United Nations

Trump Unesco snub widens China role

Decision by US president fits his isolationist approach to foreign policy, and Beijing is well-placed to capitalise by increasing its international soft power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 1:17am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 1:17am

Donald Trump either does not realise or care about the damage he does to the US each time he withdraws his country from a multinational organisation or agreement. The American president’s decision to quit Unesco, the education, science and culture branch of the UN, was a protest against a perceived slight of ally Israel and to save on US$80 million of annual funding. But in leaving, his country also gives up another piece of its global influence. The abdication of leadership provides China with greater opportunity to take its rightful place at the head table of nations forging and shaping international policies.

Unesco is, after all, an important organisation. President Xi Jinping made that plain when he gave a landmark speech at its headquarters in 2014. He spoke of its role in promoting global peace through cultural exchanges and mutual learning among the world’s people. By understanding and appreciating other cultures, nations could uphold inclusiveness, ensuring harmony and global progress.

China could take bigger role in Unesco after US withdrawal

Trump is ignoring this reality by walking away from Unesco. He in all likelihood sees its role as nothing more than designating and protecting landmarks, known as World Heritage sites. But it is also involved with many worthwhile educational, cultural and scientific programmes ranging from children’s learning to tsunami warnings.

The US leader’s decision fits his isolationist approach to foreign policy. It follows his withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord, the pulling of US$32 million from the UN Population Fund, quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and threatening significant budget cuts to the UN itself. The “America first” policy plays to the voters who put Trump in office, but also diminishes the global voice of the United States.

China is well-placed to capitalise. Now formally the second-biggest donor to Unesco, it can increase its international soft power by promoting an agenda that is fairer to developing countries. More broadly, most global challenges, from terrorism, to cybersecurity to climate change, require a multinational response. China can step into the space the US is gradually forfeiting.