The main schools of thought still cling to an outdated understanding of how civilizations workBY CHRISTIAN REUS-SMIT (Foreign Policy, In today’s world politics, culture is everywhere. The rise of non-Western great powers, the return of ethnonationalism, violent extremism justified in the name of religion, and so-called white resistance—the list goes on. Yet those who should be best placed to explain it—international relations scholars—are ill equipped to do so.
Conventional wisdom holds that IR theory has little to say about culture. After all, the argument goes, its dominant schools of thought focus on struggles for material power and treat actors as self-interested egoists. In fact, IR scholars talk about culture all the time. It permeates their arguments about the Western foundations of the modern international order, about China as a civilizational state, and about the fate of the Arab Spring. And if discussions of the Western nature of human rights aren’t about culture, then what are they about at all?
The real problem is that IR scholars cling stubbornly to a view of culture that anthropologists and sociologists last took seriously between the 1930s and 1950s. Indeed, when discussing culture, IR looks like a conservation zoo for concepts long dead in their natural habitats.
The outdated view sees cultures as coherent things: as tightly integrated, neatly bounded, and clearly differentiated. They are causally powerful. Culture makes individuals who they are and defines what they want and how they think. And it is culture that undergirds social institutions. Cultural unity makes strong societies; cultural diversity is corrosive. For evidence of such views, look no further than Brexit, U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, Russian irredentism, and Confucian nationalism in China.
Such views have long been rejected in specialist fields. Cultures are now seen as heterogeneous and contradictory, highly porous, and deeply entwined and interrelated. In her celebrated 1986 article “Culture in Action,” Ann Swidler, the eminent Berkeley sociologist, put it this way: “all real cultures contain diverse, often conflicting symbols, rituals, stories, and guides to action.”
Decades of empirical research sustains such understandings of culture. Anthropologists have demonstrated it at very local levels. Lila Abu-Lughod’s work on Bedouin women is a fine example. And historians have demonstrated it at the level of empires and international orders. Karen Barkey, Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper, Pamela Kyle Crossley, and many others have revealed the heterogeneous cultural contexts in which such orders evolve.
Yet the old, discredited view of culture is still alive in IR. And not just in little pockets. It is IR’s default conception across the discipline’s rival schools.
Realists are materialists at heart, yet they frequently make arguments that rest on cultural assumptions. They describe themselves as studying conflict groups, and when we probe the nature of these groups, they commonly appear as cultural units: nation-states with national characters, identities, and interests. The anarchic international system gives states certain primary interests—principally survival—but national culture is commonly seen as a key source of other interests.
Many realists admit that today’s international order rests on legitimacy as much as material might. And when explaining such legitimacy, they join others in emphasizing Western civilization, which is said to provide the norms and values that inform and sustain modern institutions. For former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others, the erosion of this cultural foundation poses a fundamental threat. How can “regions with such divergent cultures, histories, and traditional theories of order vindicate the legitimacy of any common system?” Kissinger asked in his book World Order.
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