France Launches Global Culture War

Cultural creativity is big business in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America.  According to the most recent data from Economists Incorporated, U.S. “copyright industries”—including recording companies and Hollywood studios—export $88.97 billion worth of their wares each year.  These industries represent about 5.2 percent of America's GDP. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

But not everybody sees this as a success story.  Global cultural snobs take the popularity of American music and movies as a personal affront.  They have quietly devised a scheme to cut back the worldwide flow of U.S. cultural exports.  There is still time for the Bush administration to stop this effort dead in its tracks, but only if the President acts decisively.<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 />

This scheme is known as the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP).  Formed in 1998, its core membership includes the governments of Canada, Croatia, France, Greece, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland.  (It recently held its sixth annual meeting in Croatia.)  INCP claims that its purpose is to act as “an informal, international venue [where members can talk about] new and emerging cultural policy issues and consider integrated ways to promote cultural diversity.”  These empty platitudes hide a well-defined agenda.


To understand what INCP actually represents, let us turn to French President Jacques Chirac.  In a speech delivered days before a February 2003 INCP conclave in Paris, he outlined INCP's agenda in terms of an epic global battle.  Chirac claimed that, “the champions of unlimited trade liberalization are once again lining up against those who believe that the creations of the mind cannot be reduced to the rank of ordinary merchandise,” and accused these unnamed cultural “free traders” of seeking to foist cultural “products pre-formatted for the masses” on an unsuspecting world.  He didn't identify these faceless profit-minded philistines, but there can be no doubt his barbs were aimed at the United States.


President Chirac's dislike of American cultural products' mass appeal isn't just fodder for angry speeches.  His government maintains restrictions on the distribution of U.S. cultural products, which make it difficult for the French public to enjoy them.  Take television. France sets broadcast quotas that, according to the United States Trade Representative's office, form “a significant barrier to access of U.S. programs to the French market.” France uses a similar quota system to limit “the broadcast share of American music” on French radio stations. The French government, in effect, thinks it knows what French people should be watching and listening to.


Chirac likes this restrictive system so much that he wants the whole world to follow France's lead. In the same February speech, he proposed the adoption by the international community of a world convention on cultural diversity, to codify the right of [governments] to support the arts through proactive policies, appropriate action, and mechanisms of their choice. In short, Chirac wants an international treaty that gives heavy-handed governments like his the right to impose a potentially limitless array of restrictions on American movies, music, books, and other cultural products. He hopes the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will work with INCP to help set up such a regime, which he would like to see up and running by 2005.


Fortunately, there is still time for President Bush to head off this French gambit, but he must act swiftly. He should voice strong disapproval of such blatant efforts to hurt one of America's most successful exporting sectors—its creative industries. The President needs to convince the United Nations not to cooperate in INCP's plans for global cultural protectionism. The President should vow to cut funding to both UNESCO and the U.N. in direct proportion to the commercial damage that American cultural industries expect they would suffer should UNESCO help implement INCP's agenda. The U.N. would have to back down, lest it lose its single biggest source of funding.


President Bush should leave no doubt that, contra Mr. Chirac and INCP, culture is far too important to be left to government bureaucrats—or to the U.N. Better to leave culture to the global marketplace and individual consumers.