Overlooking Culture in American Foreign Policy

By Ian Palmer

It seems everyone has a problem with Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations.”  Huntington’s bold and detailed assertion of the eight major civilizations has drawn the ire of Stephen Walt, numerous Foreign Affairs scholars, and students of IR everywhere.  However, Huntington proposed a paradigm that presupposes his “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. As IR theory is largely dominated by the tenets of realism and liberalism, Huntington suggests an unconsidered factor: culture.  He writes, “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be culture.” [1]

In the era of ‘globalization’, culture is taking a more prominent place on the global stage.  Culture and reclaiming a national and nationalist identity have sparked a wave of right wing populist movements throughout the West.  Isolationist ideas are flourishing and threaten liberals’ perception of their world order.  While the United States’’s physical conflicts in the Middle East lose momentum, greater tensions with Iran, China, and North Korea are developing.  Realists would account these tensions as balancing and missteps in understanding state interests.  However, realists and liberals overlook how culture’s predictive quality and how it instigates and avoids the conflicts these schools of thought try to answer.

To the delight of liberals, democratic and liberal states have become some of the most powerful on the globe.  As beacons of human rights, economic prosperity, and international security, liberal nation states were beginning to look like the ideal form of governance.  However, democracy, multinational institutions, and human rights are on the decline, and significantly so along the cultural lines that Huntington proposes.  According to Larry Diamond’s “Democracy in Decline,” democracy broke down in twenty-seven countries between 2000 and 2015. [2]  Turkey, Kenya, Russia, Thailand, and the Philippines have all shifted away from the democratic experiment while Western Europe and the United States continue to be its standard bearers.  China’s success and rise to the global stage should also dissuade the liberal project.  With the rise of illiberal powers and the decline of democracy, liberalism seems to be less of a universal ideal but rather a cultural phenomenon.

Culture is affecting international relations at the domestic level.  While the West still champions democracy and liberalism, its attachment to its creation is waning under cultural stress.  The rise of Donald Trump, the Five-Star Party, and Brexit are all arguably responses to a loss of cultural identity.  In the United States, at least, the country grew to understand better the effects of colonialism and modernity and race-relations in the community began to move away from a “‘color-blind’ society of equal individuals to a ‘color-conscious’ society.” [3] However, a presidential candidate supported by white supremacists and a former Grand Wizard of the KKK invigorated a voting group with the phrase “Make America Great Again,” calling on a cultural tendency.  Populist phrases that focus on such subjects including competition from immigrants and the threat of refugees, regardless of statistics that show both groups’ benefits to the economy, are having an effect on the  international actions of states. [4] Brexit and the rise of the Five-Star Party have threatened the integrity of the European Union, and the Trump administration is attacking the very multilateral institutions that the United States had helped author. Even in Germany, Angela Merkel had to concede to right wing demands on immigration despite her staunch support of liberalism and has since announced her retirement in 2021. [5] 

While realism overlooks systems of governments and states’ domestic politics, a nation’s culture might offer more predictive support than realism.  While states may prioritize national security and, perhaps, prosperity, over all else, culture may be the gateway to understanding the methods in attaining it.  There is a stark contrast in methodologies between the world’s two great powers.  As John Ikenberry phrases it, America exercises its power through “[a]lliances, partnerships, multilateralism, [and] democracy,” whereas “China doesn’t seem to do alliances.” [6]  The power struggle between the two states could lead them into a Thucydides Trap between a challenger and established authority. However, the Thucydides Trap is compounded when neither understands each other’s cultural differences, especially when they are as profound as differences in “conceptions of the state, economics, the role of individuals, relations among nations, and the nature of time.” [7] 

America has already encountered the consequences when overlooking the role of culture in its foreign policy.  The Vietnam War stands as one of the nation’s greatest mistakes and largely due to failing to understand Vietnam’s culture.  In “How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy,” James Thomson Jr. writes that the central ‘domino theory’ was flawed from the start: “This theory resulted from profound ignorance of Asian history and hence ignorance of the radical differences among Asian nations and societies. It resulted from a blindness to the power and resilience of Asian nationalisms.” [8] As a result, the United States involved itself in a war which educated realists strongly advised against.

 States are naturally irrational.  Focusing on culture would better explain the actions of states especially when they contradict fundamental theory—states surrendering a level of autonomy for international law, for example.  While Huntington’s later arguments are weaker, the emphasis on cultural conflict appears valid.  Questions to further explore might be the role of culture as a balancing force, as physical force seems to be in decline, or culture’s role between interstate war and civil war. But in an era of greater interdependence and interconnectivity, nation states—especially the United States and China—must work more actively to understand each other so as not to exacerbate already pronounced tensions.

Ian Palmer is a junior at Swarthmore College, where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Religion. He is the Journal’s 2018-19 Correspondent for United States and North American Affairs.

[1] Huntington, Samuel P. "The Clash of Civilizations?" In Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace, edited by Richard K. Betts, 34-51. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2017. 32.

[2] Diamond, Larry. “Democracy in Decline.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 22 July 2016, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2016-06-13/democracy-decline.

[3] Huntington, Samuel P. “If Not Civilizations, What? Samuel Huntington Responds to His Critics.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 1 Apr. 2015, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/global-commons/1993-12-01/if-not-civilizations-what-samuel-huntington-responds-his-critics?fa_anthology=1114012.

[4] Legrain, Philippe. “Refugees Are a Great Investment.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 3 Feb. 2017, foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/03/refugees-are-a-great-investment/.

[5] Bennhold, Katrin, and Melissa Eddy. “Merkel, to Survive, Agrees to Border Camps for Migrants.” The New York Times, 2 July 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/07/02/world/europe/angela-merkel-migration-coalition.html. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.

[6] Ikenberry, John G. “The Illusion of Geopolitics.” Foreign Affairs, 30 Apr. 2014, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2014-04-17/illusion-geopolitics. Accessed 19 Sept. 2018.

[7] Allison, Graham. “China vs. America.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 20 Nov. 2017, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-08-15/china-vs-america.

[8] Thomson, James C. "How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy.” In Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace, edited by Richard K. Betts, 581-591. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2017. 582.

Image Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/resizer/rNnIagd96W83Vs0RvbofS03R6Fo=/1024x0/arc-anglerfish-washpost-prod-washpost.s3.amazonaws.com/public/TZPCA3EAPY3JPGOAKUHCR7HQ7U.jpg