Politics & Policy

Cultural Buttinskis

An insidious United Nations treaty.

On October 20 the U.N.’s cultural wing, UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), adopted an insidious treaty to preserve the world’s “cultural security”–a locution concocted by U.N. Chinese delegates in support of the proposition that culturally weak nations should be able to protect against the influence of culturally powerful ones by barring cultural imports and subsidizing their own culture. The vote in Paris was 148-2, with only the United States and Israel opposed.

This latest French- and Canadian-instigated folie by UNESCO, with its history of corruption and anti-Americanism, could ignite the mother of all culture wars and shackle free cultural interchange. The agreement also presents yet another challenge to the sovereignty of democratic nation-states, insofar as it advances the illiberal principle that a collective of governments knows and may determine what is best for humanity at large.

The pact, disingenuously titled the “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions,” is larded with doublespeak, which columnist George F. Will has deciphered. Cutting to the quick, Will observes that the treaty in fact enables countries to ” ‘protect’ their ‘cultural expressions’ against diversity arising from cultural imports that can be stigmatized as threats to social cohesion. . . .” Thus it gives the prestigious U.N. seal of approval to what Louise Oliver, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, cites as the “cultural exception” promoted in recent years by some nations: the notion that cultural goods can be exempted from free-trade agreements.

To justify such protectionism, the treaty declares that “cultural activities, goods and services” must not be viewed “as solely having commercial value.” On a loftier note sounded by France’s culture minister, as quoted in the Oct. 14 Wall Street Journal, “Works of art and the spirit must not be considered to be goods.”

Of course the cultural goods actually targeted for exclusion are those of the culturally prolific, exuberant, and contagious U.S., and the agreement gives standing to nations to restrict or thwart competition from American cultural imports, such as movies, TV programs, CDs, print publications–or even such products as California wines.

But trade decisions based on cultural insecurity, xenophobia, and opportunistic metaphysics can cut any number of ways. All cultural hell–a chain reaction of retaliation and counter-retaliation involving multiple nations–could break loose. August French “works of the spirit” might not be considered worthy of import by, say, China or Iran. And what if the films, for instance, of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were forbidden in French and Chinese theaters? Why would the U. S. not counter with a blackout, on the American screen and cable TV, of the work of Olivier Assayas and Eric Rohmer, or Zhang Yimou and Wei Yuming?

Zut alors! The mind reels with the potential of a Planetary-Wide, Multi-Media Neo-”Book-Burning” to add fire to the flames of existing international conflict.

Historically viewed, cultural trade barriers could also cause civilizational anemia. “Trade,” as the editors of the New York Sun noted zestily, “meant Plato wasn’t restricted to Greece, Algebra to the Middle East . . . and . . . why Brazilian music, French wine, and African costumes can all be found in downtown Brooklyn.”

Moreover, freedom itself is spawned by unfettered trade, from which people learn about individual liberty and rule of law. This pact abets tyranny, for as the Sun warns, it gives cover “to the world’s monarchs, theocrats, and dictators to ban access to materials speaking of freedom and rights in the name of protecting their culture.”

The agreement also corrodes political process: That is, it furthers the long-range transformation of world governance favored by those whom Hudson Institute fellow John Fonte calls “transnational progressives” (U.N. and other NGO international bureaucrats, activist officials and academics within nation-states, global corporate heads, et al.). In his aptly named National Interest essay “Democracy’s Trojan Horse,” Fonte shows how these elites, neither elected by nor accountable to any self-governing citizens, work in tandem to establish a “transnational regime.”

This brave new world order is being established via “global governance,” the adoption by organizations such as the U.N. of a vast overlay of political arrangements that transcend national borders, such as international agreements, rules, and laws. (One such arrangement currently being promoted by the U.N. and EU, similar in thrust to the cultural diversity pact, could result in the regulation and censorship of the U.S.-created Internet by foreign powers.)

The grand transnational project is fundamentally coercive, for its modus operandi is to bypass and to constrain–gradually to devitalize entirely–the national sovereignty of liberal democratic states. Indeed, the advance of transnational rule, as embodied in the adoption of this cultural diversity convention, could give rise to a new totalitarianism of unfathomable scope.

Free people everywhere must reject this duplicitous pact. UNESCO bureaucrats and their cohort have no right to decide which cultural goods are worthy of acceptance, and which are alien and invasive; nor may they be permitted surreptitiously to subvert freedom and to co-opt the democratic processes within nation-states that ensure individual liberty.

Although the U.S. delegation steadfastly opposed this convention, it should have walked away from the conference when the treaty was approved, as recommended by the Heritage Foundation. In addition, America should now withdraw altogether from UNESCO, as it did once before in 1984. It is perverse for this country to donate the noose to its hangmen. Far better uses can be found for the many millions of dollars the U.S., as UNESCO’s largest benefactor, has been pouring into the organization since the Bush Administration led America to rejoin it.

To the barricades, against transnational cultural tyranny and anti-democratic politics!

Candace de Russy, a Hudson Institute fellow and SUNY trustee, writes on educational and cultural issues.


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