Jill Biden heads to Paris to help mark US return to United Nations educational and science agency

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden has represented her country at the Tokyo Olympics, the coronation of a king in London and a royal wedding in Jordan. She has another chance to put her ambassadorial skills to work this week when the United States officially joins a United Nations agency dedicated to education, science and culture around the world.

Biden arrived in Paris early Monday after taking an overnight flight from Washington to join other senior figures and speak at a ceremony on Tuesday at the headquarters of the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization. The American flag will be raised to mark the return of the United States to membership after a five-year absence.

UNESCO aims to foster global collaboration in the fields of education, science and culture. It also designates World Heritage Sites, deeming them worthy of eternal preservation.

The agency on Sunday condemned Russia’s attack on a cathedral in Odessa and other heritage sites in Ukraine in recent days and said it would send a team to the Black Sea port city to assess the damage.

In a statement, UNESCO noted that the historic center of Odessa was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site earlier this year and said attacks by Russian forces contradict recent pledges by Russian authorities to take precautions to spare such sites across the country.

Before returning to Washington on Wednesday, Biden will visit a historic site in France, Mont-Saint-Michel, a thousand-year-old Benedictine abbey listed as a World Heritage Site in 1979. It is on an island in Normandy, in the north of the country.

The daughter and mother of American servicemen, the first lady will also visit the American cemetery and memorial in Brittany to pay tribute to the more than 4,400 American servicemen who are buried there, most of whom died in Normandy and Brittany during the Second World War.

She will also stop at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Tuesday to speak with Brigitte Macron, a former teacher and wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. The women have met several times over the past two years, including in Washington last December when Macron was on a state visit to the United States.

Senior Biden administration officials said the return to UNESCO aligns with President Joe Biden’s goal to strengthen global partnerships and recommit to American leadership at the UN and other international organizations to serve as a checks and balances on nations that do not share American values.

Others said Jill Biden, who teaches English and writing at a community college in Virginia, was best suited to represent the United States in Paris on Tuesday.

“The First Lady, as a longtime educator and believer in the power of educational opportunity around the world, is honored to help celebrate this milestone,” spokesperson Elizabeth Alexander said. “She looks forward to raising the United States flag again at UNESCO Headquarters, showing our country’s commitment to international cooperation in education, science and culture.”

The United States pulled out of the Paris-based organization in 2018, under then-President Donald Trump, a Republican who claimed UNESCO was biased against Israel.

The administration of Biden, a Democrat, pushed to join concerns that China was filling the leadership void created by the absence of the United States.

The administration announced in June that it would apply to join the 193-member organization that also plays a major role in setting international standards for artificial intelligence and technology education.

The organization’s board voted earlier this month to approve Biden’s reinstatement plan, and the United States handed over a document certifying that it would accept the invitation to become the 194th member of UNESCO.

“Our organization is once again moving towards universality,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay. She described the return of the United States as “great news for multilateralism as a whole. If we are to meet the challenges of our century, there can only be a collective response.

The Trump administration in 2017 announced that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias. This decision which took effect a year later.

The United States and Israel stopped funding UNESCO after voting to include Palestine as a member state in 2011.

The Biden administration has requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to cover UNESCO dues and arrears. The plan calls for similar demands for subsequent years until the full $619 million debt is paid off.

This represents a large portion of UNESCO’s $534 million annual operating budget. Before leaving, the United States contributed 22% of the agency’s overall funding.

The United States previously withdrew from UNESCO under the Reagan administration in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt, and used to advance Soviet interests. He joined in 2003 under President George W. Bush. His wife, Laura, spoke at the ceremony.

Replacing the president at home and abroad has become a big part of a first lady’s unofficial job description, and Biden travels at least several times a week to promote administration initiatives.

The trip to Paris is Jill Biden’s fourth solo international excursion this year.

She visited Namibia and Kenya in February, followed by a trip to London in May for the coronation of King Charles III. In June, she traveled to Jordan to attend the royal wedding of a son of King Abdullah II, followed by stops in Egypt, Morocco and Portugal.

Before flying to Paris on Sunday evening, she headlined Friday and Saturday fundraisers in Massachusetts for her husband’s re-election campaign.

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