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date: 20 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Government policies to protect and promote national culture are a perennial issue in the trading system. Controversy over trade and culture, in almost every instance, swirls around entertainment media—mainly movies, television, video, and music. The object of contention is that many states employ an assortment of financial, trade, and regulatory measures to subsidize locally produced entertainment, restrict imports, and favor national content over foreign content. Such measures often impede trade, pitting commercial interests in open markets and free choice against calls for state action to mitigate trade’s social repercussions.

Differing perspectives on the motives behind these policies typify disputes over trade and culture. In one view, state regulation of entertainment media is cultural policy, an essential means of preserving a nation’s identity, culture, and way of life. From another vantage point, these policies are backdoor protectionism, a handout to local business and labor under the guise of cultural preservation. The problem of trade and culture therefore raises basic questions about politics: Why do states subsidize production and restrict imports? What drives political demands for trade protection and government aid? How can variation in policy responses be understood?

In the World Trade Organization (WTO), disputes over trade and culture center on two related issues. The first is inclusion of a “cultural exception” in trade rules to green-light, on cultural grounds, state actions that interfere with trade in entertainment media. Although there is no cultural exception in the WTO, pressure to accommodate the “specificity” of entertainment media as a cultural phenomenon has complicated trade negotiations and at times required give and take to placate the opposing sides. The second issue is policy liberalization in entertainment media, which has lagged behind market opening in many other goods and services. Deadlock over trade and culture has inspired some WTO members to explore other options: the European Union (EU) and Canada spearheaded the push for a Convention on Cultural Diversity, and the United States has pursued policy liberalization in a series of free trade agreements. Important political questions again crop up: Why has culture stalemated the WTO, and why haven’t trade linkages like those for health safety standards been institutionalized for trade and culture? Why do international political alignments on this problem form as they do? What explains the design of trade rules for entertainment media, and what is the trade regime’s impact on state policy? The age-old conflict over trade and culture continues to play out and shows no signs of abating.

Keywords: trade policy, trade rules, World Trade Organization (WTO), entertainment media, audiovisual services, cultural goods, cultural policy, trade negotiations, free trade agreements, cultural exception

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