12:46 GMT +318 November 2019
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    The People's Republic of China flag and the U.S. Stars and Stripes fly along Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit in Washington, DC, US on January 18, 2011.

    'UNESCO Just the Beginning': China Set to Take US's Place in Int'l Organizations

    © REUTERS / Hyungwon Kang
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    The US decision to withdraw from UNESCO has prompted shock and concern from the international community. Observers say the move hints at Washington's growing international isolation, and that the vacuum will quickly be filled by China.

    UNESCO director general Irina Bokova expressed regret over the US move, saying the organization "has never been more important to the United States, and the United States has never been more important to UNESCO." UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak warned that the US move "could have adverse impacts" on the agency's work. Russia, France and Germany have expressed their own concerns with the decision.

    The Chinese Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, confirmed that Beijing would continue to actively participate in the body, notwithstanding Washington's decision. "UNESCO's goals are to promote international cooperation in the fields of education, science and culture, inter-civilizational understanding and the protection of world peace. China hopes that all countries will be able to continue to contribute in this area. We will continue to actively participate in UNESCO's work, and to support the organization," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Friday at a press briefing.

    China's position has led to speculation about whether Beijing will use the opportunity granted by the US move to flex its diplomatic muscles. Oddly enough, on the same day that Washington announced its decision, Chinese diplomat Dr. Qian Tang, who was considered to have good prospects for taking the job of UNESCO director general when Bokova completes her term in November, officially withdrew his candidacy. This leaves Egypt's Moushira Khattab, Qatar's Hamad al-Kawari and France's Audrey Azoulay in the running for the job.

    Nonetheless, observers say that amid the US's general retreat from international affairs under President Donald Trump, including the US withdrawal from and abrogation of treaties signed by the Obama administration, China has a chance to use its soft power to gain influence internationally, bringing it in line with its growing economic, political and military strength.

    In an interview for Foreign Policy magazine just last week, Dr. Qian seemed to confirm that this was Beijing's policy when he said that "China wants to fulfill its global responsibility and contribute to peace and development at a global level," with UNESCO being "a good platform for this."

    In recent years, more and more Chinese representatives have come to hold senior positions in international organizations including the World Bank, Interpol, the UN's Industrial Development Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Telecommunication Union. In the hard power department, China in recent years has committed more troops to UN peacekeeping operations than any other permanent member of the Security Council, contributing over 2,600 troops in 2016.

    Peacekeeping troops from China, deployed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), patrol outside the premises of the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba on October 4, 2016
    Peacekeeping troops from China, deployed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), patrol outside the premises of the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba on October 4, 2016

    US Turn to Neo-Isolationism?

    In addition to the China factor, Russian observers believe that the US's decision on UNESCO is a symptom of a broader issue – the US's declining influence around the world. Commenting on the withdrawal, Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov suggested that President Trump seems trapped in a Catch-22 situation: "By leaving UNESCO, the US is opting for self-isolation. This is their reaction to the decline of US influence around the world. By leaving, the US will only further aggravate the crisis of its image," the senator wrote.

    The senator stressed that there was no real reason for concern over the US decision, particularly given that Washington hasn't paid into UNESCO since 2011. More serious, the senator noted, was the prospect that the UNESCO decision may be the first step toward a broader US break with the UN. In that light, Pushkov wrote, "It's time to think about moving its headquarters to Vienna or Geneva. This is no longer a fantastical idea." 

    Pedestrians walk by United Nations Headquarters, lit up in blue light, a day in advance of the 70th Anniversary of the U.N., in New York City. File Photo.
    © AP Photo / Julie Jacobson
    Pedestrians walk by United Nations Headquarters, lit up in blue light, a day in advance of the 70th Anniversary of the U.N., in New York City. File Photo.

    Pushkov's concerns were echoed by Sergei Sudakov, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Russia's top diplomatic school. Speaking to Sputnik, the observer recalled that President Trump had already repeatedly indicated that the US should stop financing the UN.

    The UNESCO decision, according to the analyst, was probably based on the calculation that it would be the most painless for the US, given that few world heritage sites are located in the United States itself.

    "The US is now slowly embarking on a path of localization and introducing the principles of mild isolationism. This includes belt-tightening and reducing spending on both NATO and the UN. UNESCO is just the start," Sudakov said. Trump, in the observer's view, will continue to gradually reduce US contributions to regional and international political and security organizations and direct them toward domestic spending.

    University of San Francisco international relations professor Stephen Zunes agreed with this assessment, telling Sputnik that Washington's "bizarre" decision underscores the US's growing international isolation. "It reflects more negatively on the United States than on UNESCO," he stressed.

    Finally, political science professor Alexander Gusev told Sputnik that the UNESCO decision was just the latest in a string of moves by Washington to isolate itself, starting with the Paris climate agreement and finishing with the possible US withdrawal from the internationally-agreed Iran nuclear deal. 

    As far as UNESCO is concerned, Gusev stressed that "in the eyes of the world community, US standing has been largely undermined; the credibility of the president has been shattered. It's impossible to describe what the US is now doing with anything but derision. … I think that the United States is driving itself into a dead end."

    The US will pull out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – the agency which designates and maintains world heritage sites, supports literacy, potable water, environmental protection and disaster preparedness programs, on December 31, 2018. Washington has cited an "anti-Israel bias" as the main reason for the withdrawal. Tel Aviv followed the US and announced its own preparations to withdraw.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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