Ditching deals has become Trump’s main foreign policy
The U.S. government announced Thursday that it would leave UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization that the United States helped found in the aftermath of World War II. According to a release from the State Department, the decision was made because of alleged financial problems and a need for reform at the organization, as well as “continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”
The news, broken on Wednesday by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch, seemed to take many observers by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. Leaving UNESCO fits into the dominant theme of President Trump’s foreign policy: what Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, describes succinctly as “the Withdrawal Doctrine.”
Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine. US has left/threatening to leave TPP, Paris accord, Unesco, NAFTA, JCPOA
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) October 12, 2017
You could plausibly argue, in fact, that the one consistent plank in Trump administration policy has been to walk away from every international agreement possible. Before pulling out of UNESCO, Trump ended the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the huge trade pact negotiated with 11 other nations — and withdrew the country from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Trump will also make an announcement on the Iran nuclear deal later today, and he is widely expected to “decertify” the deal, leaving its future in doubt. The North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact with Mexico and Canada, may soon be on the chopping block. And Trump has spoken negatively about a number of other international deals or organizations, including but not limited to NATO, a trade agreement with South Korea and a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
A big question is what actually motivates Trump, who often brags about his own dealmaking abilities, to seek withdrawal from so many international agreements. Many point to his apparent obsession with overturning the legacy of his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, and it is clearly notable that a number of the agreements Trump aims to back out of — TPP, the Paris agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, for instance — were reached during the Obama administration.
The UNESCO withdrawal cannot be explained by antipathy to Obama alone. Although the organization may seem relatively benign — it is perhaps most famous for its list of World Heritage sites — it has long been a controversial organization in the United States.
The Reagan administration decided to withdraw from UNESCO in 1984 because of complaints about corruption and pro-Soviet bias. The United States rejoined in 2002 under President George W. Bush, but in 2011 — during the Obama administration — the U.S. government stopped funding the organization after it accepted the Palestinian territories as a member. The Trump administration’s claims of anti-Israel bias largely follow this Obama-era stance.