Why cultural values cannot be ignored in international relations

Author: Kadira Pethiyagoda, Canberra

One hundred years ago began the war that was supposed to end all wars. This inauspicious centenary has allowed the foreign affairs commentariat to indulge in one of the things it is best at — drawing historical analogies.

It is true that aspects of the global landscape look similar to a century ago. States push the boundaries of international law and act unilaterally, returning to old-school territoriality. A major redistribution of strategic and economic weight is also afoot. New superpowers emerge and agitate for a place at the high table of international affairs.

A competitor flies a kite of the 'God of Wealth' during the kite flying championship at the 31st Weifang international kite festival in Shandong province, China, 19 April 2014. Ensuring the peaceful rise of new great powers requires a more in-depth and organised effort among Western governments to understand the cultures of Asia and elsewhere. (Photo: AAP).

This time the shift is seismic, moving across entire continents. Today the emerging powers include China, India and other Asian states, as well as Brazil and South Africa. Alongside the growing multipolarity, many have pointed to the increasing great-power rivalry and divergence over major issues like Ukraine and the South and East China Seas.

Today’s power shifts, however, have far more complex implications than last century’s. Samuel Huntington’s highly publicised ‘clash of civilizations’ analysis draws our attention to an often-ignored aspect of international relations — culture. Today’s emerging powers encompass entire civilizations — some with thousands of years of cultural continuity. While Japan’s modernisation beginning with the Meiji restoration in 1868 included an adoption of Western foreign policy institutions, the same may not be true for China and India.

Culture is making a comeback as a factor in international relations. And it is not merely through manifestations of chauvinism in nationalist politics; not just states saying ‘my culture is better than yours’. The influence of culture in the future will be felt a few layers deeper. It will make an impact through values.

In the last century, most Western policymakers presumed that certain ‘universal’ human traits govern international affairs. Culture was seen only as an incomprehensible ‘wildcard’, of little relevance to international relations. The behaviour of states was simply individual self-interest writ large. But how states define their interests, and whether ‘rationality’ is always the driver, is now being questioned.

Cultural values impact what people, and therefore states, want and think in world affairs, often subconsciously. It affects what tools of statecraft are used, what national image is sought and how concepts of peace, freedom and development are valued.

Already we have seen culture’s impact in the language of international affairs. India has long presented itself as adhering to its ancient ideal of non-violence. Former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi called for a new ‘non-violent world order’. While many states talk peace, research shows India did so even when it meant sacrificing progress towards ‘rational’ strategic objectives. By contrast, in the Middle East various militarily weak actors, for reasons of honour, adopt the mantle of dominant aggressor — making attacks by adversaries seem more justifiable and damaging strategic interests.

As new powers rise and exert greater strategic autonomy, we see culture’s hand in state behaviour as well. Rather than security imperatives as most Western analysts would predict, India’s nuclear weapons policy has been fuelled by the quest for international standing. This is underpinned by the value of hierarchy, as seen domestically in the caste system. When combined with the value of non-violence, nuclear weapons become symbolically important but militarily unusable. India’s restrained nuclear posture helped the US and others justify giving New Delhi differential treatment in nuclear cooperation.

Similarly, Chinese policy is coloured by culture such as through the concept of ‘mianzi’ or ‘face’, where importance is placed on social recognition. A country’s place within the international hierarchy is central. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s professed atheism, Buddhism promotes the acceptance of impermanence and this cultural background has significant implications on how China’s foreign policy, including ideology and alliances, is conceived.

To date most non-Western countries have operated to a significant extent using European-sourced institutions of statecraft, making their foreign policies at least somewhat predictable to Western policymakers. But, as the European half-millennium draws to a close, these states’ institutions may evolve.

Cultural values impact on more than just states’ conduct of their foreign policies. Non-European cultures may exert differing views on international organisation to the current European-rooted configuration of nation-states. While Western culture sees society as individuals relating to others through rules and contracts, Chinese scholars highlight a more interconnected, holistic worldview. This may equate to a comparatively greater focus on the global social environment than on individual state actors. Eastern communalist values contrast with Western individualism, having significant implications for concepts such as human rights and ‘human security’.

Ensuring the peaceful rise of new great powers requires more in-depth and organised effort among Western governments to understand the cultures of Asia and elsewhere. Foreign policy is again becoming a leader’s game of big stakes. Western diplomatic services are starting to recognise the need for more country specialists and interaction with academia. However, much of the mainstream media still lags behind.

Just as a century ago the League of Nations did not survive the disengagement of a then rising America, the current international system and its key institutions may not survive disengagement by today’s emerging powers. The return of culture is not just an academic debate. If statesmen are to handle the big issues of global security and prosperity in a multipolar world, culture is the ‘wildcard’ they can no longer ignore.

Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda is a former Australian diplomat and visiting scholar at University of Oxford. His PhD (and upcoming book) investigate culture’s role in Indian foreign policy.

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