US seeks to rejoin cultural battleground with China

Washington wants back into UNESCO to promote its “vision of a free world”

The United States plans to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Department of State confirmed on Sunday. Years after leaving the body, US officials now see it as an essential platform in Washington’s multi-domain rivalry with China.

The State Department sent a letter to the Paris-based body on June 8, outlining its desire to rejoin the organization after a five-year absence. “It is our understanding that UNESCO leadership will convey our proposal to the membership in the coming days,” the department confirmed to AP on Sunday, but shared no details of the plan.

Washington cut its funding to UNESCO under former president Barack Obama, after Palestine became a full member of the organization back in 2011. In 2017, under Donald Trump’s administration, Wanshington (followed by Israel) formally left UNESCO, citing a “pro-Palestinian bias” allegedly persisting within the agency.

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“China right now is the single largest contributor to UNESCO,” State Secretary Antony Blinken complained in March, while urging the Congress to set aside some $150 million for a potential return, as the US owes a significant amount in missed payments.

“They are working on rules, norms and standards for artificial intelligence. We want to be there,” Blinken said.

The move “will help address a critical gap in our global leadership toolkit and capacity, and it will also help us address a key opportunity cost that our absence is creating in our global competition with China,” Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass said at the time.

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“If we’re really serious about the digital-age competition with China… we 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,” he added, arguing that the absence undercuts the US “ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world.”

In 2021, three years after a similarly dramatic walk-out over the alleged anti-Israel bias, the United States rejoined the UN Human Rights Council, also fearing a growing influence of China over the global body.

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