Biden Administration's Strategic Move to Reestablish Alliances and Safeguard Global Heritage
The United States has announced its intention to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in July 2023, almost six years after its withdrawal under the Trump administration. The decision was announced by UNESCO’s Director General, Audrey Azoulay, and was met with widespread approval from the organization’s 193 member states. The US’s reentry is contingent on a concrete financing plan, which is yet to be approved by the General Conference of UNESCO Member States.
UNESCO, based in Paris, is a global organization responsible for various international and multilateral cultural initiatives, including the protection of 1,157 World Heritage Sites. The US’s decision to rejoin comes as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to rebuild alliances with international organizations and counter the growing influence of China within UNESCO.
The US initially withdrew from UNESCO in 2017, primarily due to political tensions related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the Biden administration grew concerned about China’s increasing influence on UNESCO’s policy agenda in the absence of the US. Since the US’s withdrawal, China has become the largest contributor to UNESCO’s annual budget and has seen 56 of its heritage sites gain protection from the World Heritage Committee.
The Biden administration views the rejoining of UNESCO as a significant political and diplomatic victory. The move was made possible by a $1.7 trillion federal spending bill passed in December 2022, which included a provision for the US to reengage with UNESCO to counter Chinese influence. The bill allocated over $600 million to pay UNESCO in arrears, allowing the US to return as a full member without delay.
The reentry of the US is expected to provide a financial boost to UNESCO, which operates on an annual budget of $534 million. Prior to its withdrawal, the US contributed approximately $80 million per year to the organization. The US’s relationship with UNESCO had been strained since 2011, when Palestine was admitted as a full member, leading to the US withholding its funding due to legislation passed by the US congress in 1990.