Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

A Thousand Flowers

The world agrees that a Goddard masterpiece can't be treated the same as a tube of toothpaste. But the Americans differ, thinking UNESCO is being used as a ploy to erect trade barriers against Mighty Hollywood and American media empires.


The lone superpower is getting more lonely at the top. Already isolated in matters of war and peace, the United States has struck another discordant note -- this time by opposing a UN convention on cultural diversity that the rest of the world supports. What could be wrong with saving a richer legacy for future generations rather than the alarming standardisation of language and lore brought on by the galloping pace of globalisation?

The latest American rejection adds another burden to the bulging box of treaties, pacts, agreements and ideas that strike a chord in minds across globe but fail to impress Washington. What the majority sees as the "public good," the US sees as an act designed to hurt its power and presence. Last week, an overwhelming number of members of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to protect cultural diversity of local traditions and minority languages from the creeping uniformity of fast food joints and determined flooding by soft drink companies. Not everything about globalisation is or can be great. 

For the second time this month, the European Union (EU) abandoned the Americans and sided with the rest, leaving the US to survey the world in solitary splendour. Israel did vote with the US but it seemed too much like giving cover to Washington than a real vote. The Europeans are always trying to carve a separate space for themselves on the world stage away from the American shadow, specially after the disaster in Iraq. That UNESCO headquarters are in Paris added an extra twist since France was a vocal opponent of US policy in Iraq and EU’s walking over to the "other" side even more stinging for the Americans since Britain holds the rotating EU presidency. It appears even Tony Blair has reached his limit. Stretched thin bridging the transatlantic divide, he is inching his way back to the rest of the continent, at least on less calamitous issues.

Earlier this month, again under Blair's presidency, the EU shocked the Americans by supporting moves by China, Brazil and others to loosen the US control over Internet governance. The world’s most powerful communication tool is indirectly overseen by the US Commerce Department and Washington has let it be known it wants to retain primacy beyond 2006 when its writ ends. The ongoing battle might be hidden from public view but rest assured it is raging in full ferocity.

Internet and cultural diversity. One could be used to save the other. But US officials say the UNESCO convention is a ploy to erect trade barriers against "cultural exports" of films and music -- meaning the products of Mighty Hollywood and the gargantuan media empires. They offered 28 amendments -- all designed to emasculate the convention -- but they were all rejected. The US side claimed the convention would empower countries to "control" culture on the one hand and block outside imports on the other.. However, many American concerns were taken on board and action taken. Despite inclusion of phraseology promoting "free flow of ideas and information" and accommodation of other US worries, Washington still voted against the convention and US ambassador to UNESCO, Louise Oliver, declared the language "vague and contradictory" and open to misinterpretation. 

The debate was bitter, the diplomacy hectic and the results disappointing for those who had been negotiating for two years. They would have liked the United States to sign on, specially because Washington rejoined UNESCO only two years ago after walking out of the organization in 1984 altogether. But the US negotiating stance was described as "over-my-dead-body" by a diplomat, and borne out by Ambassador Oliver’s sharp and categorical reaction after the vote which was greeted with cheers in the hall. She called the experience "extraordinarily disappointing" and talked of a long-lasting impact on the way Washington views UNESCO. Another walkout? Another budget cut? Dissing the United Nations is politically lucrative on Capitol Hill.

Even as the United States sets about repairing its battered image abroad, the tendency to impose its world view creeps in, resulting in driving Washington further apart from the rest of the world. Over the past decade, Washington has rejected the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court, insisting there isn’t enough scientific evidence on global warming on the first and demanding exceptions for US soldiers from the second. 

So what went wrong this time?

The differing worldviews on the question of cultural diversity are at least a decade old. The French, with their separate culture ministry and a pronounced tendency to keep their language pure from foreign interventions, have been fighting this battle against the Americans for long. The Americans remember how the French won a "cultural exception" clause during the Uruguay Round of trade liberalisation talks under which a country could subsidize its film, radio and print industry to protect it from extinction. European cinema was finding it hard to survive against Hollywood’s onslaught. They see the new convention as a continuation of the same story, another tool in the hands of those who want to erect barriers against Hollywood. Indeed, supporters of the convention say that it would have legal weight in negotiations at the World Trade Organisation over such issues as cinema, publishing and the Internet. 

But the convention lacks any mechanism to settle disputes or intervene significantly between countries -- another reason why US fears are seen as unreasonable by many diplomats. UN conventions function as settlers of guidelines and principles, not as primary enforcers of law. The original idea on protecting cultural diversity proposed by France and Canada -- an American neighbour -- was to treat all cultural issues under the protective umbrella of UNESCO and remove them from the WTO agenda. Their argument was that a Goddard masterpiece can't be treated the same as a tube of toothpaste.

The rest of the world agrees but not the Americans.