taiwan fellows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China. The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of their current or past affiliations nor governments.