WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will nominate a longtime aide who once worked for the first lady to represent the United States at the United Nations agency devoted to education, science and culture, a White House official said Monday.
The U.S. recently rejoined the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after a five-year hiatus initiated by Biden’s immediate predecessor in the White House, Donald Trump.
The Democratic president’s choice to become the U.S. permanent representative to the Paris-based UNESCO, with the rank of ambassador, is longtime aide Courtney O’Donnell, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the nomination before a formal announcement.
O’Donnell currently wears two hats in the administration: She’s a senior adviser in Harris’ office and acting chief of staff for Harris’ husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, and lends her expertise to a range of national and global issues, including gender equity and countering antisemitism, a top issue for Emhoff, who is Jewish.
O’Donnell also was communications director for Jill Biden, when she was second lady during Joe Biden’s vice presidency when Barack Obama was president. O’Donnell helped Jill Biden raise awareness and support for U.S. military families and promote community colleges.
She has extensive experience in developing global partnerships, public affairs and strategic communications, having held senior roles in two presidential administrations, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, national political campaigns and the private sector, according to her official bio.
O’Donnell most recently oversaw global partnerships at Airbnb.
Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain said O’Donnell is trusted by colleagues worldwide.
“This is a fantastic pick and she will do a fantastic job at UNESCO,” he said in a statement.
Cathy Russell worked with O’Donnell in the second lady’s office and said she is skilled at developing global partnerships, creating social impact campaigns and providing strategic counsel on a range of issues.
“Everyone who knows Courtney knows she is committed to the value of global engagement and strengthening American leadership around the world,” Russell said.
The Senate must vote on O’Donnell’s nomination.
The first lady attended a ceremony in late July at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where the U.S. flag was raised to mark Washington’s official reentry into the U.N. agency after the absence initiated by Trump, a Republican. She spoke about the importance of American leadership in preserving cultural heritage and empowering education and science across the globe.
The United States announced its intention to rejoin UNESCO in June, and the organization’s 193 member states voted in July to approve the U.S. reentry. The ceremony formally signified the U.S. becoming the 194th member — and flag proprietor — at the agency.
The U.S. decision to return was based mainly on concerns that China has filled a leadership gap since Washington withdrew, underscoring the broader geopolitical dynamics at play, particularly the growing influence of China in international institutions.
The U.S. exit from UNESCO in 2017 cited an alleged anti-Israel bias within the organization. The decision followed a 2011 move by UNESCO to include Palestine as a member state, which led the U.S. and Israel to cease financing the agency. The U.S. withdrawal became official in 2018.
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