With U.S. Absent, China and Qatar step-in at UNESCO

UNESCO's Declaration of Human Rights, held by Eleanor Roosevelt
UNESCO’s Declaration of Human Rights, held by Eleanor Roosevelt

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, was established over six decades ago to be the public diplomacy organization of the West, countering the influences and false promises of Communism.  Last year, the U.S. cut its funding to UNESCO resulting in a severe budget shortfall and program elimination by the agency.
Defense News reports that immediately after the U.S. cut, China stepped in with “a first-time $8 million funding for the U.N. agency’s education program, while Qatar chipped in $20 million.”

The State Department’s “Smart Power” policy relies on UNESCO as a partner and facilitator for informing, engaging, and empowering people around the world, particularly in difficult places often low on the list of priorities.  Today, UNESCO has a role as an anti-extremist organization through developing civilian capacity and self-governance.  This mission fits in with and compliments the Departments efforts found mostly in the ever-expanding and increasingly central Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

It is unlikely the timing of the Chinese and Qatari contributions are coincidental.  Rather, they are surely taking the opportunity to gain influence with the U.S. withdrawal.  Last month, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice testified to Congress that a “loss of U.S. clout is the price for axing funding.”

Almost exactly sixty-six years ago today, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William Benton also urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee to support the then-proposed international agency.  The State Department was vigorously supporting UNESCO.  Some in the Department even suggested the U.S. should drop the idea of establishing a cultural and affairs office, then being debated, in favor of relying on UNESCO.

At the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Benton presented a statement from Secretary of State James Byrnes that UNESCO was designed to carry out recommendations of the President and others for an agency “for consistent and thorough interchange of thought and ideas.” Benton listed three basic purposes of UNESCO:

  1. Stimulate the use of the media for mass communication to advance mutual knowledge and wide true understanding among the peoples of the world;
  2. Encourage schools and other educational institutions to build “defenses of peace” in the minds of children as well as adults; and,
  3. Cooperate in the growth and sharing of useful knowledge to the peoples of the world may strive together for a better life.

Today, the concept UNESCO appears to have completed a circle, moving away from the radical opposition of the past.  Once again, it is poised to have an important role in the struggle for minds and wills.

But with the U.S. withdrawal, the need to engage and empower people, and build more secure regions, has not gone away.  Neither has the need to have other actors do the work.  Are we safe in the implicit assumption that China and Qatar will support America’s interests?


(Note: a research paper on how UNESCO was transformed from supporting anti-communism to support communism might be interesting for public diplomacy. Did the East “capture” UNESCO due to poor strategy, possibly of focusing on governments rather than people?  Are there lessons to be learned today?)

One thought on “With U.S. Absent, China and Qatar step-in at UNESCO

  1. I think it’s worth adding a bit more context.
    UNESCO emerges from the history of cultural internationalism rather than public diplomacy. As a UN organization UNESCO was supposed to be universal. To the extent that it ever functioned as a ‘public diplomacy organization of the west’ it was because the USSR declined to join until 1954.

    With decolonization UNESCO developed a third world majority which naturally sought to use the organization to advance its own agenda. This led to the withdrawal of the US in 1984, followed by the UK and Singapore in 1985.

    The UK returned to the organization in 1997, the US in 2003 and Singapore in 2007. Among the most significant UNESCO activities of recent years has been the convention on cultural diversity which is often portrayed as a Franco-Canadian effort to counter the influence of US media.

    The current US cut off of funding is as a result of a vote to admit Palestine as a member (107 for, 14 against, 52 abstentions). Interestingly UNESCO hasn’t thrown the US off the management board despite the cut off.

    Given this history what is surprising is the extent that the US has been able to get UNESCO to go along with parts of its agenda not that congress has cut the funding over the Palestine issue. This just appears to be part of a long running story given the membership of the organization

    The question to consider is what are the political benefits of being in UNESCO and having UNESCO fund some US preferred programmes versus the costs of not actively being involved and creating a space for other countries to expand their role in the organization?

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