UNESCO to U.S.: Drop Dead!

Last Thursday, the United States was sucker-punched by an international organization. A majority of countries belonging to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to support a joint French and Canadian initiative aimed at making it easier for foreign governments to limit consumer access to American cultural products.

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Most newspapers that covered the story portrayed the vote as a humiliation for the United States. (Indeed, the vote wasn’t even close—only the U.S. and Israel dissented.) The International Herald Tribune, for example, blared in its headline, “U.S. All but Alone in Opposing UNESCO Cultural Pact.” An A.P. story in Newsday trumpeted “U.S. Out in Cold in UNESCO Diversity Pact.” Our friends at the Sydney Morning Herald looked to Ahnold for inspiration: “U.N. Plays Terminator to American Film Industry.”


Just one day later, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail ran an opinion piece by Dr. Michael Byers, who holds a Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. His op-ed revealed some surprising means by which the Canadian government worked behind the scenes to ensure the UNESCO agreement would pass. He wrote that, as far back as 1997, “Sheila Copps, then Canadian heritage minister, had already organized an international network of culture ministers and funded the formation of a parallel non-governmental association [italics added],” which subsequently supported the cause of greater cultural protectionism.


This raises some interesting questions. How much did the Canadian government spend on this association? Should it be called “non-governmental” if a government was intimately involved in its creation? Dr. Byers did not name the association, but he may have been referring to the International Network for Cultural Diversity, a self-described “world-wide network of artists and cultural groups” that favors increased cultural protectionism.


Moreover, if Canada hadn’t funded the formation of this non-governmental association, would the pro-treaty campaign have gotten off the ground? Does this detract at all from the UNESCO treaty’s legitimacy?


The U.S. earns about $80 billion a year from the export of its popular culture. While certain global, political, and cultural elites may loathe certain elements of this export, the global masses certainly do not. If hatred of U.S. popular culture had any major traction, that $80 billion figure would shrink all on its own—without any government intervention or UNESCO treaties. That Canada had to fund a pro-cultural protectionism group to build support for the UNESCO treaty is but one sign of the hate-Hollywood crowd’s isolation from mainstream global opinion.


That isolation is further manifested in the alliance required to pass the UNESCO treaty. Canada and France had to win over the despotisms of Iran and Zimbabwe, both of which belong to the Canada-based International Network on Cultural Policy. What wonderful (and increasingly predictable) bedfellows.


Respectable supporters of cultural protectionism feigned surprise when they learned that Canada and France couldn’t turn down help from the mullahs of Tehran or Robert Mugabe. But there’s a lesson here for Ottawa and Paris: when you find yourselves on the same side of an issue as some of the global village’s top thugs, you may want to re-think your position.


Canada and France present themselves as models of cultural achievement and openness. How they can strike this pose while limiting consumer access to foreign cultural goods is a mystery. That they’re willing to cozy up to rogue states in order to get the treaty passed is a disgrace.