By Betsy Klein
First lady Dr. Jill Biden will travel to Paris next week to celebrate the US rejoining UNESCO, according to senior administration officials, in a visit that will highlight the national security imperative of American involvement in such coalitions and emphasize the role of US leadership in the world.
President Joe Biden is deploying the first lady, a top surrogate, to commemorate the occasion that reverses a Trump-era decision as he seeks to reassure allies that “America’s back” and signal the White House’s reaffirmed commitment to the organization.
The US withdrew from UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – during the Trump administration, with the State Department at the time citing anti-Israel bias and mounting membership dues owed to the international body. The organization promotes cooperation in education, science, culture, and communication, and also designates “world heritage” sites.
Then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, now a GOP presidential candidate, said at the time the organization’s “extreme politicization had become a chronic embarrassment.”
Dr. Biden, a senior administration official said, will attend and deliver remarks at a UNESCO flag raising ceremony on Tuesday and greet UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.
A second senior Biden administration official heralded the decision to rejoin the organization as “a milestone that really signifies the return of our leadership in a vital international space.”
“When we don’t show up in these organizations, other countries will fill the void. And in an era of increasing geopolitical competition, competitors are working hard at the UN to shape the global agenda,” the second senior official said, adding, “If we aren’t in the room, we can’t push back.”
The US absence from UNESCO, the official said, was “harming our interests” since the decision to withdraw in 2017, noting that the organization has also “made much-needed reforms.”
A third senior official noted that having the US at the UNESCO table will give the administration influence on “international standards and shared global understanding on issues like protection of World Heritage, the ethics of emerging technology, press freedom, and … education.” New top US priorities for the group, that official said, include investments on Holocaust education, the preservation of cultural heritage in Ukraine, journalist safety and STEM education focused in Africa for women and girls, and artificial intelligence.
“The Biden administration is committed to playing a leadership role in multilateral venues where our interests, our security and prosperity can be protected and promoted. UNESCO is precisely one of those venues where we believe the benefits of engagement are well worth the investment,” the third official said.
President Biden has often sought to communicate to US allies in the aftermath of his predecessor’s “America First” presidency that the US will reassert a leading role in what he casts as the battle between democracy and autocracy. Of course, former President Donald Trump is currently leading in GOP primary polling, with posing serious questions ahead for the future of critical US alliances following the 2024 presidential election.
The first lady is set to depart Washington for Paris on Sunday evening, arriving Monday morning. She will meet with Mrs. Brigitte Macron, spouse of French President Emmanuel Macron, on Monday. Dr. Biden will also visit Mont Saint Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and pay her respects to fallen World War II US service members at the Brittany American Cemetery in Normandy during her trip abroad.