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First lady travels to France to mark U.S. return to U.N. education organization

The trip is the latest administration effort to emphasize the importance of multilateral organizations.
First lady Jill Biden speaks during a flag-raising ceremony at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on July 25, 2023.
First lady Jill Biden speaks at a flag-raising ceremony Tuesday at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.Bertrand Guay / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — First lady Jill Biden delivered remarks Tuesday in France at a UNESCO ceremony marking the U.S.' return to the global organization after more than four years of absence.

The U.S. formally withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in December 2018 over what the Trump administration saw as anti-Israel bias and the need for "fundamental reform." Previously, the U.S. halted funding for UNESCO when it voted to give Palestine membership in 2011.

But the absence from UNESCO was "harming our interests," and the organization has made "much-needed reforms," a senior Biden administration official said in a call with reporters last week.

The U.S. announced its decision to rejoin the organization last month and was re-admitted shortly after.

The first lady spoke at a flag-raising ceremony Tuesday marking the return of the U.S. Her trip is the latest move in the Biden administration's efforts to rejoin multilateral organizations that President Donald Trump exited.

"Some of the biggest challenges of our time cannot be solved in isolation," she said. "Of course, we need to take care of our own citizens, but we’re also a part of the global community. When we take our seat in that coalition, we can fight for our values, like democracy and equality and human rights."

In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. was rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council, a move that became formalized at the start of a three-year term beginning in January 2022.

The U.S. withdrew from the council in 2018 during the Trump administration, with the ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Nikki Haley, citing “chronic bias against Israel.”

President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement addressing climate change, which the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from in 2017. The U.S. formally exited the pact just one day after the 2020 election.

“As President Biden has frequently noted, the United States is stronger, safer, and more prosperous when we engage with the rest of the world and when we seek cooperation, collaboration, and partnership,” Blinken said in a statement last month. “By rejoining UNESCO, the United States would reinforce that message and restore our leadership in a vital international space.”

Senior administration officials framed the first lady's trip as a milestone in restoring U.S. leadership on the international stage.

“We also recognize that when we don’t show up in these organizations, other countries will fill the void,” a senior administration official said.

“If we aren’t in the room, we can’t push back,” the official added. “And if we don’t show up, we can’t fight for the American people and defend our allies abroad from unfair attacks.”

The first lady will also visit Mont-Saint-Michel — a UNESCO world heritage site — as well as the Brittany American cemetery in Normandy to honor U.S. service members who died during World War II. She will meet with France's first lady, Brigitte Macron, on Tuesday.

A senior administration official listed U.S. priorities in UNESCO, including investments in Holocaust education, preserving cultural heritage in Ukraine, journalists’ safety and STEM education for women and girls in Africa.