Nearly two decades after quitting the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over charges of bias and inefficiency, the United States officially rejoins the Paris-based body Wednesday.
The U.S. flag was raised over the UNESCO headquarters in the presence of First Lady Laura Bush and UNESCO Secretary General Koichiro Matsuura in Paris. The American return is considered a coup for the organization's Japanese head, who has spent much his four-year tenure wooing Washington back.
The United States quit UNESCO in 1984 after concluding the body had strayed far from its purpose of promoting peace and security through education, scientific, and cultural relations. Critics also charged that a so-called new world information order promoted by former UNESCO Secretary General Amadou Mahtar M'Bow was designed to muzzle press freedom.
But in recent years, a growing chorus of U.S. leaders, including former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and George Shultz, have called for Washington's return to UNESCO. Last year, President George Bush announced it would do so.
The main reason was that, largely under Mr. Matsuura's leadership, UNESCO is credited with bringing about radical internal reforms, slashing staff and tackling allegations of corruption, nepotism and cultural bias.
During her speech Monday, Mrs. Bush called on the organization to place more emphasis on education in developing and war-torn countries.
"By directing our resources toward these four priorities: basic literacy and primary education, education in tolerance, post-conflict education, and AIDS/HIV education, UNESCO will be acting on its most important purpose and lifting millions of lives," she said. "Today, in unity with every nation here, the United States commits itself to the promise of education for every man, woman and child."
The First Lady also praised UNESCO's other goals of promoting science, technology, and cultural heritage.
Many delegates, like the German ambassador to UNESCO, Hans-Heinrich Wrede, were quick to praise the return of the Americans.
"Germany is extremely pleased that the United States [is returning] to UNESCO," said Ambassador Wrede. "It will certainly make a tremendous contribution to its work. And this contribution will not only be in terms of financial resources, obviously the United States is going to be the biggest contributor to our budget. But it will especially be a contribution in terms of ideas coming from the American side, coming from American civil society."
Libyan delegate Abdel Kader Al Maleh also welcomed Washington's return to UNESCO as a way for Americans to understand the concerns of other nations.
"To understand other people, and opinions and concepts, and to know what is going on, particularly in the Third World," said Mr. Al Maleh. "To understand what is happening. People fear the Americans are far from them, far from all things."
"When something goes wrong, you do not leave," added Kenyan delegate Shem Wandiga, who thought the United States should not have left in the first place. "As the leader of a house, you do not just abandon the house, and say I am fed up, I am going," he said. "They should have helped us straighten things within UNESCO and possibly have a better influence on the future direction of UNESCO than they've had so far."
For others, the U.S. return to UNESCO has sparked concern. Some diplomats expressed fear the United States will impose its own agenda on the body and that concepts it will promote, such as tolerance, diversity and human rights, may not be ones they accept.
One battle already looming is on cultural diversity, which is expected to pit U.S. calls for a free flow of ideas and goods across borders against demands by France and several other countries for greater protection for movies and other cultural products.
But at a news conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who heads the American delegation to UNESCO this week, insisted Washington did not intend to impose its agenda.
"We want to hear from other member countries," said Mr. Paige. "We want to learn their point of view. We want to share our thoughts. But I think you can expect the United States to be a good team member, with other countries within UNESCO working toward world peace."
U.S. dues will amount to almost a quarter of UNESCO's budget, which is expected to increase from 544 to $610 million in the next two years. Critics say that amount will not meet the organization's ambitious agenda.
Mr. Wandiga, the Kenyan delegate, and a chemistry professor from Nairobi says UNESCO's chemistry budget for Africa is minuscule.
"There are no funds," he said. "In the last biennium, the whole continent only had $20,000 for chemistry. What can you do with $20,000 in a continent with as big and wide a need for science, particularly in my discipline?"
But while Washington's return may not answer all UNESCO's budgetary needs, many delegates are eager to tap American expertise. Even symbolically, they say, the U.S. return will boost UNESCO's credibility and effectiveness worldwide.