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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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The Environmental Ruin Left Behind By The U.S. In Afghanistan

Twenty years of American military intervention and occupation have left vast ecological damage that may never be repaired.

A boy jumps over a stream that flows out of the walls of the Bagram base. Several burn pit locations at the base, which studies have shown polluted the air far above EPA standards, were last active in mid-June of 2021.

A boy jumps over a stream that flows out of the walls of the Bagram base. Several burn pit locations at the base, which studies have shown polluted the air far above EPA standards, were last active in mid-June of 2021.

Lynzy Billing
Lynzy Billing

ACHIN — Birds dip between low branches that hang over glittering brooks along the drive from Jalalabad heading south toward the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Then, the landscape changes, as lush fields give way to barren land.

Up ahead, Achin is located among a rise of rocky mountains that line the border with Pakistan, a region pounded by American bombs since the beginning of the war.

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