Not the Time for the United States To Rejoin UNESCO

Report Global Politics

Not the Time for the United States To Rejoin UNESCO

January 17, 2001 24 min read
Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center
Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

The United States withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)--an agency founded to promote international collaboration in science, education, and cultural matters--in 1984 to protest its growing politicization, anti-Western bias, rampant mismanagement, and advocacy of policies that undermine freedom of the press and free markets. During the last session of Congress, some Members began to express support for rejoining the troubled agency. Representatives Tom Lantos (D-CA) and James A. Leach (R-IA), for example, introduced legislation urging the President to do so. They based their support on changes that have occurred since 1984: Many of the policies the United States found offensive had been abandoned, some of the disputed issues were no longer as important in a post-Cold War world, and the agency's new Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura of Japan, was taking some promising steps toward reform.

The new Administration of George W. Bush, which seems eager to champion bipartisan causes, should be cautious about rejoining UNESCO for several reasons. Specifically:

  • An examination of the organization's track record shows that most of its past efforts to reform have failed and that, despite its fervent promises, its attempts to restructure its management processes and bureaucracy have been superficial.

  • UNESCO's efforts remain focused on missions of dubious merit. For example, its mission of fostering peace by disseminating information has been "rendered obsolete" by the explosion of information technology and the Internet.1

  • Matsuura's dedication to reform simply may not be enough to offset the changes that are needed to satisfy all the concerns the United States expressed when it withdrew almost two decades ago.

  • Finally, the United States is still able to participate in UNESCO programs that it finds useful without officially belonging to the organization.

Although the Clinton Administration was not willing to expend the political effort necessary to renew U.S. membership in the agency, pressure to rejoin UNESCO is increasing, with support from Clinton Administration Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley2 and Vice President Albert Gore,3 and such groups as the United Nations Association of the United States of America, as well as positive media coverage of Director-General Matsuura's efforts to reform UNESCO in such prominent newspapers as The Washington Post and The New York Times.4 If President Clinton reverses his Administration's policy and rejoins the organization in the final days of his term, the Bush Administration should not support that decision. President Bush and the new Administration should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of membership in UNESCO and verify that fundamental reform has occurred before considering renewing America's membership.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was created in 1945 with the signatures of 37 countries. The organization's constitution entered into force on November 4, 1946, when 20 of these signatories had ratified it. According to its constitution, UNESCO was intended to

contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world.5

The United States, as a founding member, supported UNESCO for three decades when its activities closely adhered to the goals outlined in its charter--for example, promoting literacy and education and furthering the exchange of scientific ideas. However, as developing countries joined and its membership grew to 153 by 1980, UNESCO increasingly supported an anti-Western political agenda, espoused leftist propaganda, and refused to reform rampant mismanagement practices. Specific examples included hostility toward Israel,6 calls for increasing government regulation of the media,7 and refusal to address management problems that led to budgetary excesses and enabled the Soviet Union to use UNESCO as a vehicle for spying and propaganda.8

As then-Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Gregory Newell said in 1984, "UNESCO has extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with. It has exhibited hostility toward a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and it has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion."9

The Reagan Administration determined that the harm caused by UNESCO's guiding leftist philosophy and endemic mismanagement problems outweighed the benefits of membership. As a result, President Reagan notified UNESCO in December 1983 that the United States would withdraw the following year in accordance with the organization's constitution.10 The formal withdrawal of the United States on December 31, 1984, spurred other countries with similar complaints to withdraw or to threaten to withdraw from UNESCO. The United Kingdom and Singapore withdrew in January 1, 1986. Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and West Germany threatened withdrawal but eventually decided against it.11


The United States stated in 1984 that it would not rejoin UNESCO until the organization could demonstrate that it had substantially cleaned up its management problems, abandoned its controversial policies, and altered its voting structure to give countries that contribute more to its budget greater weight than those that contribute less. Some of its objections were resolved when the Cold War ended: Concerns about Soviet spying and propaganda declined, for example, and UNESCO slowly abandoned policies that undermined freedom of the press and free markets. Anti-Western hostility at UNESCO declined after the agency's abrasive Director-General, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow, left in 1987.

Mismanagement and bureaucratic problems, however, proved more resistant to change. In 1984, nepotism and connections were more important than qualifications in securing a position within the agency. One example that drew the ire of the United States was M'Bow's appointment of his wife's cousin to the important post of personnel director. According to the U.S. Department of State, the situation did not improve under M'Bow's replacement, Frederico Mayor Zaragoza. The State Department reported, for example, that the "need for budget restraint" continued and that "there has been no progress in moving toward the formal establishment of a budgetary decision-making process which would give adequate weight to the views of major donors."12

The Administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton all considered rejoining UNESCO but decided against doing so. The Reagan Administration established the U.S. Reform Observation Panel for UNESCO in 1985 to monitor the organization's reforms and to advise the President on whether it was time to rejoin; however, the panel regularly rejected UNESCO membership, basing its rejection on evidence of inadequate reform. Indeed, the State Department observed in 1987 that "In terms of the kind of reforms the United States is interested in...there has not been any fundamental change."13 The Bush Administration similarly rejected the possibility of rejoining UNESCO until the agency could demonstrate better management and fiscal restraint.

Although the Clinton Administration stated that rejoining UNESCO "remains high on our agenda" in 1994,14 it never seriously pursued an effort to rejoin the organization. The White House rejected paying the $65 million required to rejoin in 1996, citing budgetary concerns and a reluctance to battle a Republican-controlled Congress that generally opposed membership in UNESCO.15 More recently, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted that "we have been concerned about some reports about irregularities in the way that some of UNESCO's business has been carried out."16


Despite such consistently poor evaluations of UNESCO's efforts to reform, supporters continue to call for rejoining the organization. To do so, however, Congress would need to approve the $68 million in annual assessments required for membership and an additional $6.2 million for a separate capital fund. Alternatively, a U.S. Admin-istration could restore U.S. membership in UNESCO without consulting Congress by paying one-quarter of its annual assessment, or $17 million, plus the $6.2 million contribution to the capital fund--a total of $23.2 million.17

In May 1999, Representative Lantos introduced H.R. 1974 to direct the President to "develop a strategy to bring the United States back into full and active participation in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization." Two months later, Representative Leach introduced H.R. 2566 to "direct the President to renew the membership of the United States." Though these bills gained only 10 cosponsors (nine Democrats and one Republican) and little action was taken, the pressure to rejoin UNESCO is growing. Neither bill was reported to the floor by the House International Relations Committee during the 106th Congress, but both could be reintroduced during the 107th Congress.

It is too soon to renew America's membership in UNESCO, which, as a 1998 independent Canadian audit demonstrated, remains deeply troubled:

  • UNESCO failed to evaluate the relevance or cost-effectiveness of individual programs, did not solicit feedback from staff, and did not require performance evaluations on projects, and many projects lacked concrete objectives. Further, the head of its auditing department, who also served as the organization's inspector general, lacked any accounting experience.18

  • "[C]ronyism seems all but endemic, with about 40 percent of the Organization's appointments and promotions failing to meet UNESCO's own criteria for fair competition."19 Many appointments were based on personal connections rather than qualifications,20 and an estimated 2,000 consultants and special advisers were appointed directly by the Secretariat and did not appear on any budget in 1999.21

  • In his final months as Director-General, Mayor had approved 71 promotions and 27 new appointments--including an astonishing 36 individuals promoted to director or positions upgraded to director level22--that failed to meet UNESCO's own criteria for fair and open competition. These inappropriate appointments allegedly would cost the organization $11.8 million over two years.23

The new Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura, promised upon his confirmation to reform the organization,24 but his leadership was immediately tarnished by allegations in the European press that the Japanese government had bought votes to secure his election.25 However, Matsuura's first actions included some positive steps, such as the suspension of all of Mayor's last-minute promotions and appointments over howls of protest and a hunger strike by some UNESCO staff.26 He also fired some of Mayor's "special advisors" and ordered independent audits of some questionable budgets.27

Matsuura also admitted that UNESCO's mission and programs are too broad and duplicate the efforts of many other international organizations. Early in 2000, for example, he noted that "There was a tendency in the past to get thinly spread over too many activities.... I would like to have more concentration of UNESCO programs and activities in priority areas."28 Unfortunately, his choices as priority issues often exceed UNESCO's authority and expertise, duplicate other U.N. agency activities (such as education), or involve controversial issues (bioethics and info-ethics). For example:

  • Education funding and grants from development banks and individual nations, such as those made through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Information Agency, far exceed UNESCO's education efforts, calling into question its decision to make education a priority issue. UNESCO devoted about 30 percent of its $544 million biennial budget for 2000-2001 ($163 million) to education,29 while the World Bank spent $2.3 billion on education over the two-year period of 1999 and 2000.30 Moreover, UNESCO's ability to aid international goals in education is questionable. According to the independent Canadian audit, UNESCO's "professional capacity and expertise in education policy development...has gradually declined."31

  • Bioethics is a highly contentious issue involving the crossroads between medical science and ethics and morality over such controversial issues as abortion, the use of individuals in medical research, assisted suicide, human cloning, and the right of individuals to refuse medical treatment for religious or other reasons. Rapidly advancing knowledge in genetics and technology is forcing individuals and nations to face difficult decisions on technological advances that may incalculably aid mankind but also represent significant potential dangers. According to Matsuura, "UNESCO's objective is the construction of a shared bioethics, that is, of universal principles in bioethics."32 While there should be international discussion of these sensitive issues, the ultimate arbiters of legality and policy must be sovereign nations rather than international bureaucracies because of the vast differences in culture, religion, and legal systems. UNESCO can aid the discussion, but it far exceeds its authority when it aspires to construct universal principles on bioethics.

  • Info-ethics refers to a broad range of issues concerning the Internet. UNESCO sees its role as reaffirming "the importance of universal access to information in the public domain and to define ways in which it may be achieved and maintained in the Global Information Infrastructure."33 A recurrent theme heard at UNESCO conferences is that because a few developed countries dominate the Internet, a "Marshall Plan" that uses tax dollars from wealthy countries to wire poor nations is needed.34 Matsuura has voiced concerns that the Internet, which is predominately in English, threatens the "diversity of cultures and languages"35 to such an extent that government must intervene. These proposals are fundamentally at odds with U.S. free market policies, which seek to reduce government intervention in the market and regulation of electronic commerce except when it involves criminal activities.

Although the problems that led the United States to withdraw from UNESCO in 1984 may have become less urgent, significant policy differences between Washington and UNESCO remain. The recent reports on mismanagement at UNESCO show that calls to rejoin the organization in the 1980s and 1990s36 were premature. The fact that the new Director-General based his 1999 candidacy on the need to reform UNESCO clearly shows that much work remains to be done before the Bush Administration should consider releasing the $74.2 million necessary to renew U.S. membership.


President Bush should not yield to pressure to rejoin UNESCO, even if it appears to be an attractive low-cost way to deflect international charges of isolationism or to deflate pressure to pay U.S. arrears to the United Nations without assurances of reform. The President should instead take time to evaluate UNESCO's current priorities and progress toward reform.

President Bush must recognize that even if UNESCO were a paragon of management and efficiency, it is unclear how America would benefit from membership in the organization. Though the United States does not now have a formal say in UNESCO's decisions, few of the agency's declarations or policies carry weight without U.S. support. Even without membership, moreover, America can support and participate in UNESCO programs when it is in its interest to do so. In the 1990s, for example, the United States participated in the Man and the Biosphere37 (MAB) program and the World Heritage Fund program even though it was not a member of UNESCO.

If the United States were to rejoin UNESCO, it likely would again become its largest financial contributor38 by providing 25 percent of the biennial budget (approximately $136 million every two years). Restraint in the face of pressure to rejoin UNESCO in 2001 is prudent. It remains to be seen whether Matsuura can effect fundamental and lasting reform. Until it is clear that the organization has reformed and its activities are in U.S. interests, the new Administration and Congress should:

  • Institute an annual audit of UNESCO by the U.S. General Accounting Office to determine the status of reform; the qualifications of UNESCO's staff; its procedures for hiring and promoting personnel; the ability of the inspector general (or the equivalent authority) to conduct impartial, detailed, and accurate audits; a detailed breakdown of expenditures; and how U.S. funding would advance both the goals of the organization and the priorities of the United States.

  • Strengthen oversight of U.S. contributions to UNESCO programs to ensure that U.S. funding is not going to objectionable activities and to determine whether UNESCO merits U.S. membership in the future.39 The Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2001, for example, bars funding for the MAB program or the World Heritage Fund out of concern that (1) participation in the program may allow undue influence over U.S. territory by international bureaucrats; (2) participation could imply that the United States complies with the international treaties that underpin the programs, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, even though the United States has not ratified them; and (3) the public and local governments are rarely consulted prior to the selection of World Heritage and Man and the Biosphere sites.40 Any U.S. funding for similarly objectionable programs should also be curtailed.

By refusing to rejoin UNESCO until it is successfully reformed, the United States has forced the organization to take some first steps. Washington should not abandon this approach, which is finally bearing fruit. On the contrary, it should use the UNESCO experience as a model for how to deal with other international organizations that may perform some useful tasks but are burdened with inappropriate mandates and rampant mismanagement.

As the Minister for Overseas Development for the United Kingdom, Timothy Raison, noted in 1985 when the United Kingdom announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO, "support for the United Nations should be seen as support for effective and efficient organizations."41 Providing financial support to ineffective or mismanaged international organizations is a waste of tax dollars and a disservice to those who hope to benefit from programs and policies that have been undermined by politicization, a lack of oversight, or poor leadership.


Sixteen years after the United States withdrew from UNESCO, the organization finally selected a Director-General who appears willing to pay more than lip service to reform. The United States should applaud and support Koïchiro Matsuura's efforts, but it should not rush to rejoin UNESCO, which has a long history of corruption, politicization, and resistance to reform. Instead, Washington should continue to provide voluntary funding for UNESCO programs it finds valuable but refuse to consider membership until independent audits show that this organization's fundamental problems have been resolved.

--Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.



1. Laura Genero, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, "UNESCO: `Outlived Its Purpose'," The Washington Post, February 11, 1995, p. A21.

2. Kenneth J. Cooper, "Riley Seeks Payment of Dues, Return to UNESCO," The Washington Post, April 20, 2000, p. A8.

3. Victoria Griffith, "Rivals Set Out Their Science Priorities," Financial Times (USA Edition), October 5, 2000, p. 4.

4. For example, see Nora Boustany, "For UNESCO Chief, a Cowboy Hat and an Ax," The Washington Post, September 13, 2000, p. A29, and Barbara Crossette, "UNESCO's Fat Gets a Trim and Reform Is in the Air," The New York Times, March 5, 2000, p. 15.

5. UNESCO Constitution, Article I: Purposes and Functions, at  (November 15, 2000).

6. UNESCO voted to exclude Israel from a regional working group in 1974 because it "allegedly altered `the historical features of Jerusalem' during archaeological excavations and `brainwashed' Arabs in the occupied territories." See "The United States and the Withdrawal from UNESCO," Time, January 9, 1984, p. 17. Congress suspended U.S. appropriations for UNESCO until the agency relented and readmitted Israel in 1976.

7. Communist nations and developing nations that were members of UNESCO called on the organization to establish a "new world information order" (NWIO) to address alleged pro-Western bias in global news organizations. The NWIO was to license journalists, create an international code of press ethics, and increase government control over the media. See "The United States and the Withdrawal from UNESCO," p. 17. After nations that supported freedom of the press objected, UNESCO stepped back somewhat but continued to support this effort through the end of the Cold War.

8. Newsweek reported that the Soviet Union had used UNESCO as a vehicle to spy on Western countries, citing France's expelling of 12 UNESCO staff for spying in 1983. See "Stepping Down," Newsweek, October 26, 1987, p. 102.

9. See "The United States and the Withdrawal from UNESCO," p. 17.

10. Members are required to give one-year's advance notice of such an action, according to the UNESCO Constitution, Article II: Membership, at  See Newsweek, "Serving Notice to UNESCO," January 9, 1984, p. 56.

11. Paul Lewis, "Western Efforts Thwarted at UNESCO Parley," The New York Times, February 17, 1985, p. 8.

12. Robert Pear, "U.S. Won't Rejoin UNESCO, Deriding Agency as Inept," The New York Times, April 17, 1990, p. A1.

13. "UNESCO Reforms Called Empty," Chicago Tribune, October 13, 1987, pp. 2-3.

14. As reported in Barbara Crossette, "Clinton Administration Retreats on Vow to Rejoin UNESCO," The New York Times, January 1, 1995, p. A16. This decision was based on the conclusions of a 1994 panel, which found that UNESCO had addressed many of its mismanagement problems and had curtailed many of its more objectionable policies, and which therefore recommended that the United States rejoin the organization. The panel was headed by Douglas J. Bennet, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, and included representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Management and Budget, United States Information Agency, and Office of Science and Technology Policy.

15. Thalif Deen, "Thumbs Down on Broken U.S. Promise to Rejoin UNESCO," Inter Press Service, January 11, 1995.

16. Thalif Deen, "New UNESCO Chief Plans to Clean House," Inter Press Service, November 12, 1999.

17. Jim Lobe, "Odds Long for Early Return to UNESCO," Inter Press Service, September 8, 2000. Taking such unilateral action, however, would draw the ire of Congress, which would be likely to impose severe restrictions on future appropriations to prevent any payments to UNESCO unless specifically authorized. Thus, such a unilateral action would be a short-term measure.

18. Jon Henley, "Family and Mistresses Dip in UNESCO Trough; Staff Say the UN Body Is Being Crippled as Its Budget Is Spent on Unmonitored Projects," The Guardian, October 18, 1999, p. 11.

19. Deen, "New UNESCO Chief Plans to Clean House."

20. Henley, "Family and Mistresses Dip in UNESCO Trough."

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Tim Johnson, "UNESCO's New Chief Sets Out to Woo Back U.S., Singapore," Kyodo News Service, January 22, 2000.

24. Director-General Matsuura warned that "unpopular measures" would be necessary to reinvigorate UNESCO and admitted that charges of "rampant nepotism" in UNESCO were "not baseless." See Alan Riding, "UNESCO's Chief Pledges Reform," in "World Briefing" compiled by Joseph R. Gregory, The New York Times, November 26, 1999, p. A6.

25. Barbara Giudice, "New UNESCO Chief Pledges `Radical' Steps to Reform Beleaguered Organization," The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 1999, p. A56.

26. Johnson, "UNESCO's New Chief Sets Out to Woo Back U.S., Singapore."

27. Jon Henley, "Unlimited Appetite," The New Republic, February 7, 2000, p. 12.

28. Johnson, "UNESCO's New Chief Sets Out to Woo Back U.S., Singapore."

29. Giudice, "New UNESCO Chief Pledges `Radical' Steps."

30. The World Bank Annual Report 2000 (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2000), p. 33.

31. Giudice, "New UNESCO Chief Pledges `Radical' Steps."

32. Address by Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, on the occasion of his visit to the Kyiv Taras Shevchenko Institute for International Relations, Kiev, Ukraine, September 18, 2000, at
  (January, 10, 2001).

34. Lisa Jarvits, "Boss of the Internet," Seattle Weekly, December 23, 1999, p. 29.

35. Japan Economic Newswire, "UNESCO Head Hopes English-Led Web Won't Destroy Diversity," Kyodo News Service, March 30, 2000.

36. For example, The New York Times editorialized in 1987 that, "With M'Bow gone and reform back on the agenda, there are sound reasons for the United States to rejoin," though it also said that "the obstacle to rejoining is likely to be a Democratic Congress that has slashed away at obligatory dues to the United Nations." See "Give UNESCO a Second Chance," The New York Times, October 25, 1987, Section 4, p. 22.

37. According to U.S. MAB, the UNESCO program in the United States was supported by 12 federal agencies, with additional federal support for most of the U.S. Biosphere Reserves. These include the U.S. Agency for International Development; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service and Forest Service; the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Biological Service, and National Park Service; the U.S. Department of State; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the National Institutes of Health; the National Science Foundation; and the Smithsonian Institution. See

38. UNESCO, "Contributions of Member States," at  (November 28, 2000).

39. According to the State Department, the United States contributed $2.25 million to international scientific, educational, and cultural programs, which includes UNESCO programs, in FY 1999 and requested a similar amount in FY 2000. See U.S. Department of State, "International Contributions for Scientific, Educational & Cultural Activities (ICSECA) Including the World Heritage Convention," Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, Fiscal Year 2001, Released by the Office of the Secretary of State, Resources, Plans and Policy, U.S. Department of State, March 15, 2000, pp. 1033-1035. UNESCO also annually receives $62 million in extra-budgetary funds from U.N.-affiliated organizations in which the United States is a member and contributes funds, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Finally, UNESCO receives funds from the World Bank and regional development banks in which the United States is the largest donor. See UNESCO, "Budget," at  (November 28, 2000).

40. See Making Appropriations for Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 2001, and for Other Purposes, Conference Report 106-997 [To accompany H.R. 4811], 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., October 24, 2000, at /static/reportimages/FB5380C264777D7879F959195B68D8CD.cgi?

41. World Notes, "Tired of the Same Old Body," Time, December 16, 1985, p. 42.


Brett Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center