President Bush's announcement this week that the United States would rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization took many by surprise at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. But the reaction has largely been positive.
Brian Aggeler just started his new job three weeks ago as American observer to UNESCO in Paris, fresh from a previous posting in New Delhi. His original task was to concentrate on several select programs, such as education, that the United States still funds, even though Washington withdrew its membership in UNESCO 18 years ago.
"It's not like we weren't engaged at all in UNESCO, but at the same time, we weren't full members," he explained. "We weren't on the board. We couldn't vote, anything like that. All of a sudden that's changed. And everything's geared up toward what we have to do when we re-enter. And it's going to be a lot of work."
What's changed, of course, is President Bush's announcement Thursday that the United States would rejoin UNESCO, which promotes cultural, scientific and educational cooperation around the world. America withdrew its membership in 1984, amid concerns that the body was poorly managed and biased against the West.
Since then, UNESCO has slashed its staff and drastically overhauled its management and its reputation. Experts credit UNESCO's current director general, Koichiro Matsuura, with implementing many of the reforms.
One of Mr. Matsuura's goals was to persuade the United States to rejoin. Today, he says, he is delighted that will happen.
"We are dealing with basic education to developing countries. We are dealing with cultural diversity and dialogue among different cultures. We are dealing with fresh water and eco-systems. These are issues of a global nature," he said.
Mr. Matsuura says useful debates on such global issues cannot possibly take place, without the full participation of a superpower like the United States.
So far, he says, he has heard no negative reactions about Washington's rejoining. And one Iraqi representative told VOA last year that he supported America's reentry, as a way to better understand the concerns of other countries.
In the past, however, other delegates have quietly expressed fears the United States might try to dominate UNESCO'S agenda. But Ahmed Jalali, president of UNESCO's general conference, says the organization's goal of creating intellectual and moral solidarity among nations requires equal participation.
"Creating that atmosphere cannot be done with any kind of dominancy," Mr.Jalali said. "As I mentioned, it should be through participation, dialogue and sharing the idea."
Mr. Jalali is also Iran's ambassador to UNESCO. Like many other delegates, he welcomes the return of the United States.