Saying goodbye to UNESCO, again

The Taj Mahal, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Photograph by Muhammad Madhi Karim.

The Taj Mahal, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Photograph by Muhammad Madhi Karim.

Well, in a week in which President Donald J. Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal, eliminated subsidies for insurance companies that underwrite poorer Obamacare enrollees and warned Puerto Rico that the federal government can’t buck it up forever, the American withdrawal from UNESCO may seem like small potatoes. But as a longtime cultural writer I noted it with a heavy heart.

As with these other issues, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is more complex than it seems. The U.S. helped found it after World War II, but in recent decades has had an off-and-on again relationship with the organization, which is well-known for its significant World Heritage Sites list.

We left in the Ronald Reagan era, citing UNESCO’s pro-Soviet bias, rejoined in the George W. Bush era, stopped paying dues in the Barack Obama era to protest Palestine’s inclusion and now we’re leaving because of an anti-Israel bias.

UNESCO may have made some questionable calls, but I’m more concerned about our behavior – not paying dues, withdrawing but retaining our observational role with the idea that we may rejoin as a voting member later. To me, this isn’t a negotiated business deal. You’re in or you’re out. Anything else is weakness, and if UNESCO had any guts it would say, “You want out, fine, but that’s it. There’s no path back.”

I also don’t like debt of any kind and this smacks of the famous Trump cheapness, cutting out while we’re in arears.  But most important, this action sends a message that culture doesn’t matter and the U.S. can afford to absent itself from the world stage. It seems to me that if we really cared about Israel or Middle East problems, we’d stay in the game instead of sidelining ourselves.

Not everyone is sitting this one out. Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has issued this statement:

"One of our most important responsibilities as museum leaders is to protect cultural heritage and promote international education. For more than half a century, The Met and countless other museums have successfully partnered with UNESCO, an organization that has earned the respect of nations and communities worldwide for bringing together curators, conservators and a range of other scholars to educate, preserve, protect and support the intellectual and artistic traditions of our shared cultural heritage. President Trump's decision to withdraw from UNESCO undermines the historic role of the United States as a leader in this effort and weakens our position as a strong advocate for cultural preservation. Although UNESCO may be an imperfect organization, it has been an important leader and steadfast partner in this crucial work. The Met remains deeply committed to productive engagement with UNESCO and our colleagues around the world who share this important objective." 

Weiss’ comments show a way through the Trumpian nightmare. We’re just going to have to go it alone and go around him if America is going to retain its leadership role in the world.