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International Relations Theory Doesn’t Understand Culture
The main schools of thought still cling to an outdated understanding of how civilizations work.
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The outdated view sees cultures as coherent things: as tightly integrated, neatly bounded, and clearly differentiated.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.
On the surface, it might seem like rational choice theory would have even less to say about culture than realism. Yet culture enters rationalist arguments, too, in three ways: when adherents explain the rational choice of norms, when they accommodate cultural preferences, and in their argument that common knowledge is essential to solving coordination problems. The last of these is particularly interesting, as it is here that rationalists express a version of IR’s default conception of culture. Coordination problems exist when actors have common interests but can only realize as much if they coordinate their choices, usually without direct communication.
To overcome such problems, actors rely on mutual expectations, and such expectations come from common knowledge: things I know, and you know, and we both know that we both know. Rationalists see cultural norms, values, and practices as a major source of such knowledge, and thus common culture is important to solving the variety of coordination problems actors navigate every day. Most rationalists focus on specific collaboration problems and localized common knowledge, but others make larger claims about social order. Here the claim is a familiar one: Culturally homogeneous societies, which they take as their baseline, are more conducive to the solution of coordination problems than diverse societies.
It may seem unfair to expect realism and rational choice to be abreast of current thinking on culture: It is not their game, after all. Yet constructivism and the English School, both of which see culture as core business, fare no better.
Constructivism’s core insight is that shared meanings—ideas, norms, and values—make the social and natural worlds knowable. Constructivists frequently describe such meanings as “cultural.” In principle, that tendency is entirely compatible with current understandings of culture as heterogeneous and contradictory. Yet the two main strands of constructivist research have been largely deaf to such understandings.
The first strand focuses on international norms: how they emerge and how they shape the identities, interests, and behavior of states and other actors. This work disaggregates culture, breaking it up into individual norms and then studying their causal effects. But while culture is not treated as a coherent, bounded whole, the complexity in which individual norms are embedded is neglected.
The second strand of research focuses on the institutional foundations of international relations, most notably the origins of modern sovereignty. It is here that the default conception of culture is most clear. Constructivists identify deep, system-wide cultural meanings and use these to explain key institutional developments. They see international orders as founded, in part, on what they call collective mentalities—and when these change, so do basic institutions. For example, my own early research attributes variations in the basic institutional practices of different societies to their different cultural understandings of the moral purpose of the state.
The English School is noted for its trademark claim that states can form international societies, not just international systems. That is, states can come together over shared common interests to agree on common rules and create institutions to uphold those rules. When asked what sustains such a society, English School theorists offer two main answers. One is pragmatic: States share basic interests in physical security, stable territorial rights, and the keeping of agreements, and international society is the best means to these ends. This is overlaid, however, by an argument about the cultural prerequisites for international society.
Far from seeing culture as complex and contradictory, Martin Wight, one of the school’s founders, held in Systems of States that an international society “will not come into being without a degree of cultural unity among its members.” Modern international society, he argued, had its origins in European civilization, and when decolonization admitted a host of non-Western states, international society had “outrun cultural and moral community.” The idea that pragmatism could only ever sustain a thin social order—and that a common culture was needed to undergird robust bonds, institutions, and practices—focused much of the school’s post-decolonization research on the possibility of international society in a culturally diverse world.
IR’s failure to integrate contemporary conceptions of culture is more than an academic curiosity—it has far-reaching implications for how we understand today’s global politics of culture. Take one critical issue: the impact of rising non-Western powers on the modern international order. At present, debate is dominated by culturalists, who think that the order will collapse as its Western cultural foundations erode, and liberals, who deny that cultural differences matter, holding that liberal institutions can accommodate states and peoples of diverse cultural complexions.
But what if we take seriously the insight that there is no such thing as a unified culture, that all culture is complex and contradictory? We would have to assume, first of all, that the modern order arose under conditions of cultural diversity, not unity. And we would then have to ask how these heterogeneous conditions shaped the order’s evolution and, in turn, how the order’s institutions were constructed to govern and order that diversity.
Doing so would bring the conquest of the Americas, the Protestant Reformation, the post-Versailles division of Europe into ethnically defined nation-states, and decolonization into new focus. Most importantly, it would lead us to ask not whether sudden onset diversity will destroy a formerly Western order, but whether post-decolonization practices for governing global diversity can accommodate new arrangements of power and expressions of cultural difference.
This article was adapted in part from the author’s 2018 book, On Cultural Diversity: International Theory in a World of Difference, published by Cambridge University Press.