Eighteen years after withdrawing in a huff, the United States is rejoining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The move, announced by U.S. President George W. Bush in his recent U.N. speech, is a victory for the world and for Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, the Japanese diplomat who heads the world body.

UNESCO’s importance has grown in parallel with concerns about the possibility of a “clash of civilizations” in the wake of the war against terrorism. The organization was founded in 1945 “to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning.” The U.S., a founding member that once supplied a quarter of its annual budget, withdrew in the 1980s, along with Britain and Singapore, in protest over corruption, politicization and mismanagement.

Mr. Matsuura took over the institution in 1999, vowing to focus the organization on core concerns and to clean up its management. Those efforts were noted by Mr. Bush, who explained that UNESCO “has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance, and learning.”

The timing of the effort could not be better. As the U.S. wages its war against terrorism, a better understanding of both Islam and the aims of the counterterrorism program is needed. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria and other states recently asked UNESCO to help break the link that has developed between Islam and terrorism and have proposed a “cultural offensive against terrorism.” Few organizations are better suited to this task than UNESCO, whose programs are designed to promote understanding across cultures.

The war against terrorism must be fought on many levels. The military component is only one of them — and may prove, in the long run, to be the least important. Far more critical is winning the hearts and minds of those who would support the terrorists. UNESCO’s focus on diplomacy and education should be central to this effort. Mr. Bush’s decision makes that possible.

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