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Cultural Wars Benefit No One

Op-Eds & Articles

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Cultural Wars Benefit No One

Hrab Op-ed in the Vancouver Sun

What's the dirtiest word in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />United States political dictionary these days?  That's easy: "outsourcing."<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

There's an ironic aspect to this fear of outsourcing.  The U.S. happens to benefit a lot when consumers in foreign countries outsource their wants and needs to American companies.  Take the example of "copyrighted" products such as software, motion pictures, and sound recordings.  The U.S. exports $90 billion US worth of these items each year.

 

Canada also exports billions of dollars in cultural products each year.  According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada's cultural industries export the equivalent of $5 billion Cdn each year.  These cultural industries account for as many as 600,000 jobs.

 

Both Canada and the U.S. successfully export their culture to foreign markets.  But this hides a stark contrast between the two countries.  Washington tries to protect and extend the ability of U.S. culture producers to market their wares overseas.  Strangely, Ottawa is taking action in the opposite direction.  It is pursuing policies that could sabotage the continuing success of Canada's cultural exporters.

 

In 1998, Ottawa helped organize a new global organization known as the International Network on Cultural Policy. INCP's liaison bureau operates out of the Ministry of Canadian Heritage's offices in Gatineau, Que. INCP exists to assist its member states to develop strategies to promote cultural diversity, including through government action and public policy.  Canada is just one participant in INCP.  Some 60 countries claim membership, including France, South Africa, and Brazil.

 

Some INCP members, notably France, want the organization to encourage all member states to use protectionist measures to limit the entry of U.S. cultural products into their markets.  France maintains quotas and restrictions that, according to the U.S. Trade Representative's office, represent an important barrier to U.S. TV programs getting to the French market.  These restrictions also limit the broadcast share of American music on French radio stations.

 

In 2003, just before an INCP meeting in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac condemned what he called the "champions of unlimited trade liberalization" (read the Americans) for trying to force-feed cultural products "pre-formatted for the masses" to global consumers.

 

The French would love it if other INCP members adopted their suspicious attitude toward the worldwide popularity of American movies and sound recordings.  But would the spread of French-style cultural protectionism through INCP benefit Canada? Hardly.

 

What if, for example, some pro-INCP bureaucrat in another country decides that his country is importing "too many" Canadian cultural products and imposes restrictions on their sale and consumption?  Some of those 600,000 jobs—not to mention part of that $5 billion Canadian in exports—would be in danger.

 

Wouldn't Canada's cultural industries be better served if global cultural trade protectionism was reduced, rather than strengthened?

 

From this perspective, Canada's participation in INCP does not make much sense.

 

For a country of 30 million people, Canada has been remarkably successful in exporting its own culture abroad.  Foreign audiences have come to enjoy Canadian novels, motion pictures, recordings and other cultural products.

 

It will be much harder to reach those audiences if foreign governments start turning inwards and reduce consumer access to foreign cultural products. But that is exactly what France, through INCP, is out to encourage—greater parochialism and cultural protectionism.

 

This would represent a step backward for Canada's hopes to increase its cultural exports and introduce other countries to its values.