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"CULTURE" is the newest fad sweeping the literature on international relations, security studies, and international economics. A throng of recent essays and books point to culture as the basic force impelling nation-states, other institutions, and individuals to act and organize themselves as they do. Many of these writings argue that culture's importance is growing.
The notion that culture affects human behavior is, of course, hardly new. Observations about the relative skills and behavior patterns of various societies are as old as human history. In modern times, Max Weber (1958) studied the relative economic benefits of Protestant and Catholic cultures; Adda Bozeman (1960) and others focused on culture's role in national decision making; Lucian Pye and Sydney Verba (1965) connected national culture to development; and Robert Putnam (1993) studied the relationship between civic culture and democracy. But some of the literature reviewed here contends that, with the end of the cold war, cultural factors have finally emerged as predominant in international relations, the primus inter pares of the engines driving world affairs. It is this claim - rather than the more mundane (and obviously correct) one that culture is an important or notable factor in international relations - that I subject to scrutiny here.
This essay divides the growing literature on culture into four distinct models of cultural influences: cultural values as broadly determining individual and national success; culture as an influence on decision making; culture as the principal determinant of economic and social structure; and culture as the dominant variable in conflict and international relations today. I argue that parochial, divisive cultures will decline in influence. What some of the writers whose publications are reviewed here have recognized are transitional instabilities brought about by the shift from the industrial to the information age - transitional instabilities that, if properly managed, will give way to a new era in which the impact of unique cultures in world affairs subsides.
The Four Models
Each of the four models outlined below offers a different way of looking at the effects of culture in international relations. The four are not completely distinct, of course - there are substantial areas of overlap - and none excludes any of the others. Nonetheless, each puts its emphasis on a slightly different issue.(1)
Model One: Culture as Equipment for Life
There can be little doubt that cultural attributes play a substantial role in providing human beings with the mental, moral, and economic equipment for life. And it seems almost equally indisputable that, at least according to the standards of modern capitalist economies, some cultures equip their people for success better than others.
Lawrence E. Harrison, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official, makes this argument in Who Prospers: How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success. It is "values and attitudes - culture," he writes, "that differentiate ethnic groups and are mainly responsible for such phenomena as Latin America's persistent instability and inequity, Taiwan's and Korea's economic 'miracles,' and the achievements of the Japanese" (p. 1). Thomas Sowell, in Race and Culture: A World View, suggests along the same lines that "Racial, ethnic, and cultural differences among peoples play a major role in the events of our times," because "a particular people usually has its own particular set of skills for dealing with the economic and social necessities of life" (p. 1). Both authors advance dozens of brief case studies in an effort to support their overall thesis. Harrison contends, for example, that "[C]ooperatives don't work well in Thailand because Thais don't trust one another, and they know how to relate to one another only in a hierarchical way" (p. 15). Sowell argues that "A disdain for commerce and industry has . . . been common for centuries among the Hispanic elite, both in Spain and in Latin America" (p. 25).
This basic connection between national culture and national success is a venerable idea. Its restatement in the works of Harrison, Sowell, and others offers the first, most traditional model of culture's importance in international relations:
Model One: Culture plays a critical role in determining the economic fates of nations, peoples, and individuals because some cultures underwrite success better than others.
Model Two: Culture as Cognitive Filter
The second model isolates the role of culture in the decision-making processes of leaders and nations, arguing that actors see issues and decisions through the prism of distinct cultural perceptions. In this way, culture serves as an important barrier to international understanding and negotiation, because various parties are bound to see any given decision or dispute in starkly different terms. As one writer puts it, "There can be no doubt that peoples or countries are affected by their cultural differences which reflect their values, outlooks, interests, habits and historical hopes and fears." Failure to appreciate these differences leads to "misconceptions, misinterpretations, and erroneous judgments" (Anand 1981, 15).
As Akira Iriye wrote 15 years ago, "A nation, in a word, is a 'cultural system,' and international relations are interactions among cultural systems" (1979, 115). In such relationships, according to Ole Elgstrom (1994), culture "impinges upon negotiations by conditioning one's perception of reality, blocking out information inconsistent with culturally based assumptions, projecting meaning on to the other party's words and actions, and leading a negotiator to an incorrect attribution of motive" (p. 290). Thus, for example, "When a Japanese prime minister says that he will 'do his best' to implement a certain policy," Americans applaud a victory; but "what the prime minister really meant was 'no,' something he could not express in a direct way because of cultural values" (pp. 296-297). Culture as defined by David Elkins and Richard Simeon (1979) "does not determine precisely what will be done," but it "conditions the range of issues to which attention will be devoted; it influences the way those issues will be defined; and it limits the range of options considered within a given issue domain" (p. 143).
This effect is not just momentary, many cultural analysts claim; it exercises a constant and persistent effect through "strategic culture," the broad approach to national security that is influenced by cultural traditions. Alastair Iain Johnston (1995) phrases the general model this way: "Different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree by the philosophical, political, cultural, and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites" (p. 34). This notion brings us to:
Model Two: Cultural perspectives and belief systems strongly influence the way in which national leaders view policy problems, both individually and collectively over time, and often determine the solutions they choose to deal with them.
Model Three: Culture as Socioeconomic Architect
Francis Fukuyama offers a somewhat different model of the influence of culture in international relations in his new book Trust. He agrees that culture plays a dominant role in determining economic success. But he focuses on one cultural trait - sociability, or social trust. "A nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete," he argues, "is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society" (p. 7). And he further concentrates on a single structural question - the presence or absence of large, diverse multinational corporations (MNCs), which he sees as a symbol of social trust at work and as a precondition for success in the global economy. Fukuyama defines "familistic" societies as those "in which the primary (and often only) avenue to sociability is family and broader forms of kinship, like clans or tribes" (p. 28). This category - in which he places Chinese societies as well as France and Italy - are "low-trust" because their sociability does not extend significantly beyond the family or clan. In contrast, societies "with a high degree of generalized social trust" and a resulting "strong propensity for spontaneous sociability" - including the United States, Japan, and Germany (pp. 28-29) - generate large, complex …