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U.S. Plans to Rejoin Unesco to Counter China’s Growing Sway – WSJ

  • Biden administration is seeking readmission in July, plans to pay arrears
Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay visited Beijing in 2018.
Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay visited Beijing in 2018. (Wu Hong/EPA)

Noemie Bisserbe and Stacy Meichtry, WSJ

EnergiesNet.com 06 14 2023

The U.S. is moving to rejoin Unesco—with plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in membership fees—in a bid to counter the growing influence of China and other adversaries at the United Nations culture and heritage organization.

On Thursday, a delegation of U.S. diplomats delivered a letter to Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay seeking readmission next month to the Paris-based organization. In the letter, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal, a senior State Department official said the Biden administration plans to request an appropriation of $150 million from Congress for fiscal 2024 to pay Unesco, adding that similar contributions would be made in ensuing years until the country’s membership arrears are fully repaid. The U.S. currently owes Unesco $619 million, according to the organization.

The move aims to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2017, when it cited a need for overhauls at the organization as well as its “continuing anti-Israel bias.” Since then, China has become one of Unesco’s largest donors. The organization’s No. 2 official is now Chinese, positioning Beijing to help steer discussions at the organization on issues ranging from press freedom to education in Ukraine and other war-torn countries.

In an interview, Azoulay said the U.S. was eager to re-establish its influence at an organization that—in addition to designating heritage sites around the world—is at the forefront of global efforts to develop guidelines for artificial intelligence and other sensitive technologies.

“The U.S. are coming back because Unesco has grown stronger, and because it is dealing with issues that concern them,” she added.

In its letter, the State Department said the Biden administration planned to work with Congress to provide additional funding of $10 million in support of certain Unesco programs, including the preservation of cultural heritage in Ukraine and education about the Holocaust.

A spokeswoman for the State Department said rejoining Unesco “would address a critical gap in American global leadership, where our competitors are finding new and worrying opportunities to erode the values that underpin the international system.”

On Monday, Azoulay summoned ambassadors from Unesco’s 193 member states to a closed-door meeting in Paris to discuss the U.S.’s return. In the interview, she said she planned to hold a vote this month on the matter. The U.S. needs the support from a majority of member states.

The vote is likely to pass, officials say, because the Biden administration is planning to replenish Unesco’s coffers.

The $619 million the U.S. owes, Azoulay said, covers missed contributions that date back to 2011. That is when the Obama administration began withholding funds after Unesco conferred membership on the Palestinian territories. U.S. legislation prohibits funding to any U.N. agency that recognizes Palestinian territories as a full member.

Unesco designated the Old City of Hebron a Palestinian heritage site in 2017.
Unesco designated the Old City of Hebron a Palestinian heritage site in 2017.  (Hazem Bader/AFP)

The loss of U.S. funding had a crippling impact on Unesco, which at the time counted on the U.S. for 22% of its $500 million budget.

In 2017, Unesco designated the Old City of Hebron and Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage sites despite diplomatic efforts by Israel and political pressure from the U.S. to derail the designation. Months later, the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the organization. Unesco denied any bias against Israel.

Azoulay took over at Unesco later that year. One of the first countries she visited was China, where she met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In 2018, she appointed a Chinese diplomat, Xing Qu, as Unesco’s deputy director-general. The move ensured Unesco’s leadership reflected the various nationalities of its members, according to Azoulay’s spokesman.

She also launched mediation talks among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, reaching out to members individually to build consensus ahead of executive board meetings. Those talks continued even after Israel left the organization in 2019.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on U.S. plans to rejoin Unesco.

“We have proven that it is possible to build consensus,” Azoulay said. “There are always risks, and responsibility lies with the member states.”

After President Biden’s election, Azoulay traveled to Washington and successfully pressed lawmakers in Congress to waive the funding prohibition for Unesco, which the U.S. helped found in the wake of World War II.

Biden has previously reversed President Trump’s decision to exit from the World Health Organization, another U.N. body, and has rejoined the Paris climate accord, negotiated through the U.N.

Those moves signal his emphasis on working through international organizations and U.S. partners on world problems, even when Washington officials have differences with an organization or a particular ally.

The approach stands in contrast with Trump who pressured allies by leaving or threatening to withdraw from organizations that his administration disapproved of, sometimes as a way to gain leverage with the group.

Biden, Azoulay said, has “showed a recommitment to multilateralism.”

William Mauldin contributed to this article.

Write to Noemie Bisserbe at noemie.bisserbe@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at Stacy.Meichtry@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 13, 2023, print edition as ‘U.S. Moves to Rejoin Unesco in Bid to Stem Beijing’s Influence’.

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