If one takes a reasonably long view of contemporary history, and defines culture in the broadest possible sense, the conclusion is inescapable that two of the more important cultural events since World War II occurred in 1963 and 1966, when the world community decided, first, to save ancient Egyptian monuments from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam and, second, to come to the aid of the Italian cities of Florence and Venice after terrible floods.

In the first instance the threat was man-made; in the second it was the result of natural disasters -- a difference of no importance. Each was perceived as an intolerable condition, a potential loss of cultural artifacts and values crucial not only to the respective nation-states but also to humankind as a whole. This global perspective was the critical similarity, signifying in a most dramatic way an increased awareness that in certain basic ways we're all in this together, despite divisive thickets of ideology, religion, economics, politics.

Of course, even a cursory reading of front-page news on a given day, week, month or year would suggest that this interpretation is strictly from Pollyanna. Maybe so, but if it isn't the wave of the future, global consciousness certainly is the hope. Now that we've literally seen our planet from afar we no longer have the slightest excuse for ignorance of its manifest interdependencies -- ecological, cultural.

I was stimulated to think along these lines this week while hanging around at a convention, the eighth general assembly of an obscure organization called ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites. ICOMOS is one of the many private, voluntary alphabet groups spawned under the aegis of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which means that in spirit it dates back to the idealistic internationalism of the immediate postwar years.

As we have been made skeptical and/or cynical by the -- alas, predictable -- collapse of this dream, and by the frequent use of various U.N. forums for symbolic bouts of America-bashing, the very existence of groups such as ICOMOS is encouraging in small and large ways. It is heartening to see, for instance, that the U.S. government does acknowledge the value of ongoing international good works despite having dropped out of UNESCO. Although much of the money for the ICOMOS conference was raised from private sources, Congress did provide $300,000 -- a meaningful amount.

More important are the nature of the work ICOMOS actually does and the values it represents. The 500 or so attendees from about 50 countries spent a lot of time doing what intellectual conventioneers usually do -- that is, they delivered and listened to a formidable array of papers, they politicked for votes for election to governing committees, they visited nearby sites (including, besides the obvious Washington places, stops in Alexandria, Waterford, Harpers Ferry, Annapolis and Baltimore). Because many of their activities took place in the National Building Museum -- a monument that fittingly enough was undergoing a massive restoration job even as they spoke -- they were able to see a splendid exhibition there devoted to "Twenty Years of Restoration in Venice."

And they also ratified one item of sizable substance, a "Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas." This terse document, more than a decade in the making, brings the worldwide preservation community up to date. A previous charter, adopted 22 years ago in Venice, addressed itself to the protection of individual landmarks. The new charter is a vitally important statement of principles and practices by which to address the ubiquitous, and even more burdensome, problem of preserving "historic urban areas, large and small, including cities, towns and historic centers or quarters," areas that, as we know all too well, are today "being threatened, physically degraded, damaged or even destroyed, by the impact of the urban development that follows industrialization in societies everywhere."

The language of the charter is clear and direct but not lacking in subtlety. It foresees not only protection and restoration of historic areas but also "their development and harmonious adaptation to contemporary life." It points out that conservation should be "an integral part of coherent policies of economic and social development ..." It contains a sequence of levelheaded recommendations by which any local community in the world can judge its own prospects, plans, procedures.

Prominent among the "qualities to be preserved," for instance, are "urban patterns as defined by lots and streets; relationships between buildings and green and open spaces; the formal appearance, interior and exterior, of buildings as defined by scale, size, style, construction, materials, color and decoration; the relationship {to the} surrounding setting, both natural and man-made; the various functions that the town or urban area has acquired over time," and so on.

The usefulness of such a document can be questioned -- it's entirely voluntary; there's no enforcement involved, no "teeth." But this lack, being wholly realistic, is an advantage, too, for it encompasses not only the facts of international life but also the long-run truth that if people anywhere do not desire the preservation of their cultural heritage -- do not in fact will it to be so -- then it won't happen, period. One can imagine citizens all over the world doing what those in tiny Waterford, Va., beleaguered by the onslaught of development in Loudoun County, did last week -- pointing, that is, to the obvious discrepancies between local practice and international principle.

So, thank you, ICOMOS conventioneers. Come back, anytime.