Cultural Diplomacy, public diplomacy

UNESCO and the US: Politics and Culture at the Water’s Edge

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

Earlier this month, the U.S. lost its voting rights in UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, after failing to pay its dues for the past two years following Palestine’s membership to the General Assembly. The move has been widely regarded by diplomats and experts as “undermining America’s ability to exercise its influence in countries around the globe” as well as UNESCO’s ability to pay the bills: the U.S. contributed approximately 22% of the agency’s $70-million-a-year budget.

More than anything, this is a major blow to U.S. public diplomacy. In addition to losing its say in the world’s preeminent cultural body, the image and soft power of the U.S. have also been diminished. Other consequences we can expect:

1. Delays in approving American historical sites to the World Heritage list. Two sites – one in Louisiana, one in Texas – were currently undergoing review when the deadline passed. Given recent events, their admission can expect delays. In the meantime, the thousand or so jobs that were anticipated with the designation of a World Heritage title remain in limbo.

2. Increased room for China’s growing soft power. In May, Hao Ping, the former Chinese Vice-Minister of Education, was elected president of UNESCO’s general conference, providing an invaluable opportunity for China to expand its own soft power prowess, especially now without the U.S. in the picture.

3. Decline and/or stall in programming. In addition to cultural programs, UNESCO runs hundreds of initiatives in education, science, and communication through field offices in every region in the world. Even with emergency funding, it is obvious these programs will suffer personnel lay-offs and funding cuts.

It is worth noting that the U.S. has always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with UNESCO. In 2002, it rejoined the UN agency after an 18-year hiatus over “a difference in vision.” And in spite of President Obama’s iteration to commit to UNESCO’s goals, the U.S. essentially has its hands tied due to laws enacted in 1994 by Congress¬†that prevent it from contributing funds to any UN organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood.

Whatever the reason, the cultural legacy of the U.S., particularly as a founding member of UNESCO, now hangs in the balance. The last thing it needs after a year of public image disasters (Syria, Edward Snowden, NSA phone tapping, to name a few) is to have politics get in the way of something that was meant to facilitate diplomacy without it.

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About Lola Pak

Lola Pak is program assistant for the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. She is also a graduate student in the Master of Arts Global Communication program, which is offered jointly through the School of Media and Public Affairs and the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

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