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On June 12, 2023, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay convened a meeting of member-state ambassadors at the organization’s Paris headquarters. She informed them of the formal U.S. request for UNESCO membership, which had arrived four days earlier: “This is a strong act of confidence, in UNESCO and in multilateralism,” she said. “Not only in the centrality of the organization’s mandate—culture, education, science, information—but also in the way this mandate is being implemented today.”

About two weeks later, on June 30, UNESCO’s member states held a vote on whether to readmit the United States. Of the 193 member states, 132 voted in favor and 10 opposed, while 51 did not vote.

Negotiations for America’s return to UNESCO took place both among its member states and in the U.S., where skepticism about UNESCO had become widespread. Director-General Azoulay, of French nationality and Jewish ancestry, worked on both fronts to address these concerns since taking her post in 2017. She won broad praise for her personal efforts to build consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, and other diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions. She also met with Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress to explain those efforts. And when Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2022 elections, it provided an opening to allocate funding—$150 million—for the U.S. to rejoin UNESCO.

As the Associated Press reported, this groundwork led Azoulay to express confidence “that the U.S. decision to return is for the long term, regardless of who wins [the 2024] presidential election.”

UNESCO’s Emphasis on Multilateralism

Within UNESCO, multilateralism means attention to the interest of all member states, even the smallest. Other UN organizations are organized differently. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example, allocate votes according to each nation’s wealth. The General Assembly, on the other hand, gives votes to every nation, and the Security Council grants five great nations veto power.

Multilateralism in UNESCO provides recognition to the world’s peoples, most famously through its World Heritage Program. The program began in 1960 with the recovery of Egyptian heritage as the waters rose behind the Aswan Dam. It continues today, with the reconstruction of the old city of Mosul, Iraq, as one of its latest projects, and a total of 1,157 World Heritage Sites in 167 nations. (The U.S. has 23 such sites.)

UNESCO makes other important contributions to global knowledge and culture. Projects over the years have included creating global structures of scientific collaboration; a postwar campaign against racism; the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58; the International Biological Program; an oceanography program; and an ongoing program for expanding global literacy.

In the 1950s UNESCO launched a multi-volume survey of world history, followed later by multi-volume regional histories for Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Central Asia. In 2010, the UNESCO affiliate for study of history gave recognition to a five-continent organization of historians specializing in world and global history.

UNESCO is also an obvious base for the storage and administration of world-historical datasets and archives. Jens Boel of Denmark, who long supervised the UNESCO archives in Paris, has done much to lay the groundwork for UNESCO to host an emerging set of global historical archives.

The U.S. will contribute greatly to multilateralism in UNESCO by paying its current and past dues. The initial $150 million U.S. payment in 2023 is a portion of the full amount of unpaid dues owed, which is estimated at over $600 million. Notably, the finances of UNESCO, though reaching millions of dollars, are very small on a global scale. (UNESCO’s annual budget is only 1% of the United Nations total, and the UN’s total budget is just over half that of New York City.).

Balancing Multilateralism and Great-Power Influence

The U.S. is a great power, relying on economic and military strength to maintain global leadership. Considering this, can the U.S. be a “good neighbor” within UNESCO, exercising its power gently?

The U.S. was outside of UNESCO from 1984 to 2002, and from 2011 to the present. In my April 2021 blog post, I argued that the U.S. should return to UNESCO. My essay also outlined U.S. leadership in the 1945 founding of UNESCO and the ups and downs of U.S. participation since then. From the 1980s, the U.S. has treated UNESCO more as a political organization than as an educational, scientific, and cultural organization. I asked: How can America claim global leadership in education, culture, and science without participating in the main structure of global collaboration?

How can America claim global leadership in education, culture, and science without participating in the main structure of global collaboration?

It remains to be seen how, exactly, the U.S. will approach its renewed UNESCO membership. In a statement earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said implicitly that global standards in artificial intelligence and technology education will be set through UNESCO, not just by “western” nations.  Blinken participated in a May meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which is preparing draft policies on AI that are different from those developed by China; both will be submitted to UNESCO.

On June 12, an unnamed U.S. official spoke more bluntly: “The decision to return was motivated by concern that China is filling the gap left by the U.S. in UNESCO policymaking.” Similarly, State Department official John Bass said that the U.S. “can’t afford to be absent any longer from one of the key fora in which standards around education for science and technology are set.”

For the moment, it appears UNESCO could become another arena for determining whether U.S.–China relations are cordial or hostile. But there may be another reason that the U.S. is citing competition with China as an explanation for rejoining UNESCO. Officials might be using the fear of Chinese advantage in AI as a way to distract attention from pro-Israel lobbies that would oppose re-entering UNESCO while the Palestine Liberation Organization is a member.

After rejoining UNESCO, the U.S. intends to run for a seat on UNESCO’s 58-member executive board in the November elections; about 30 member states will be elected to four-year terms. But the election process is regional, and the U.S. would need to be nominated by the European group of 25 countries to fill one of its three nominations for the board. Whether or not the U.S. is elected to the executive board, its delegates will lobby to influence the outlook and votes of the UNESCO delegations from other nations—as will China and other nations large and small.

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