U.S. Stands Alone on Unesco Cultural Issue

Submitted by Sasha Costanza-Chock on October 13, 2005.English

Alan Riding

The New York Times | October 13, 2005 | News Analysis | U.S. Stands Alone on Unesco Cultural Issue | By ALAN RIDING

PARIS, Oct. 12 - Two years ago, in an uncharacteristic nod toward multilateralism, the Bush administration ended a 19-year-long American boycott of Unesco. Today, the United States risks total isolation in the 191-member organization as the sole country opposing a new convention on cultural diversity.

Until recently, differences had focused on obscure diplomatic phrases. But in the countdown to a final vote next week, negotiations have grown increasingly bitter, with the dispute now assuming political significance and even raising questions about the future role of the United States at Unesco.

The convention's supporters argue that the treaty will protect and promote cultural diversity in the face of cultural globalization, but the United States believes it is intended to restrict exports of American audiovisual products, particularly Hollywood movies and television programs.

Next Thursday, when the convention is finally to be put to a vote at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, everything suggests that the United States will be the only country to vote against it.

In fact, the United States has already stood alone. On three recent procedural votes related to the convention, its position was successively defeated by 54 to 1, 53 to 1 and 158 to 1.

Last-minute lobbying is still under way to avoid a one-against-all outcome, with the 25-nation European Union, whose current president is Britain, urging the United States to join the consensus. Embarrassed to be at loggerheads with Washington, Britain insists that the convention poses none of the dangers identified by the Bush administration.

But Washington is not convinced. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote to member governments expressing "deep concern" about the convention, calling for postponement of its adoption and warning that it "will only undermine Unesco's image and sow confusion and conflict rather than cooperation."

Sponsored by France and Canada, two countries that have long used subsidies and quotas to help their movie, television and radio industries to hold back American popular culture, the convention was inspired by a desire to shield culture from international agreements to liberalize trade.

But the final draft falls short of original intentions. Indeed, without "teeth" to enforce its principles, many experts expect the convention to have little impact on what is already a globalized market for cultural products, one in which India's Bollywood, Japanese animation movies and Brazilian and Mexican television soap operas have a place alongside Hollywood blockbusters.

The United States nonetheless believes that the final draft is open to misunderstandings that could allow governments to control culture, even through censorship, and to block the free flow of ideas and information, its euphemism for Hollywood's exports.

In one sense, of course, another negative American vote next week will change little. The convention will be adopted and, once ratified by 30 countries, will go into effect. The United States will not sign it and, as with the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty and the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, will probably remain a critical - and perhaps obstructionist - outsider.

More worrisome to some Unesco officials, however, is the political damage caused by a convention that, years hence, may join many other international treaties in oblivion. In their view, the convention's principal significance is as a symbol of how the United States and some of its closest allies view the world differently - and not only on culture.

Given the relative weakness of the final draft, there are even some who argue that the convention needs American opposition: without it, there might be little reason to proclaim victory over cultural homogeneity à l'Américaine.

The key question now is whether, finding itself isolated, the United States will retaliate by, say, cutting its monetary contribution to the organization, which is 22 percent of Unesco's budget. Unesco is not without friends in Washington, where its educational programs enjoy support. But Congressional critics of the United Nations, who opposed the American return to Unesco, may feel vindicated.

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