Local Government

Iowa City, nation's only 'UNESCO City of Literature' disappointed over withdrawal

United States, citing bias against Isreal, notifies UNESCO it will pull out

A decal for Iowa City’s designation as “UNESCO City of Literature” is seen Thursday on the door of the Iowa City Public Library. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A decal for Iowa City’s designation as “UNESCO City of Literature” is seen Thursday on the door of the Iowa City Public Library. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The announcement Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the United Nation’s cultural organization after years of disputes came as Iowa City — the nation’s only “UNESCO City of Literature” — was helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and staging the annual Iowa City Book Fair.

The U.S. State Department said it will withdraw from the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural organization to stop accumulating unpaid dues and to take a stand on what it said is anti-Israel bias.

UNESCO has named 69 “Creative Cities” across the globe, with designations provided for design, crafts and folk art, literature, media arts, music, film and gastronomy. Cities receiving such designations, though, do not get any funding from UNESCO.

Iowa City was designated a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008 and remains the only U.S. city with the distinction.

Iowa City’s UNESCO network includes the UI Writers’ Workshop and International Writing Program, local authors, literary festivals, bookstores and other events and organizations.

John Kenyon, executive director of the UNESCO City of Literature in Iowa City, said he was “disappointed.”

He said the distinction has helped the community gain acclaim as a hub of literature, drawing worldwide visitors.


“It allows us to tell our story internationally ... when I go to meetings around the world, people know about Iowa City,” Kenyon said. “That’s something that wouldn’t be able to be accomplished if we’re not a member of this network, at least not in this way.”

Kenyon said it’s unclear how much of an impact the country’s withdrawal from UNESCO will mean locally.

“While it’s disappointing and while it may have a negative impact on that relationship with UNESCO, because obviously being part of a country that has told UNESCO it doesn’t like what it does and doesn’t want to be a member, that could have an impact even if it’s subconscious in terms of the way that they interact with us,” he said. “Officially and as it relates to the designation, I don’t foresee that having any effect.”

The withdrawal of the United States, which was a founding member of the organization after World War II, deals a symbolic blow. But it does not necessarily foreshadow a further retrenchment of U.S. engagement with the United Nations, which the Trump administration has been pushing to bring about structural and financial reforms.

The most immediate impact is that the United States will halt the arrears it has run up since it stopped funding the organization in 2011 to protest admitting Palestine as a full member. By the end of this calendar year, the unpaid U.S. bill will amount to $550 million. With no sign that U.S. concerns would be addressed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to pull out. Under UNESCO rules, U.S. involvement would end after December 2018.

State Department officials said they hope the withdrawal will push UNESCO to make changes so the United States could rejoin someday.

When Ronald Reagan was president, his administration withdrew in 1984 over what it said was a pro-Soviet Union bias. The nation did not rejoin until 2002 under George W. Bush.

Since then, the United States has chafed over the admission of Palestine and this summer’s designation of the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site.


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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he instructed officials there to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal also.

While U.S. officials insisted otherwise, some saw the move as further evidence of the Trump administration distancing itself from the international community.

UI International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill, who spearheaded the initiative to have Iowa City designated a UNESCO City of Literature, called the withdrawal a “disastrous” decision.

“We have to hope the wiser heads would try to talk sense into the Trump administration of the folly of withdrawing from a vibrant organization that only helps the United States,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

The Washington Post contributed.



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