The United States Must Rejoin UNESCO to Compete with China
Beijing has taken advantage of America’s absence to push forward its foreign policy agenda. It’s time for Washington to fight back.
As the eyes of the world are focused on the Russian war in Ukraine, the United States has launched a silent war over international organizations to compete with China. The first battle over the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has just begun.
With bipartisan support, the U.S. Congress passed a $1.7 trillion federal spending bill in December 2022. It includes a waiver that opens the door for the Biden White House to rejoin UNESCO. The “waiver authority” makes it crystal clear that the goal of reentry into the Paris-based UN agency is “to counter Chinese influence or to promote other national interests of the United States.”
Under President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, Washington disregarded active participation in international organizations—including the United Nations and many of its agencies. Under President Joe Biden, “America is back” and it seeks to repair its “tarnished image” and regain leadership in international organizations.
Timing is of the Essence
The Trump White House withdrew from UNESCO in December 2018 on the basis that there was a need for fundamental reforms in the organization. Trump also accused UNESCO of continuing anti-Israel bias.
This is not completely incorrect; however, one may generally assume it as the reason. In fact, the United States stopped paying membership dues back in 2011 when UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member. According to legislation passed by Congress in 1990, the Bill Clinton administration prevented it from funding any part of the UN system that grants Palestine the same standing as UN member states. After it stopped paying dues—22 percent of the UNESCO annual budget—the United States lost its voting rights.
China quickly filled this vacuum. Beijing has become the largest contributor to UNESCO’s regular budget, signed a wide range of China-UN bilateral agreements, and appointed a Chinese national as the deputy director general of UNESCO. Beijing has also managed to establish fifty-six World Heritage Sites, making China the second largest host after Italy.
The UN agency is treated by Beijing as a “strategic partner” to support the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, promote the Belt and Road Initiative, and strengthen “multilateralism.” This partnership has indeed increased China’s global prestige as the leader in fulfilling UNESCO’s mission of supporting education, science, and culture.
In the absence of the United States, policymakers in Washington have finally realized that Beijing’s relatively low-cost, but high-impact investment in UNESCO has quietly and successfully been courting the hearts and minds of the global citizenry.
History Repeats Itself?
This is not the first time America has pulled out of UNESCO. The first time the United States withdrew from the agency was under President Ronald Reagan in December 1984. Reagan viewed the agency as “mismanaged, corrupt, and used to advance Soviet interests.”
Nearly two decades later in October 2003, the United States returned to UNESCO under President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. Bush argued that America is back as a symbol of its “commitment to human dignity” and that “this organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning.” Nevertheless, some claimed that it coincided with the eve of the Iraq invasion to gain the support and goodwill of the international community for Washington and its “Global War on Terror.”
With Biden, history seems to be repeating itself. The congressional waiver passed in December 2022 allows the United States to return to UNESCO with the payment of $616 million past dues since 2011. With this, Washington is setting the stage to respond to China’s growing but silent influence in international organizations. Consequently, this would also position it to respond to Russia’s destructive war against the Ukrainian people and their heritage.
Ukraine and Russia
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces have either damaged or destroyed nearly 250 historic sites, as verified by UNESCO. These include 106 religious places, eighteen museums, eighty-six buildings of artistic value, nineteen monuments, and twelve libraries—all of which are covered by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
In the absence of the U.S. leadership at UNESCO, Russia continues to destroy the “cultural identity” of Ukraine and its people with impunity. Ukraine is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites that must be protected and preserved. If not, Russia may be successful in erasing the historical identity of the Ukrainian people and replacing it with President Vladimir Putin’s personal narrative of Russia’s cultural superiority and centuries-long hegemony over Ukraine.
Through its global platform, UNESCO has supported 15,000 school psychologists to improve the mental health of Ukrainian students. UNESCO has also facilitated more than 50,000 Ukrainian teachers to receive Chromebooks to ensure the continuity of learning amid the war. In cooperation with other organizations and UN agencies, UNESCO mobilized the cash transfer of emergency grants to 160 media journalists so they could continue their work in war zones.
As the United States leads the way for a potential war crimes case against Russia at the International Criminal Court in the Hague—even though the United States itself does not recognize the jurisdiction of that legal body—Washington’s leadership at UNESCO is vital. It is not only to support the endeavors of UNESCO but also to use the UN assessments of Ukraine’s damaged and destroyed cultural sites as evidence of war crimes and other atrocities committed by Putin and his Russian forces.
Lessons for Taiwan
China’s alliance with a revanchist Russia—the two countries signed a strategic “no-limit” pact with China in February 2022, shortly before the invasion of Ukraine began—and Beijing’s implicit support for Moscow have drawn greater focus on China’s own hostility towards Taiwan. As China tries to isolate the so-called “renegade province” of Taiwan in international organizations, the Biden administration is now explicitly committed to supporting Taiwan in global diplomacy.
The case of Palestine in the United Nations provides some lessons for Taiwan, despite the fact that the United States opposed Palestine’s accession to UNESCO.
The Palestine authorities carried out a diplomatic campaign—known as “Palestine 194”—to gain international recognition of the State of Palestine and to obtain membership in the UN as its 194th member. The campaign ended with a success in UNESCO—when Palestine became a full member in 2011—and a partial success at the UN General Assembly, which adopted a resolution granting Palestine the status of non-member “observer state” in 2012.
Under Beijing’s pressure, Taiwan (the Republic of China, or ROC) has been excluded from the UN and its specialized agencies—such as UNESCO—for more than fifty years. However, the ROC Ministry of Culture has identified a list of potential UNESCO sites, which demonstrates that democratic Taiwan wishes to rejoin UNESCO.
Nevertheless, by blocking Taiwan’s participation in UNESCO and other agencies of the United Nations, Beijing has denied Taiwan’s 23 million people real representation in the UN community.
China’s Battle over Minds
Barring Taiwan from any form of participation in international organizations—be it full membership or observer status—has been part of China’s grand strategy to exercise “non-military coercion.” Beijing’s highly calculated scheme is to take control over international organizations and, consequently, modify the international governance system from the inside.
The Beijing strategy includes placing Chinese nationals in senior ranks across UN programs and funds, its principal organs, and other UN-affiliated international organizations. The success of Beijing’s strategy is also illustrated by the placement of over 1,300 Chinese nationals among the regular staff of the United Nations as of 2019.
Beijing has not only been accused of exercising power in placing Chinese nationals in international organizations but also of promoting non-Chinese who are supportive of the Beijing agenda. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, many world leaders have come to believe that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general—an Ethiopian national—has been an outspoken advocate for the Chinese government’s coronavirus response. The WHO director-general essentially ignored the controversies regarding China’s efforts to manage the spread of the virus and its lack of data transparency.
The growing influence of China in international organizations has long-term consequences. Beijing’s silent support for Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine proves that Beijing’s views on the rule of law and international order are very different from those held by the United States, the European Union, and other like-minded democratic nations.
If China Dominates the World
A long list of China’s human rights violations in recent years suggests that if China dictates the world order through international organizations, the global community will pay less attention to human rights and democratic values. Without the United States in UNESCO, China has had a free hand to promote its own vision of governance for a “new era” of “global ascendancy.” Beijing’s circulation of the belief of the moral decay and technological decline of the West is evidence of China’s power of its wolf warrior diplomacy.
In his speech at the Paris headquarters in March 2014, President Xi Jinping invoked the preamble to the UNESCO Charter to highlight that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” While advocating Xi’s “Xiplomacy” agenda on peace and development, China’s information warfare and wolf warrior diplomacy are designed to reorient the global mindset against democratic values and American leadership.