U.S. Thumbs Nose at World -- Again

Should nations and indigenous peoples be able to protect their cultures against the global market power of Hollywood, American TV and pop music? Tomorrow, the 190 nations that belong to Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) will vote on a treaty to authorize precisely that. Every Unesco-member nation except one is expected to support the treaty, ponderously known as the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression.

The dissenting nation, predictably, will be the United States. The U.S. is becoming an old hand at showing its contempt for world opinion. Our government has thumbed its nose at the Kyoto global warming treaty, the Geneva conventions, the United Nations, and international law on the invasion of nations (like Iraq). Once again, the U.S., in defense of its market interests, is exempting itself from international norms.

With high-minded righteousness, U.S. trade negotiators say they simply are defending free trade and the free flow of ideas and information. They condemn the “censorship” and restraints on consumer choice that the Unesco treaty would supposedly sanction. What they are really attacking, of course, are any restraints on the ability of American media corporations to overwhelm local markets from Iceland to Baghdad with America’s cultural product. If that means that Brazilian music and Japanese animation won’t be able to compete as effectively with lower-priced U.S. fare — ranging from Die Hard to Disney, Britney Spears to Eminem, and People magazine to Newsweekwell, they shrug, so be it. That’s what the “free market” is all about.

The Unesco treaty, in truth, is more symbolic than substantive. It doesn’t really have any meaningful enforcement mechanisms, so the actual effects on global sales of cultural product are likely to be nil. Still, the treaty is an important statement of national aspiration and worldview. Shall culture be regarded as synonymous with that which the market sells — a definition that renders all non-commodified culture expendable? Or shall nations be allowed to defend their national identities and values from U.S. market power?

The former approach virtually assures U.S. dominance of global culture (and markets). The latter approach would allow nations to subsidize their domestic culture industries and limit foreign imports of magazines, films and music. France could support its film industry, for example, and Canada could limit the imports of U.S. magazines. Smaller nations could nurture their distinctive cultural traditions without running afoul of trade rules, and indigenous cultures would not be forced to consider their songs and designs as mere commodities.

While there is much to be said for open markets and its salutary effects on free and diverse expression, the ability to sustain one’s language, values and culture is no small matter either. Indeed, it is the imperial conceit of U.S. media companies that these things don’t matter — only markets do — and that the global market in culture is in fact a “level playing field.”

These propositions are simply false, and a great deal of political resentment and instability around the world stems from the cultural displacement wrought by McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Disney, Paramount, Time Warner and their ilk. American cultural dominance has profound non-economic consequences.

Although the Unesco treaty may be largely symbolic, it has some substantive implications. U.S. corporations and trade negotiations don’t like the precedent of other nations getting uppity. U.S. acquiescence on this treaty, for example, might embolden international resistance to fight the larger project of globalization itself. Success on the Unesco treaty, for example, might encourage developing nations to fight for a more humane intellectual property regime for drug patents and agricultural biotech. It might unleash new fights in international trade venues for a serious development agenda for poor countries. (For more on the Unesco treaty, check out the Consumer Project on Technology website see also my previous post on the treaty.)

Of course, American intransigence on something as modest as the Unesco treaty may backfire, and catalyze further resistance. It is surely a bad sign that a nation that trumpeted its “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” at its founding, has now forgotten this simple principle of respect and legitimacy.