UNITED NATIONS -- Top U.N. officials reacted Thursday to the news of the U.S. withdrawal from the UNESCO international cultural agency with deep regret, seeing it as a disappointing retreat from the multilateral values the organization represents.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called the U.S. decision "a loss for UNESCO, the U.N. family and multilateralism" in a statement.
"At a time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies around the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack," the statement read.
In another step back from the global stage, the U.S. announced its exit from UNESCO earlier that day, citing its "anti-Israel bias." The move follows its withdrawals from such multilateral frameworks as the Paris climate deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
In explaining its exit, the U.S. cited concerns over "mounting arrears" and "a need for fundamental reform" in a statement from the State Department. The U.S. will remain a member until Dec. 31, 2018, after which it will become an observer state.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed regret at a daily briefing Thursday, but toned down the disappointment. "We interact with the United States very productively on a range of issues through a range of organizations and will continue to do that," deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
"Obviously, as with other member states, there are times when there may be differences on this or that issue," Haq said, adding that the secretary-general "works well with the government of the U.S. and will continue to interact with them in an effort to make sure that we can continue to achieve our common goals."
France, which is currently vying for the UNESCO chief post, also weighed in with a statement from its foreign ministry. "UNESCO is about promoting our ideals and values through culture, education and science," Francois Delattre, France's U.N. ambassador told reporters in New York, calling these values part of both French and American DNA. "I would add more now than ever, as these values are contested," Delattre said, "we need an America that stays committed to world affairs."
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley defended Washington's decision, noting that while the agency's purpose is "a good one" the organization's "extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment," in a press release from the U.S. Mission to the U.N.
"U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense," Haley said.
Haley cited UNESCO's designation of the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory in July as a major catalyst for the U.S. decision to withdraw. Israel has praised the U.S. response, and announced its intention to withdraw as well.