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Biden’s foolish rush to rejoin UNESCO has nothing to do with China

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Demonstrating yet again that it’s little more than Barack Obama’s third term, the Biden White House is once more pressing to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This ill-advised gambit will cost about $600 million, apparently just a rounding error for the administration’s budgeteers.

Ronald Reagan rightly withdrew the United States in 1983, citing UNESCO’s highly politicized hostility to freedom of the press and general anti-Americanism; pervasive antisemitism and anti-Israel biases; and utter lack of program and budget discipline.

UNESCO’s US supporters, almost all on the political left, launched a series of unsuccessful efforts to rejoin, repeatedly seeking a new pretext to end the horror of being outside a multilateral organization, no matter how failed and irreparable.


G7 leaders pose for the family photo at the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO world heritage site, during the G7 Summit on May 19, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan.
Getty Images

Unfortunately, they persuaded President George W. Bush to return, ostensibly to mitigate the bad press he received for conducting a “unilateralist” foreign policy. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.

With the unwitting Americans seduced back in, UNESCO’s true political agenda emerged under the Obama administration’s welcoming gaze.

In 2011, continuing its decades-long campaign to demonstrate international “statehood” by obtaining membership in UN bodies, the Palestinian Authority, heir to the Palestine Liberation Organization, applied to join UNESCO.

Obama’s support for Palestinian causes so weakened the US position that the PA/PLO’s illegitimate campaign succeeded.


Joe Biden and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the G7 Leaders' Summit.
Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the G7 Leaders’ Summit. Topics for the summit included Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s rising power.
Alamy Live News.

At that point, however, Congress rigorously adhered to a statute (originating as an appropriations rider from then-Sen. Bob Kasten in 1990) prohibiting contributions to UN bodies that admit or increase the status of the PA/PLO, meaning that US “arrearages” began to accrue immediately.

Biden’s excuse for rejoining UNESCO is to counter rising Chinese influence.

The State Department argues, for example, that “we can’t afford to be absent any longer from one of the key fora in which standards around education for science and technology are set.”

This claim is entirely specious. There is little to no need for America to rejoin UNESCO to prevent harmful Chinese influence.

UNESCO “standards” for any sort of education are irrelevant, if not harmful to real education, as we’ve learned over many painful decades.

Even on accords in which UNESCO acts as depositary or assists in administrating a treaty, like the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, America is typically a party to the agreement. So Washington can’t be excluded from any aspect of treaty affairs, whether or not America is inside UNESCO.

The broader issue of Chinese influence in the UN system turns on just how valuable that system is.

Chinese and Russian vetoes block effective action by the Security Council, as during the Cold War.

The UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have also become essentially irrelevant, leaving only the question of which UN specialized and technical agencies are still worth protecting.

Some certainly are, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

But UNESCO, which never had a clearly defined mission, fails under any sensible cost-benefit analysis.

Biden is making precisely the same mistake as Obama, and, if Biden proceeds further, Congress should firmly block any UNESCO funding, as it has consistently done.

Although the administration obtained authority to waive the Kasten amendment in December 2022 (probably in the dark of night), appropriators can correct the mistake in the coming months.

House Appropriations Committee Republicans should lead the effort to defend taxpayer dollars by repealing this waiver. After all, it was passed in Nancy Pelosi’s waning days as speaker.

Not only that, House appropriators should make clear they will be scrutinizing Biden administration dealings with UNESCO and the UN system more broadly.

With the 2024 presidential campaign underway, moreover, none of the declared Republican candidates appears to support rejoining UNESCO.

Biden’s obsession with returning conveniently highlights several of his vulnerabilities, since basically only liberal Democratic elites care about rejoining. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not.

Make no mistake, UNESCO sees Washington as a spigot from which assessed contributions would flow regularly into its coffers and which Biden’s White House would turn to fully open.

Arguing that it’s trying to counter rising Chinese influence reveals the administration’s double standard on Beijing, given its craven efforts to “improve” relations with Beijing on climate-change issues and many others.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping only underlines the need for real, not illusory, measures to counter Beijing.

Returning to UNESCO is a waste of time and money, not an effective riposte to China.

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump, 2018-19, and US ambassador to the United Nations, 2005-06.



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