Why the "Foreign" Matters in Foreign Affairs

By Lebaron, Michelle; Crocker, Jarle | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Why the "Foreign" Matters in Foreign Affairs


Lebaron, Michelle, Crocker, Jarle, Harvard International Review


Cultural Understanding in Policy Processes

In questions of theory and practice alike, students of foreign policy have been engaged and mystified by the subject of culture. The term "foreign" itself explicitly calls attention to that which is exotic and alien, yet "culture" remains one of the most talked--about, least understood, and increasingly important topics demanding the attention of foreign--policy makers today. This symposium is a discussion of the different factors that most vex the implementation of social, environmental, economic, and military policies among states. However, we suggest that the most fruitful way to begin exploring this topic is to reverse how it has been problematized: what is it in our thinking about foreign policy that makes culture so difficult to understand?

A number of emerging tends have spotlighted the importance of culture on the global stage for a growing audience of diplomats, citizens, scholars, and generals. The role of militaries around the world continues to shift from Cold War strategies of deterrence to "hot peace" missions of peacekeeping and peace-building. "Hot peace" missions typically involve multinational forces in counties divided by intense ethnic conflicts, require extended interaction with local cultures, and often include efforts to strengthen civil societies deeply rooted in diverse historical and cultural traditions. These days, civil wars, sectarian bloodshed, resistance movements, and similar forms of social conflict occur most often within states along distinctly cultural fault lines; Bosnia and Rwanda are the most frequently cited examples. Even more "traditional" state-to-state disputes, like the conflicts between India and Pakistan and Taiwan and China that threaten violent escalation are about culture as much as they are about acc ess to scarce resources and regional balances of power.

Responding to this complexity requires a sophisticated understanding of cultural dynamics. This understanding must begin by asking how our current foreign-policy paradigms conceptualize culture. Building on this foundation, we ask what lessons should be drawn from other fields of study to provide a richer understanding of how culture can be accounted for in foreign policy. We conclude with a brief set of suggestions for how foreign-policy makers can integrate these lessons into the analysis and practice of their craft.

Theory and Culture

There are two major schools of thought among foreign-policy specialists concerning the influence of culture on the behavior of actors in the international arena. On the one hand are the universalists, like Francis Fukuyama, who claim that despite surface differences among cultures, human behavior is rooted in and can be explained by universally understandable rational behavior. On the other hand are the primordialists, like Samuel P. Huntington, who see culture as elemental and immutable, defining essential differences among ethnic groups. Both of these intellectual traditions treat culture in ways that are deeply problematic for creating an understanding of how it shapes the behavior of individuals, ethnic groups, and states.

To the universalists, the concept of culture is refracted through the lens of the Western Enlightenment. It is well accepted that the leading schools of realist, neo-realist, and even idealist thought share a strong belief in the universally rational nature of human beings. In an article that ironically chastises foreign-policy experts for ignoring the role of culture in strategic thinking, arch-realist Colin Gray argues that "many, and probably most, alleged strategic cultural traits are fully rational, in strict realpolitik terms, given the perceived historical experience of the nations in question. The strategic cultural thought processes and (derived) behavior of interest here do not, noticeably, rest upon individual psycho-cultural phenomena." While much ink has been spilled over whether human nature is inherently aggressive or cooperative, there is strong agreement across these three theoretical paradigms that human behavior is rooted in rational decision-making processes. …

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