Louise Oliver never did anything to injure George W. Bush, yet in 2003 he named her ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. For that presidential cruelty we, although not she, should be thankful.
Not even the delights of Paris can compensate for the tiresome work of tempering the excesses to which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is prone. Just now UNESCO is reverting to the sort of mischief tinged with anti-Americanism that caused President Ronald Reagan to withdraw the United States from the organization in 1984. Fortunately, Oliver is alert to the defects of the proposed Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, negotiation of which culminates in the next few days.
It is not a good idea badly executed; it is a pernicious idea executed about as you would expect it to be by people capable of conceiving it. And capable of using words such as "interculturality," and of creating an International Fund for Cultural Diversity to finance UNESCO whims. The pernicious idea is that 191 governments can be trusted to sensibly define and prudently cultivate the proper content of culture and artistic expression.
Not even democratic governments should be trusted to do that. And as for unsavory governments, why should they be encouraged to engage in cultural fine-tuning?
UNESCO, which Oliver says was supposed to be "the intellectual balance to the Marshall Plan," was born of the sunny postwar faith that, whatever their cultural differences, all people want essentially the same things. Therefore wars must arise from misunderstandings. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote for the preamble of UNESCO's constitution, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." So UNESCO responded to Sept. 11 by sonorously declaring that "intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee of peace."
All bromides are banal, but not all banalities are harmless. The convention on diversity is an attempt to legitimize cultural protectionism, and to cloak it in Orwellian rhetoric praising what the convention actually imperils -- the autonomy of culture left free to flower and evolve without the supervision of governments.
In the convention's windy preamble -- the entire document is clotted with the D words, "diversity" and "dialogue" -- the ninth, 10th and 18th paragraphs suggest the document's surreptitious point. The 18th says that "cultural activities, goods and services have both an economic and a cultural nature" so they must not be treated "as solely having commercial value." The 10th emphasizes "the importance of culture for social cohesion." The ninth recognizes "the need to take measures to protect the diversity of cultural expressions including its content."
Translation: Nations can "protect" their "cultural expressions" against diversity arising from cultural imports that can be stigmatized as threats to social cohesion, and can use means that would be forbidden were the movement of cultural goods and services covered by the World Trade Organization's rules governing the movement of other goods and services. Meaning: Nations such as France and Canada can interfere with imports of U.S. films, television programming, music and publications.
Oliver says that in the 1990s, as the liberalization of world trade increased, so did some nations' interest in a "cultural exception" to allow interference with the free flow of cultural goods and services. Under President Jacques Chirac, France, whose vanity about the glory of its culture is not matched by confidence in the power of that culture to thrive unless protected, has been especially interested in removing cultural goods and services from inclusion in the regime of free trade.
By elsewhere defining cultural goods and services as crucially unlike goods and services that are "solely" economic, the convention implicitly establishes that cultural protectionism is not inhibited by standard free-trade agreements. And, worse, it leaves latitude for individual nations to declare some goods -- wine, coffee, textiles -- as cultural "expressions," hence eligible for protectionist measures.
Hollywood films earn 65 percent of the French box office -- and 90 percent in the rest of Europe. Canada has fretted about Canadians reading U.S. magazines that absorb Canadian advertising dollars. China and many African and Latin American countries think as France does. But Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela are exporters of soap operas.
Oliver says nations should have the right to "protect" culture if to protect means to nurture it, but not if to protect means to shield it behind barriers to competition from cultural imports. UNESCO's cultural protectionists think she does not play well with others -- proof that Bush picked the right ambassador.