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The Unesco-US Relationship: It’s Complicated


Prague's Vlata River.
A scene in April 2012 of the Vlata River, which intersects the core of Prague, a World Heritage Unesco site. ISABELLA PENNEY

When it comes to mysteries, the United States’ decision to rejoin Unesco in 2002 under a Republican administration and after nearly two decades’ absence remains puzzling, but it appears the move can be traced to Hollywood.

Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has always borne the brunt of criticism from US politicians. Allegations of corruption and mismanagement have plagued the agency, which has been accused of being a vehicle for developing countries to advance their interests. The US, for example, was judgmental about a study the agency released in 1980 on the state of press freedom worldwide.

Known as the MacBride report, after its lead author, Sean MacBride, the Irish Nobelist, the study drew the ire of the US and other Western nations that interpreted Unesco’s advocacy of what it called a “new world information and communication order” as an attempt to curb freedom of the press across the globe.

By 1984, the Reagan administration had become so disillusioned with Unesco, whose main purpose is to promote education and protect important cultural sites, that it ended all US participation in it, which meant holding back its contribution to the agency’s budget. For the next 18 years, the US stayed on the sidelines of the organization.

But in September 2002, the Bush administration announced that the US would rejoin in 2003, with President George W. Bush saying the agency had reformed enough to warrant the change. Yet the decision made little sense to observers, who found a huge disparity between the United Nations’ commitment to multilateralism and the US foreign policy of aggressive unilateralism.

Initially, the “reform yielded results” explanation from the White House seemed appealing, but it did not explain the timing of the announcement. After the withdrawal of the US from Unesco, long before 2002, several reports found the agency had improved its management practices and instilled a culture of accountability. As early as 1992, one US government report said the organization had empowered its board to conduct oversight of its programs and began to measure the agency’s results better.

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Keeping in mind that John Bolton, who was in charge of international organization affairs at the State Department then (and who later became US ambassador to the UN), called the government report “useful,” one wonders why the US waited another 10 years to return to the fold. This occurred after Unesco went through a key leadership change, replacing its longtime director-general, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal with the reform-minded Koichiro Matsuura of Japan.

The change of heart could have boiled down to diplomacy. Cultural-exchange programs like those run by Unesco can produce multiple effects — a single diplomatic exchange can go a long way. Rejoining Unesco could have projected “smart power,” a strategic goal of the Bush administration, at least on paper.

Yet smart public relations did not fully explain the move. For one, a halfhearted approach to cultural diplomacy has historically proved unworkable. When cultural exports are used as temporary solutions to individual problems or as diplomatic facelift tools, they violate the idea that cultural overtures are part of a continual process of exchange among nations in spite of political tides.

So what pushed the Bush administration toward its decision in 2002? One answer lies in a debate at Unesco at the time. Back then, the organization was holding talks on the Convention on Cultural Diversity, which was passed in 2005. This treaty was a vital concern for Hollywood moviemakers, since its proposed language included a “cultural exception” for audiovisual goods and services that would exempt them from free-trade rules.

The view that Hollywood was the driving force behind the US decision to rejoin caught the attention of J.P. Singh, an associate professor at Georgetown University. He argues in his 2011 book, “United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco): Creating Norms for a Complex World,” that the negotiations on the 2005 convention led Hollywood to pressure the Bush administration to rejoin the agency – a request that the White House obliged. Singh says in his book that Hollywood was concerned that the convention would hurt its efforts to liberalize the audiovisual sector in 2002, during the Uruguay round at the World Trade Organization.

The big studios, like most national industries, have long pursued their interests in Congress, work that occasionally produces interesting results that do not split evenly along partisan lines. It makes sense that moviemakers pursued the issue at Unesco, which also debates intellectual property rights.

If Hollywood wanted to oppose the cultural exception at Unesco, then it needed to take on the countries that provide subsidies and quotas for their domestic film industries, like France. For France and others, maintaining these protectionist policies nationally could mean applying the cultural exception at the international level. Without the exception, France would be forced to treat American directors the same way that America has treated French auteurs – granting them open access to its national market.

French cultural products help to form the core of its national identity, and its generous state subsidies and restrictive quotas that support Francophone cinema shield an industry that defines that elusive quality of what it means to be French. Fearful that the lack of such policies would deflate the French film industry– and with it, French identity– the country’s leaders have clung to the cultural exception as the last means of preserving both.

Are their fears justified? Traditionally, the US has dominated the global film market, though China has made inroads. And the US rhetoric on the issue did not help to dispel the French concern. With Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s highly vocal lobbyist, having said that quotas and subsidies restricting the flow of US movies abroad signaled “Armageddon time” for the West Coast, the French were not eager to relax the rules on audiovisual goods and services in the convention.

Indeed, the US failed to dilute the convention’s language, resulting in anything but a neat Hollywood ending for the industry, which faced further losses of potential revenue amid increasing piracy and high-risk ventures.

Now, nearly a decade after rejoining Unesco, the US, which has been the top contributor to the organization, supplying 22 percent of its budget, is once again withholding funds on the grounds that the agency has recognized Palestine as a member state. (A series of US laws prohibit appropriating funds to organizations granting such recognition.) The Obama administration, however, has requested $79 million for Unesco in its fiscal-year 2013 budget and is lobbying to waive the bans.

The State Department would not provide any information to PassBlue on the status of the attempts to waive the restrictions in Congress, but the measure is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Regardless of what motivated policy makers in 2002, the US should not let its complicated history with Unesco interfere with its relationship now. The US has enjoyed some diplomatic successes at Unesco. This summer, Washington was quick to join the agency in condemning the destruction of religious sites in Mali by extremist Islamists; and the Smithsonian Institution has teamed with Unesco to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, encouraging cooperation on cultural and national heritage programs.

There is still room for improvement in the relationship and several opportunities for America to demonstrate its commitment to better relations. For its part, the US could take a dramatic step forward by fully financing Unesco and becoming an even more active member of the agency.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Max McGowen is a recent graduate of George Washington University, where he completed a master’s program in legislative affairs. As an undergraduate there, he majored in political science with a focus in public policy and wrote his senior thesis on the US and Unesco. He is a member of Pi Sigma Alpha, the national political science honor fraternity. Political theory and international organizations are among his principal interests. He lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.

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