Entr'acte: Cultural imperialism or free flow of ideas?

Posted in Other | 03-Feb-05 | Author: Alan Riding| Source: International Herald Tribune

UNESCO headquarters, Paris.
PARIS The idea of promoting cultural diversity around the world sounds reasonable enough. It recognizes that everyone profits from the free flow of ideas, words and images. It encourages preservation of, say, indigenous traditions and minority languages. It treats the cultures of rich and poor countries as equals. And, most topically, it offers a healthy antidote to cultural homogeneity.

Try turning this seemingly straightforward idea into an international treaty, however, and things soon become complicated. Since October 2003, the 190 members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have been working on what is provisionally called the Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expression. It is meant to be approved by consensus this fall, but don't count on it. There is still no agreement on the convention's final name.

That, though, is a minor issue compared with more fundamental differences. Led by France and Canada, a majority of countries are asserting the right of governments to safeguard, promote and even protect their cultures from outside competition. Opposing them, a smaller group led by the United States argues that cultural diversity would best flourish in the freedom of the globalized economy.

A fresh bid to break the deadlock is under way at the headquarters of Unesco in Paris, where delegates and experts are wrestling with hundreds of proposed amendments to the convention's first draft. Yet the more they advance toward concrete definitions, some delegates believe, the less likely they are to reach consensus.

The reason is simple: Behind the idealistic screen of cultural diversity, weighty economic and political issues are at stake.

The story began with the last global trade liberalization round a decade ago when France obtained what became known as the "cultural exception," which effectively authorized protection of culture. Now, anticipating a fresh round of free trade talks, France and Canada want to go further: By enshrining cultural diversity in a legally binding Unesco convention, they hope to shield culture from the free trade rules of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization.

Why France and Canada? Both countries view cultural independence as an essential part of their political identity. They have also long resisted the imperial reach of the United States' popular culture, notably Hollywood, by using fiscal incentives, taxes, subsidies and quotas to protect their movie, music, publishing and other cultural industries. And under the kind of convention they favor, they would continue doing so without risk of being challenged.

In contrast, as the world's largest exporter of movies, television programs and other audiovisual products, the United States can only lose from any restriction on cultural exchange. Nonetheless, having ended a 19-year boycott and reclaimed its seat at Unesco in late 2003, just as plans for the convention were taking shape, Washington decided not to resume its activity in the organization by being obstructionist. Instead it opted for vigilance.

The first draft of the convention, presented by 15 experts last summer, tried to please everyone by endorsing "the free flow of ideas by word and image" and by noting that cultural goods and services "must not be treated as ordinary merchandise or consumer goods."

The battle was then joined in November when governments presented their responses, many of which have now become proposed amendments to the draft.

The response from the United States was unambiguous. While supporting the principle of cultural diversity, it warned that "controlling cultural or artistic expressions is not consistent with respect for human rights or the free flow of information." It further noted: "Mounting trade barriers, including efforts to prevent the free flow of investment and knowledge, is not a valid way to promote cultural liberty or diversity since such measures reduce choices."

One State Department official explained. "We support 'protect' as in nurture, not 'protect' as in barriers," the official said. "That said, 'protect' remains a highly loaded concept in this cultural diversity context and, for that reason, remains a sensitive issue. If the convention promotes cultural diversity, we are in favor.

"We're not in favor of anything that prevents the free and open exchange of cultures."

Supporters of the convention stood their ground. Canada's response to the draft showed some flexibility by proposing that globalization be described as a "challenge" rather than a "threat."

But, while diplomatically avoiding the word "protect," it also reasserted its right to preserve and promote any cultural activity that it defined as domestic.

The French position was backed by the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of the 25-nation European Union on trade matters. Just as it supported the "cultural exception" a decade ago, the commission endorsed the view that trade disputes involving culture should in future be ruled by the Unesco convention, not the WTO.

The battle lines are becoming clearer. France and Canada can claim the support of China and African countries, as well as much of Latin America, although Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela want freedom to export their popular television soap operas. Support for the U.S. free-trade view, in turn, comes from other countries with commercial interests to defend: Japan because of its animated movie industry and India because of its Bollywood movie powerhouse.

In the end, though, the spotlight will be on the United States. "The American objective is to have no convention," one Latin American diplomat said, "but if there is flexibility, it will have no choice but to accept it."

French officials are less sanguine. They believe that, in using amendments to forestall an agreement this fall, Washington hopes the entire debate will become muddied next year by negotiations on the next global trade round.

"I expect the usual American approach," said Garry Neil, executive director of the Ottawa-based International Network for Cultural Diversity, a nongovernmental lobby. "They'll take a hard line, weaken the text as much as possible - and then not sign it."

Certainly, if the United States finds the final draft unacceptable, it can break the consensus tradition and demand a vote. And even if a convention on cultural diversity eventually goes into effect, the United States Senate seems unlikely to ratify it.

Does this matter?

With a convention adopted by consensus or by an overwhelming vote, France, Canada and others will claim fresh authority to protect their cultures. But a more interesting question is whether such a convention will help sustain culture in countries too poor to do so themselves. That, after all, was one of the proclaimed purposes of this exercise. At the moment, it risks being forgotten.