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Australia must criticise US withdrawal from UNESCO

US should be reminded that leaving UNESCO is counter to Australian values.

The old streets of Hebron, now designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site (Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The old streets of Hebron, now designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site (Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The US has taken another step back from multilateralism with its announcement on Thursday that it will withdraw from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the world’s leading organisation for the promotion of global education, scientific advancement and democratic ideals. In a powerful and sobering statement, Rina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, expressed her ‘profound regret’ at this decision. At time of writing the Australian government is yet to comment. When it does, it should be vocal in its condemnation.

US irritation at perceived anti-Israeli bias within UNESCO has been growing for a while. The US has refused to fund the organisation since UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member in 2011 and by the end of this year it will owe US$550 million in arrears. While Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, has said the decision to withdraw was triggered by the UNESCO decision to designate the city of Hebron a Palestinian World Heritage site, others have suggested that halting the growing US debt to UNESCO is the real reason. 'This is pragmatic, not a grander political signal', according to John McArthur, a fellow at the Brookings Institute.

If so, it appears to be part of a growing shift in US foreign policy from a values-based foreign policy to one which prioritises US interests. President Trump’s announcement that the US was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was heavily couched in the language of self-interest. 'As someone who cares deeply about our environment', he said, 'I cannot in good conscience support a deal which punishes the United States'. In other words, while protecting the environment is a notable value, it is not as important as financial interests. This sentiment was reflected in the announcement the US was leaving the Trans-Pacific Trade deal. The value of globalised free trade was seen as an attack on America’s business interest.

In some ways, this was predictable. President Trump was elected on the back of an unabashedly protectionist campaign and many Americans support these decisions. Observers such as Lee Hamilton argue that Trump has a ‘transactional approach’ to foreign policy: by definition, an interest-based rather than values-based attitude. Yet it does leave US allies such as Australia in an awkward position.

In a world that seems increasingly defined by self-interest, Australia’s foreign policy has tried to remain, as much as possible, values-based. John MacCarthy wrote on The Interpreter earlier this year that ‘values play a proportionately larger part in the conceptualisation and practice of Australian foreign policy than is the case in most other Western democracies’ because of Australia’s unique history and the varied cultures of our neighbours.

This is not to suggest Australia is a shining beacon of moral exceptionalism. But Australia does repeatedly emphasise the importance of a values-based approach, both philosophically and practically, as the basis for international cooperation.

The first and overarching value Australia promotes is adherence to international law. As the Secretary of DFAT stated recently, international law supports the peaceful settlement of disputes, supports an international economy and provides a framework for global cooperation. As a result, Australia tends towards multilateralism. Australia sees the UN at the core of the global community, and places great importance on regional organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum. The US decision to leave UNESCO undermines the role of the UN and thus Australia should condemn it.

The second core value Australia has put at the centre of its foreign policy is human rights. In October alone, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held three bilateral dialogues on human rights (with Iran, Vietnam and Laos), and on 10 October the Minister for Foreign Affairs reaffirmed advocacy for the global abolition of capital punishment as a core feature of human rights policy. UNESO is a leading global body that promotes human rights.

For some, the notion of cherishing values over interests is viewed with an almost bewildered disbelief. In private meetings, I’ve heard high-ranking Chinese officials say they simply could not understand why Australia would raise issues such as human rights or the role of a free press when trade with China was largely responsible for 26 years of Australian sustained economic growth. Likewise, some US officials have expressed surprise at criticism at US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. ‘Why should we comply when others won’t?’, they complain, oblivious to the obligations which come with global leadership.

Kevin Rudd once famously criticised China’s human rights record, stating that a true friend was one who ‘offers unflinching advice’. It was not well received in Beijing but it highlighted Australia’s values-based foreign policy. Australia considers the US its closest friend and has done so since the Second World War. If we truly believe in values-based foreign policy, we need to publicly remind the US that the self-interest it displayed in leaving UNESCO is counter to the values that have shaped the global order.

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