Publication Date

April 12, 2016

Perspectives Section

From the President

The United Nations, now 70 years old, stands as a striking element of the postwar world. Though always problematic, it has survived and played a key role in global affairs, in contrast to the collapse of its predecessor, the League of Nations, after about 20 years. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the UN and its constituent organizations has been maintaining wide membership. Nearly all of the world’s nations hold seats in the General Assembly and in such other UN organizations as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

UNESCO is of particular interest to historians because of its role in coordinating global academic affairs. UNESCO, formed in 1946 and formally chartered in 1951, is governed by its constitution and the General Conference of its national members. While best known for its recognition of World Heritage Sites (now numbering 1,031), UNESCO has many activities in education, science, and culture. The UNESCO Secretariat comprises a complex, shifting organizational structure centered in Paris but with field offices worldwide. In overseeing scientific collaboration, UNESCO sustains three great federations of academic organizations: in natural sciences, the International Council for Science (ICSU, after its former name, the International Council of Scientific Unions, 1931); in social sciences, the International Social Science Council (ISSC, 1952); and in the humanities, the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies (ICPHS, 1949). ICPHS includes the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS) and also the International Union of Academies. Our own AHA has two sorts of representation in UNESCO, as a national affiliate within ICHS and as a member of the American Council of Learned Societies, which in turn is a national affiliate of ICPHS. These bodies are all independent, but UNESCO’s coordination of them can be of great ­significance.

UNESCO’s biggest early achievements were in the natural sciences. In 1957–58, the ­ICSU-sponsored International Geophysical Year confirmed the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift, while the International Biological Program (active from 1964 to 1974) expanded collaborative research on environmental issues. UNESCO’s support of ICSU was critical to these achievements—both of them powerful statements of the benefits of international academic collaboration.

UNESCO has facilitated scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, too. But the academic federations for the humanities and social sciences, because they have not been as strong as the ICSU in the natural sciences, have limited themselves to convening international disciplinary conferences. As a result, the UNESCO Secretariat has itself carried major programs in the humanities and social sciences, rather than sponsoring initiatives of the ISSC or the ICPHS. For example, beginning in the 1950s, the secretariat launched a substantial effort in the study of world history, which lasted until the mid-1970s.1 Later on, it was the UNESCO Secretariat, not the academic organizations, that published the General History of Africa, a widely successful eight-volume series, followed by series on Latin America, the Caribbean, and other regions. The problem was that while the UNESCO Secretariat made important contributions to publication on the history and culture of areas outside Europe and North America, and while major scholars were leaders in preparing these volumes, the disciplinary organizations did not take the opportunity to become involved in new scholarship about the world outside the North Atlantic. The ICHS played a small role in the UNESCO publications and continued working within a Eurocentric framework.

Meanwhile, academic issues could never be separated from political differences within UNESCO. More than for the UN as a whole, nations have joined and left UNESCO for political reasons. Underlying these resignations and reentries was the changing shape of world politics. As decolonization advanced, UNESCO grew from its initial 50 members to nearly 150 in 1975, which was at roughly the same rate as the UN General Assembly. From 1975 to 1987, Senegal’s Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow served as director-general of UNESCO. In this era, the secretariat paid increasing attention to society and culture in the third world; meanwhile, UNESCO’s coordination of academic bodies prioritized the sciences, much as before. Responding to one side of this pattern, the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 and 1985, respectively, arguing that the organization had become “politicized” or anti-Western. With that, the United States and the United Kingdom also withdrew their financial support, which had comprised 30 percent of the total contributions to UNESCO. The United States rejoined UNESCO only in 2003. For those 20 years, UNESCO cut its staff by 50 percent and reduced all of its activities, notably in international academic collaboration.2

Academic issues could never be separated from political differences. More than for the UN as a whole, nations have joined and left UNESCO for political reasons.

Then the United States ceased participating again in 2011. Without formally quitting, the Obama administration ceased paying US dues because Palestine was admitted as a UNESCO member; Congress had banned US funding of UN bodies that recognize Palestine. The United States’ dues constituted 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. This created a complex situation as to whether the United States could still participate without paying.

To what degree and in what way should political considerations be brought into nongovernmental organizations, especially those that are institutions for building knowledge? One might argue that political disputes should play no role in academic life. But there are limits to this principle: during two periods in the 20th century—from 1914 to 1919 and from 1939 to 1945—virtually no worldwide academic congresses were held because of full-scale war.

An interesting intermediate case in the aftermath of World War I established a principle that academic organizations should be separate from political disputes. In 1919 the International Research Council was created, replacing the defunct International Association of Academies (founded in 1899). But the former Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria) would not be admitted, due especially to the insistence of France. As a result, international scientific discourse excluded German academia, then arguably the world’s strongest university system. The ban grew increasingly inappropriate but was difficult to resolve. Finally, in 1931 the International Research Council chose to dissolve itself, then reconstituted itself as the ICSU, which was open to organizations of all nations. The new group enunciated the principle that scientific unions should be self-governing and that the ICSU should have no diplomatic ties.3

In the years since, the ICSU has built its strength in supporting the natural sciences worldwide. The principles resulting from its experience, as I understand them, are that politics cannot be eliminated from the production of knowledge, but the exchange of ideas and the advancement of knowledge work better when all parties are included in academic meetings, whatever the nature of government in individual nations.

Again, as in the 1920s, we find the nation with the world’s strongest academic system largely absent from the global academic federation. While Germany was kept out in the 1920s as punishment for war guilt, the United States chose to suspend payment of dues as a response to the admission of Palestine in 2011. In each case politics trumped academic communication.

It is a complex situation: the US government does not pay its dues and has withdrawn from activity in the General Conference of all member states, but US-based academic and other organizations are able to continue in their UNESCO activities. The AHA partici­pated in the ICHS congress in Jinan, China, in August 2015, and an American representative was elected to the ICHS board, replacing another American whose term had ended. By paying its own membership dues and participating in the ICHS, the AHA supports the international academic community. Yet without the US government paying dues to UNESCO, the overall structure undergirding ICHS is substantially weakened.

Our group of historians can do little to influence such political realities. What we can do, however, is build up our awareness of the dangers of academic isolationism and make efforts within our own profession to maintain and build academic exchanges with historians around the world. Our understanding of the past will advance as a result.

For the future, one can imagine that ICHS will become more representative of historical studies worldwide, and that the organization of historical scholars will intersect more closely with the UNESCO Secretariat and its interventions in history and memory. The AHA, the single largest national association of historians, could play an important facilitative role in bringing history to the forefront in UNESCO.

Patrick Manning is president of the American Historical Association.


1. UNESCO, History of Mankind: Cultural and Scientific Developments, 6 vols. (New York, 1963–75).

2. The United Kingdom rejoined UNESCO in 1997. The other departures from UNESCO were Portugal, from 1972 to 1974; South Africa, from 1956 to 1994; and Singapore, from 1985 to 2007.

3. Frank Greenaway, Science International: A History of the International Council of Scientific Unions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), 30–34. The parallel International Association of Academies, led by Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, remained under the radar and appears not to have experienced such a conflict.

Creative Commons License

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

Patrick Manning
Patrick Manning

University of Pittsburgh