Culture Wars

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When Americans hear the word “outsourcing,” they typically imagine the movement of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. jobs overseas.  But globalization has created many forms of outsourcing.  Consider the world's appetite for American popular culture.  America annually exports $90 billion worth of movies, TV shows, sound recordings and other products created by U.S. “copyright industries.”  Foreign consumers are outsourcing their popular culture demands to this country, creating jobs for Americans.


But not everyone likes this form of outsourcing.  Indeed, for six years, some foreign governments, through an organization called the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP), have been considering how to “do something about it.”  About 60 governments—from Latin America to Europe, Asia, and Africa—participate in INCP's gatherings.  INCP members argue that freer trade in cultural products hurts “local and national cultures,” and take a zero-sum view of trade in cultural items: The greater the influx of foreign (read: American) products into a given country, the less “space [there is available] for [its] domestic cultural expression.”


This fear of too much American culture is particularly pronounced in Canada, a strong INCP supporter.  As one former Canadian prime minister put it, “images of America are so [globally] pervasive…that it is almost as if instead of the world immigrating to America, America has immigrated to the world, allowing people to aspire to be Americans even in their distant cultures.”


The Canadian government sees INCP as a venue where it can defend “the right of [local] creators and thinkers to express themselves freely, as well as the right of states to establish their own cultural policies.”  Like other outspoken INCP members, many leaders in the Great White North see freer trade in cultural products as “tantamount to putting our soul on the auction block.”


Now, is it a problem if consumers around the world enjoy Hollywood movies over domestically produced fare?  Americans may say “No,” but from INCP's view, it's clearly a problem.  Viewed through INCP's zero-sum prism, a Frenchman who watches Hollywood blockbusters more often than French dramas injures his French identity by doing so.  The same goes for a Canadian woman who enjoys reruns of Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond rather than SCTV.


Many foreign governments have long feared the allure of American pop culture and have even taken measures to “protect” their consumers from it.  Canada, for example, mandates a required minimum of government-certified “Canadian” content on the country's airwaves.  France sets TV broadcast quotas that the U.S. Trade Representative's office says forms “a significant barrier to access of U.S. programs to the French market.”  French radio stations must also observe a quota system.


However, it is not cultural consumers, but cultural producers, whom INCP member governments want to protect.  INCP wants to preserve governments' ability to protect domestic cultural producers from having to compete for audiences with foreign ones.  It hopes to shepherd the passage of a global “cultural diversity” convention by 2005 that would enshrine this policy, and is using the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to build support for it.  INCP hopes that the convention will make it impossible to contest cultural protectionism in future global trade talks.


The Bush administration should counter the cultural protectionist challenge.  First, it must point out that, by declaring that “cultural products” cannot be treated like “commodities,” the convention would set an ominous precedent for future trade talks.  For example, some governments want to end the drive towards freer trade in agricultural goods.  If INCP's protectionist convention succeeds, it may embolden those states to press ahead with a similar effort to take agricultural goods off the table for the next round of trade negotiations.  This would sap the momentum towards freer agricultural trade—a development that would shut Third World farmers out of Western markets and prolong poverty in developing countries.  The administration should remind INCP that there are ways to protect cultural diversity without putting global free trade at risk.


Other, unintended, effects of the cultural diversity convention are also cause for concern.  Third World regimes hostile to Western culture could use the convention to stifle dissent.  For example, in Afghanistan last year, a top jurist proposed the idea of a ban on all foreign cable TV, satellite TV, and imported video tapes–all in the name of safeguarding the country's Islamic values–saying, “It is my request that European and other countries keep their cultures and opinions to themselves.”  INCP's hypothetical convention could unintentionally provide a convenient shield for would-be censors to curtail cultural expressions they disagree with in the name of protecting indigenous “cultural diversity.”


The Bush administration should also reconsider its decision to rejoin UNESCO.  The U.S. abandoned the agency in the mid-1980s, disgusted with its flagrant anti-Americanism.  If UNESCO wants to back an international convention that would undermine American sovereignty and potentially destroy economic opportunities for American workers and culture creators, that's UNESCO's prerogative.  But if it does, UNESCO should not expect the U.S. to long remain a member—or expect U.S. taxpayers to send it so much as a dime.  Unlike most economic activities, sovereignty is not something that we can outsource.