October 27, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

Clash of cultures

When historian Samuel Huntington wrote his seminal article about the "Clash of Civilizations" he did not have in mind the conflict between the United States and France, but between Islam and the West. If he is so inclined, however, Mr. Huntington will find much material in the clash of American and French world views, the latest example of which was the debacle over the passage in Paris last week of the Treaty on Cultural Diversity in UNESCO's cultural committee.

The Treaty gives other countries the right to keep out American cultural exports in the name of preserving their own cultures - guess who is keenest on doing this, wink, wink. It was passed by a vote of 148 to 2 with four abstentions, the two being the United States and Israel. (The four abstentions were Australia, Liberia, Honduras, and Nicaragua.)

In the French media, which did not even try to contain their glee, the vote was characterized as the rest of the world against the United States. After years of losing international clout, slipping influence in the European Union, and falling behind economically, the French finally have a win against the "Yankees," and they are celebrating like crazy. They even got our friends the British on board with this vote, a real disappointment.

Most Americans will not have heard of this obscure document, which has been 10 years in the making. After all, Americans tend to be busy doing and creating new things, not writing long treaties about them, something the French happen to be particularly good at. Yet, one major problem for the United States in the 21st century will surely be our lack of ability to grapple with the proliferation of international instruments and regimes, like Treaty on Cultural Diversity. These treaties are key tools for those who want to constrain American influence in the world. In UNESCO, the United States was at a huge disadvantage, as was our hard-working Ambassador Louise Oliver, who fought heroically to change the result. The United States only rejoined the organization in 2003, after a 20-year absence as President Reagan had pulled the United States out in protest against UNESCO's anti-American slant and its culture of cronyism.

Negotiations leading to the Treaty on Cultural Diversity were inspired by desperate French efforts to keep American culture at bay, in this case movies, music and the printed word. Since 1998, quiet negotiations have been proceeding through an intergovernmental grouping called the International Network for Cultural Policy. "Globalization," according to a committee statement, "poses new challenges to the ability of governments, civil society and the private sector to nurture [cultural] diversity." In other words, in Orwellian fashion, this treaty is aimed at limiting cultural diversity, not expanding it.

For Paris and its friends in Ottawa, the problem with globalization is that it allows French and Canadian citizens to watch American movies and buy CDs with American bands, which they do in droves like other consumers the world over. "Why don't they just make better movies themselves?" asked my teenage stepson, getting to the crux of the matter. Consumer choice and globalized international trade means competition on a scale with which the French are deeply uncomfortable.

According to the French conspiracy mill, the U.S. government is forcing French consumers to eat hamburgers at thousands of McDonald's outlets that dot the country. This causes McDonald's restaurants to be the object of occasional violent attacks by French radicals. And according to fevered French media reports of the last few days, the post-World War II U.S. Marshall plan for France was conditioned on the import of American movies which in turn made French consumers buy American blue jeans. And on and on it goes.

Though the real purpose of the Treaty on Cultural Diversity is political, it may well have consequences for the Doha round of the World Trade Organization. Protecting "cultural expression," in the treaty's vague formulation, could mean protecting anything from Brazilian coffee beans to French wine. Paris is already jeopardizing the entire Doha round by bitterly opposing the cuts in EU agricultural tariffs necessary to keep the round afloat - in order to "save" the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy.

The French political elite have now come up with the idea of "alternative globalization." Le Monde put it this way: "Cultural Diversity - a manifesto for another kind of globalization." The French way of globalization involves global governance, global taxes, global environmental regulation, and regimes like the Treaty on Cultural Diversity. What it does not imply is global free trade - or actual cultural diversity, of course.

Helle Dale
is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times