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Soft Power, Hard Ball: Why The U.S. Wants Back In UNESCO

The U.S. is set to rejoin UNESCO, after Donald Trump pulled the country out in 2017, accusing it of being biased against Israel. The reasons for the return include artificial intelligence and pure geopolitics.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay speaks in Berlin

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay at a UNESCO meeting in Germany.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — When the U.S. takes a diplomatic initiative in the current climate, China is never far from its thoughts. This is partly the case with Washington's decision, announced yesterday, to rejoin UNESCO after several years of absence. A decision made all the more spectacular in that the U.S. has even pledged to pay its arrears of dues — hundreds of millions of dollars.

Beijing made a swipe at the U.S. decision: "UNESCO must be vigilant, as the U.S. is coming back to use it against China", wrote the Chinese Communist Party daily Global Times.

What exactly is this all about? The U.S. withdrew in two steps from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, based in Paris. Nothing to do with China. In 2011, Palestine's admission as a member state led Barack Obama to suspend U.S. contributions to UNESCO under a law passed by Congress.

In 2017, Donald Trump took the decision a step further by leaving the organization outright, accused of being biased against Israel.

Why this comeback?

There are two reasons for this return. First, because a compromise was reached on the root of the conflict, the votes on Islamic sites in the occupied Palestinian territories. UNESCO's Director-General, former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay, calmed things down and got the organization out of the controversy.

Then, and this brings us to China, the U.S. realizes that the empty chair policy only benefits Beijing. As the second largest financial contributor, China has become UNESCO's main backer in recent years. UNESCO is not just about selecting sites for world heritage listing, but also about educational programs, rebuilding Mosul in Iraq, defending press freedom and scientific exchanges.

And in particular, UNESCO has worked on and adopted a code of ethics for artificial intelligence, today's hot topic. The U.S. can't afford to be absent from a place where standards are set, especially if China is there.

\u200bUNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France.

UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France.

Fred Romero/Wikimedia

Surprise 'attack'

Washington strikes a diplomatic blow, with the element of surprise. Not only is the U.S. back, but the Biden administration has secured bipartisan support in Congress for the settlement of arrears. UNESCO's ban on funding an organization of which Palestine is a member had to be lifted.

This allows the U.S. to show countries in the Global South, which are particularly attached to UNESCO, that it is paying attention. The war in Ukraine has already taken its toll...

Multilateralism is under severe strain

Yesterday, it was revealed that the Biden administration is working on a project to expand the UN Security Council to include six major emerging countries. Even if this reform has little chance of success at the moment, it will be necessary to show good will when these large countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, give in to the anti-Western sirens of Moscow and Beijing.

In the end, even if moving beyond ulterior motives, the return of the U.S. strengthens multilateralism, which is currently under severe strain.

Diplomacy is not done for yet.

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Photo of hostages held by Gaza

Families and supporters of hostages protest outside the IDF headquarters demanding the release of those kidnapped be a first priority.

Emma Albright, Cameron Manley and Bertrand Hauger

Israel has confirmed that the total number of hostages held by Hamas is 199, higher than the 155 previously stated by the army. The top spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Daniel Hagari, says the military has notified the families of all those confirmed held in Gaza after last Saturday’s massive attack by Hamas in southern Israel.

“We are making valiant efforts to try to understand where the hostages are in Gaza, and we have such information,” Hagari was quoted by Israeli media. “We will not carry out an attack that would endanger our people.”

Israel has been conducting massive air raids in Gaza aimed at hitting Hamas, which have come with an enormous price in Palestinian civilian casualties, with the total death count now above 2,700. Families of the hostages have feared that their loved ones could be among those killed by Israel’s air strikes.

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The hostages include at least 13 children and at least eight people over the age of 60, including at least two over 80. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on Sunday that up to 10 British people may be being held in Gaza. The U.S. has also confirmed a number of its citizens have been captured by Hamas, and that 13 of its citizens are missing. Thai officials say 17 of the country's nationals are also being held in Gaza, while France says 13 of its citizens remain missing. Eight Germans, two Mexicans and one Russian-Israeli are among the hostages.

Hamas has said it has hidden its hostages in "safe places and tunnels" within Gaza, and has threatened to kill them if civilian homes are bombed by Israel without warning. Plans for a likely Israeli ground invasion will have to take into account the fate of the hostages.

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