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Rejoining UNESCO is a critical step for regaining global influence

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The United States’ relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been a troubled one for decades. The U.S. has left and then rejoined the organization twice since the 1970s. The Trump administration pulled the U.S. out in 2018. 

Much has changed under UNESCO’s Director General Audrey Azoulay. She has addressed each of the concerns raised by the United States since she took office in late 2017.

Azoulay, a former Minister of Culture in the French government, has managed to limit the influence of those who would use the resolution process to score political points. The French-born daughter of a Moroccan Jewish family, Azoulay worked with moderate Arab states to eliminate political resolutions that had created a strong reaction in American political circles. She led a mediation process that produced a rule requiring unanimous consent for any resolution on matters involving the Middle East. 

This huge step forward had the effect of neutralizing the anti-Israeli bias that the organization had been accused of. At the time, it received high praise from the Israeli ambassador. However the Trump administration’s subsequent decision to leave made it difficult for Israel to remain.

Azoulay recognized that it was important to keep the focus on UNESCO’s primary mission. She has managed to create a highly relevant agenda that serves a world badly in need of consensus building in the fields of education, science and cultural heritage.

UNESCO has continued its seminal work in courses related to anti-semitism, publishing guides in several languages including Arabic and Farsi. The Holocaust Museum in Washington strongly supports the work UNESCO is doing; as does the  American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League. 

The organization is leading a global dialogue on artificial intelligence (AI) designed to explore the ethical limits of this new technology. AI has great potential to improve lives and create scientific innovation, but it can also be used by governments and individuals to invade privacy and to create weapons of war that extend beyond human control. The United States should be deeply engaged in this dialogue, as are the Russian and Chinese governments..

The organization provided strategic leadership for donors in Afghanistan for girls’ education programs. The Taliban government may discontinue these programs, but they cannot erase the empowerment that the knowledge these women gained has created.

In an era when press freedom is under attack, UNESCO is the lead U.N. organization promoting a free press. UNESCO is vitally important in holding governments accountable so that crimes against journalists are adjudicated. A recent program to train journalists to cover the scientific intricacies of the coronavirus pandemic was welcomed by global press outlets.

UNESCO promotes the notion that scientific knowledge benefits humankind and should be shared. The organization has spearheaded a number of global programs of great interest to U.S. scientists, including the world’s largest particle accelerator (CERN’s Large Hadron Collider), a global tsunami early warning system and networks for sharing scientific information on issues such as the development of coronavirus vaccines.

The city of Mosul in Iraq suffered great destruction by ISIS extremists during the Iraq war. UNESCO is leading a large-scale international effort to rebuild religious and and cultural sites, reconstructing schools as well as Muslim, Christian and Jewish  houses of worship. UNESCO is also fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts, the main source of financing for terrorists.

A number of UNESCO World Heritage sites exist in American states, attracting people from around the world and significantly increasing tourism revenues.

Education, science and culture are sources of soft power for nations participating in UNESCO, and autocratic powers like China and Russia are eager to participate. For understandable diplomatic reasons, Azoulay will say little about the influence these nations are attempting to exercise, but both are actively engaged in trying to shape UNESCO’s agenda. 

UNESCO’s programs are sometimes seen as threatening to authoritarian governments. Russia, for example, is trying to expel UNESCO from Crimea where it is working to sustain the cultural heritage of Tartars and others who do not wish to be assimilated into the Russian orbit. Its last attempt to scuttle this program lost by only a few votes and America’s allies were left alone to defend the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine.

China has made efforts to move UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education from Geneva to Shanghai and has sought to sign a cooperative agreement between UNESCO and its Belt and Road Initiative. China has a real need to improve its international image and it sees UNESCO as an important vehicle.

A recent audit by the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN) reflects great progress in the efficient management of UNESCO. That, and Azoulay’s efforts to focus on issues of central importance to a world struggling with transnational issues, are precisely what the U.S. has been demanding. 

A firm congressional prohibition against joining any U.N. organization that recognizes the Palestinian Authority is the current roadblock to rejoining. The prohibition is unique in its failure to include a national interest waiver and thus ties the hands of a president who would wish to respond to changed circumstances. 

President Biden, anxious to reengage the world in forums like UNESCO, has requested such a waiver. The administration recognizes that Azoulay’s reforms defuse the Palestinian issue and warrant recognition.

In the battle between democracy and autocracy, UNESCO is an important part of the field of play. Right now, sadly, the United States isn’t even on the field. It is long past time for Congress to recognize that the national interests of the United States are best served by participation in international organizations like UNESCO. 

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID and undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration. He was a member of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Panel on Peace Operations.

Tags Audrey Azoulay Joe Biden UNESCO United Nations United Nations Development Group

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