United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1983, under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States expressed concerns regarding UNESCO’s overpoliticization, poor management, lack of financial restraint, and support of causes inconsistent with U.S. interests by announcing that it would withdraw from the organization, effective December 31, 1984.

Summary of Event

International cooperation in the fields of science, education, and culture began during World War II when officials of the Allied Powers convened in London in November, 1942, to discuss the reconstruction of their respective educational systems once peace was restored. The result was the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November, 1945. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, UNESCO was established to promote the exchange of educational, scientific, and cultural information among nations as a means to ensure a lasting peace. Although the United States was a founding member of the organization, U.S. leaders grew disenchanted with UNESCO, and on December 28, 1983, the United States announced that it would withdraw from the organization, effective December 31, 1984. UNESCO;U.S. withdrawal [kw]United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO (Dec. 28, 1983) [kw]Withdrawal from UNESCO, United States Announces Its (Dec. 28, 1983) [kw]UNESCO, United States Announces Its Withdrawal from (Dec. 28, 1983) UNESCO;U.S. withdrawal [g]Europe;Dec. 28, 1983: United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO[05310] [g]France;Dec. 28, 1983: United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO[05310] [c]Cold War;Dec. 28, 1983: United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO[05310] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 28, 1983: United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO[05310] [c]United Nations;Dec. 28, 1983: United States Announces Its Withdrawal from UNESCO[05310] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;UNESCO Shultz, George P. Newell, Gregory J. M’Bow, Amadou-Mahtar Matsuura, Koichiro

At its inception, UNESCO was a predominantly pro-Western organization. The Cold War Cold War and the decolonization process in the postwar period, however, significantly affected the agency’s agenda. With the end of colonial rule and the subsequent increase in the number of member states to the United Nations, the membership of UNESCO began shifting toward the developing world. This shift had a profound impact on the political philosophy of the agency. U.S. frustration grew as the new Third World members sought to achieve their own goals of development. The policies pursued triggered a debate over the priorities of UNESCO and drew politicization charges from the United States and other Western nations. U.S. officials insisted that the agency’s activities reflected a strong Soviet and Third World influence. The espousal of what the United States regarded as an anti-Western agenda led to a significant loss of American influence within the organization. This perceived loss of influence engendered disappointment and frustration within the Reagan administration. As a result, the United States issued a statement in December, 1983, criticizing the agency and announcing its intention to withdraw from UNESCO.

In a letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Gregory J. Newell, assistant secretary of state for International Organization Affairs, cited three major areas of concern that led the administration to withdraw: politicization, statist theories, and budget and management. One of the primary concerns of the United States was the increased politicization of the agency. The United States alleged that the agency pursued political and ideological issues, such as disarmament, press freedom, and “the rights of peoples,” that went beyond the scope of its constitution. By pursuing such policies, the United States claimed, UNESCO strayed from its original intentions of fostering literacy and promoting scientific research.

A second area of contention was the controversial management style of UNESCO’s director-general, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal. The United States expressed deep concern over the financial practices of UNESCO, insisting that the agency demonstrated inefficient management methods. Specific grievances included overstaffing, duplication of activities, and lack of program planning and evaluation. As a result, its poor management and lack of budgetary constraints diminished the organization’s effectiveness in carrying out the programs for which the agency had been created.

A third major area of concern was over what the United States alleged were attempts by the agency to restrict the freedom of information around the world. According to Washington, the agency supported programs that attempted to restrict press freedom and promoted governmental rights over the rights of individuals. U.S. officials insisted that the programs developed to assist Third World countries failed to protect free enterprise, free press, and individual rights. UNESCO’s effort to create a New World Information and Communications Order, which the United States regarded as a threat to the freedom of the press, elicited the most controversy. Attempts to restrict the free flow of information and sanction governments’ rights to control journalism ran contrary to Western concepts of a free press.

After voicing its misgivings, the United States insisted that it would reconsider its decision to withdraw if steps were taken to change the practices that the United States considered objectionable. Thus, following the withdrawal announcement, several initiatives were taken to reform the organization in order to maintain U.S. membership. The executive board of UNESCO established various groups to review UNESCO’s programs, management, and budgetary policies. In May, 1984, UNESCO’s executive board formed a thirteen-member committee to examine Western criticism and recommend reforms in UNESCO’s orientation and procedures.

The organization also considered changes in the way it promoted educational, cultural, and scientific cooperation. UNESCO agreed to allow the U.S. general accounting office to investigate the agency’s management and budgetary practices and report the findings to U.S. secretary of state George P. Shultz. The U.S. Department of State also set up a committee to explore the possibility of rejoining the agency. The ten-member group, officially known as the Reform Observation Panel, would monitor UNESCO’s operations and determine if satisfactory reforms had been achieved. Further, in response to a letter from the U.S. secretary of state, dated March 15, 1985, M’Bow agreed to allow the United States to establish anobserver mission at UNESCO. An observer mission in Paris ensured contact between the United States and the organization and served liaison and monitoring purposes, thus protecting American interests at UNESCO.

Although progress was made toward improving efficiency and shedding ideologically biased activities, the United States determined that UNESCO ultimately failed to meet the conditions for the country to remain in the organization. In December, 1984, the Reagan administration reaffirmed its decision to pull out of the agency. It was not until 1999, with the election of Koichiro Matsuura of Japan as the director-general, that UNESCO underwent an internal overhaul. Confident that UNESCO had made significant reforms and could now focus on the larger tasks of educational, environmental, and cultural problems, the United States decided to renew its membership. In September, 2002, President George W. Bush Bush, George W. announced the decision that the United States would rejoin the ranks of UNESCO. The announcement came at a time when the United States was seeking international support from the United Nations for a confrontation with Iraq. On September 30, 2003, First Lady Laura Bush attended a ceremony at UNESCO headquarters in Paris commemorating the return of the United States to the organization. The United States officially resumed membership on October 1, 2003, ending the nineteen-year U.S. boycott of UNESCO.


The effects of U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO were felt immediately. The financial impact was considerable because the United States contributed funds for 25 percent of the organization’s annual budget. More important, however, the UNESCO crisis provided a road map for a nation’s ability to achieve its policy objectives and to assert its influence within international organizations. The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO was an effective means of obtaining desired reforms; however, it highlighted the need for alternative methods of expressing disapproval and ameliorating troubled relations among states within international organizations.

In the end, the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO aroused new interest in the organization, drawing attention to its shortcomings and provoking much-needed improvements in the agency’s intellectual and cultural mission. The UNESCO crisis also set in motion extensive reform efforts in the budgeting and administration of numerous specialized U.N. agencies. The reforms that occurred in UNESCO during the absence of the United States ultimately allowed the agency to refocus on contributing to peace and security by promoting international educational, scientific, and cultural collaboration. UNESCO;U.S. withdrawal

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coate, Roger A. Unilateralism, Ideology, and U.S. Foreign Policy: The United States In and Out of UNESCO. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1988. Examines the origins of American hostility to UNESCO and U.S. attempts to reform the organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawes, Michael Brewster. “Empty-Chair Diplomacy: Explaining State Exit from International Organizations.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, Ill., April, 2003. Uses the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO as a case study of how powerful states assert their influence in international organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Imber, Mark F. The USA, ILO, UNESCO, and IAEA: Politicization and Withdrawal in the Specialized Agencies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discusses U.S. withdrawal from various international organizations, including UNESCO, and analyzes the reasoning behind U.S. actions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, William, Jr., Edward S. Herman, and Herbert I. Schiller. Hope and Folly: The United States and UNESCO 1945-1985. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Offers a detailed discussion of the factors which led to the U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in 1984.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Sean D. “International Organizations.” American Journal of International Law 97, no. 4 (October, 2003): 977-979. Discusses the reasons for U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO and the subsequent changes within the organization that eventually paved the way for the 2003 U.S. reentry.

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