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Trump is pulling the U.S. out of UNESCO. The bigger pattern is the problem.

- October 16, 2017

On Oct. 12, 2017, the Trump administration announced the United States would pull out of UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Founded in 1945, UNESCO is perhaps best known for its World Heritage seal, used to brand and protect some of the planet’s most precious places, from the Taj Mahal to the Pyramids of Giza to the Grand Canyon.

What might U.S. withdrawal mean? Research in international relations shows that withdrawing from UNESCO isn’t simply a pragmatic decision with nominal ramifications. Instead, because this unilateral exit adds to Trump’s pattern of withdrawing from international organizations, the UNESCO decision has broader, strategic consequences.

Trump isn’t the first president to back away from UNESCO

In 1984, the Reagan administration left in protest, claiming UNESCO had spendthrift habits and pro-Soviet leanings. The United States rejoined in 2002 as part of the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to broaden U.S. international cooperation.

Democratic presidents also have backed away from UNESCO. In 2011, in accordance with a 1990 U.S. law to discourage the United Nations from recognizing the Palestinian state, the Obama administration withdrew funding (but maintained the U.S. membership status) when UNESCO granted the Palestinian Authority full membership.

The Trump administration has taken the further step of withdrawing membership in UNESCO, effective December 2018. State Department officials cite the U.N.’s “anti-Israel bias” and financial concerns. Trump’s move came after UNESCO designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank, including its Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Palestinian World Heritage site. After the 2011 withdrawal of funds, the United States has accrued $550 million in arrears, which will top $600 million by the end of next year.

Trump has a pattern of backing away from international organizations

Despite all the U.S.-UNESCO history, Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. membership is more drastic than the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. funds.

The UNESCO withdrawal stands out because it fits Trump’s pattern of leaving international institutions. Within the first few months, the Trump administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord. But Trump also has threatened to withdraw from a number of other agreements including NATO, NAFTA and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — if the other parties don’t agree to strike a better deal with the United States.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, dubbed this pattern Trump’s “withdrawal doctrine.”

The sheer number of (potential) exits — as well as the broad-sweeping nature of these moves — stands out in historical context. It’s not an everyday occurrence for states to unilaterally leave international organizations.

There’s a reason for that. These institutions enhance global stability and are set up to stand the test of time: They include decades of diplomatic meetings to arrive at a negotiated solution; and they have built-in flexibility mechanisms to help states adjust without leaving. International lawyers invoke a Latin phrase — pacta sunt servanda — as a reminder that international agreements are made to be kept.

Yet history also shows that state leaders have reached into their foreign policy tool kits to use the “IO exit” tool on multiple occasions. In fact, my research, which looks at all international organization withdrawals since World War II, shows the United States is the most frequent quitter of these clubs, and often because of politicization. The United States withdrew from Interpol between 1950-1958; from the International Labor Organization between 1977-1980; and from the International Criminal Court in 2002.

In many ways, it’s not surprising that the number of U.S. withdrawals is larger than that of most other nations: The United States has more opportunities to exit because it is a member of a large number of international organizations to begin with. Moreover, as the world’s hegemon, the United States arguably has the best outside options — including acting unilaterally or working through other multilateral institutions — and can more easily leave without suffering the same ramifications a smaller power might face.

But all these withdrawals from international organizations matter

So what might happen after the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO? A shortsighted approach would argue not that much. After all, over the years, UNESCO has been a lightning rod for criticism concerning waste, corruption and impotence.

But withdrawing from international organizations — a pattern the UNESCO move contributes to — can be costly in at least five ways:

1) Loss of reputation — International relations scholarship shows when a leader reneges on an international commitment, it undermines the nation’s credibility and therefore its reputation. These reputational effects can translate into disapproval from voters at home. Reneging may also make international partners hesitant to negotiate future agreements.

2) Diminished ability to lead — International organizations provide states with an important arena to project soft power. Quite simply, without a membership role in UNESCO, there’s less opportunity to share U.S. ideals and norms around the world.

3) Less issue-linkage potential — International organizations play an important role by allowing states to “link issues” together, which can widen dealmaking spaces between nations. By withdrawing from UNESCO, the United States loses an arena that could be valuable for bargaining — not necessarily just for issues such as education and culture.

4) Longer-term market effects — My emerging research with Inken von Borzyskowski also shows that at times, withdrawals from international organizations generate economic costs. Specifically, international analysts look to withdrawals as a signal to downgrade a state’s credibility. This can translate to worsened political risk scores — which can trickle through to diminished international investments.

5) The potential for contagion — Last, withdrawing from UNESCO could have contagion effects. The recent U.S. pattern of withdrawing from global engagement could set a precedent, with other states now regarding withdrawals as normal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel has just echoed the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO.

But other countries also appear to be exiting from international organizations. In September, for example, Nigeria announced it was pulling out of 90 international organizations. The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO is unlikely to start a domino effect, but the culmination of multiple withdrawals may help create a tipping point for more retrenchment from the global order.

To be sure, many of these costs are hard to quantify. But even though UNESCO might not matter that much on its own, the pattern of withdrawals and the cumulative effect of these costs is what counts.

Felicity Vabulas is an assistant professor of international studies at Pepperdine University.