The often fiery rhetoric of President Trump is seldom implemented. Even his most staunch supporters would likely agree that this is often a good thing.
In general, it is important for observers to realize, that the president of the United States does not possess the near-dictatorial powers that are often intentionally or subconsciously ascribed to him, at least in regards to domestic issues. Trump’s recent challenges with implementing his repeal of Obamacare are one poignant example.
In regards to foreign policy however, the president does have significantly more flexibility and freedom. Thus his decision to remove America from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) should not come as a surprise, considering the threats that have emanated from the administration. Trump has cited deep bias against Israel, and in the words of one official, this unfair treatment shows the need for “fundamental reform” in the organization.
There are a few incidents that have allegedly brought Trump to this conclusion.
First, several recent UNESCO resolutions have been especially vicious toward Israel, claiming the country is an “occupying power” in East Jerusalem, and urged the government to desist from archeological excavations in proximity to the Old City. Another UNESCO document declares Hebron a “Palestinian” site, while ignoring the Jewish connection to the city, even to the 3,500-year-old site of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Perhaps the single biggest offense to the US was UNESCO’s decision to admit the Palestinian Authority into the organization as a full member in 2011. U.S. law prohibits funding to any U.N. organization that grants membership to the Palestine Liberation Organization or any group that does not have "internationally recognized attributes of statehood." Although this decision by UNESCO is over six years in the past, more recent incidents have given an excuse for the current administration to revive the issue.
Soon after the US revealed its intent to walk out of UNESCO, Israel as well announced its intention to abandon the UN organization, over the same “discrimination against Israel.”
This turn of events begs a bit of examination about the nature of international groups and what it means for a given country to maintain membership in one.
Attributed to Winston Churchill is the famed remark: “Better jaw-jaw than war-war.” It is essentially in this spirt that many international policy bodies exist, especially when it comes to the UN. These groups give a venue for countries to duke out their feuds, garner international support, and apply condemnation and even retaliation on adversaries without having to resort to an actual armed conflict. With this in mind, it was somewhat understood that a country would stay a member of the UN and any other sub-group for the sake of expressing at least a minimal interest in being a member of the community of nations. This would apply even if a given nation viewed the UN’s decisions as illegitimate, or it itself felt it was being treated unfairly.
This has certainly been Israel’s approach.
Israel, for instance, did not pull out of any UN organizations after the infamous 1975 resolution branding Zionism as a form of racism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has laid repeated accusations against the UN, even during speeches at the General Assembly, as being egregiously biased toward Israel, and has not pulled out of any UN organizations in the past eight years of being in office. That is, until now.
The US has more or less also taken this approach, that is, chastising without taking any major retaliatory responses. Trump’s recent move in pulling out of UNESCO is a big deal considering this tradition.
Interestingly, however, this is not the first time the US has pulled out of UNESCO. Ronald Reagan decided to withdraw from the organization in 1984 at the height of the Cold War in response to what it perceived as a major tilt toward Soviet sympathies. President George W. Bush re-joined the organization in 2002, apparently satisfied that UNESCO had gotten itself in order.
America may gain from the political weight its withdrawal has. At least it gets to send a message. Israel does not have the same power. The Israeli government may desire to withdraw on purely principled grounds, but in terms of actually making an influential political statement, the chances are low. Some observers have even asserted that Israel only stands to lose from such a move by further isolating itself. Perhaps this is why Israeli officials phrased the decision to leave UNESCO as “preparations,” leaving open the option for reconciliation.