A pivotal two-day conference is underway in Paris, where the 193 member states of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and scientific branch, are gathering to deliberate over the United States’ bid to return to the organization. The U.S.’s withdrawal occurred a decade ago amidst controversy over Palestine’s inclusion as a member, an action that resulted in funding withdrawal by both the U.S. and Israel.
The sudden U.S. desire to rejoin, announced earlier this month, comes five years after official withdrawal under the Trump administration. U.S. officials cite worries over China filling the vacuum in UNESCO’s policy-making, particularly in critical areas such as global standards for artificial intelligence and technology education. Given no opposition has been voiced, the U.S.’s reentry appears to be a foregone conclusion, with the vote slated for later this week.
Financial dues to UNESCO were discontinued by the U.S. and Israel in 2011 after the controversial vote to accept Palestine as a member. Citing perceived anti-Israel bias and management issues, the Trump administration solidified the withdrawal in 2018. In contrast, the Biden administration has earmarked $150 million in the 2024 budget for UNESCO dues and debt repayments, with plans to continue such payments until the U.S.’s sizable $619 million debt is cleared.
Before its withdrawal, the U.S. was the most substantial contributor to UNESCO’s $534 million yearly budget, providing 22% of total funding. Israel, which accuses the U.N. of anti-Israel bias, remains a critic of the Palestinian efforts to gain U.N. recognition, viewing it as an attempt to sidestep negotiated settlements. This gathering follows an earlier U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in 1984 under Reagan due to concerns about corruption and the agency being used to further Soviet interests, only to rejoin in 2003.