Culture Impacts Our Understanding of International Relations?

By Angelo M. Codevilla | Understanding one’s own country is the indispensable prerequisite for dealing with others. Necessarily, the way we deal with foreigners follows from how we understand what America itself is about, and generally how we believe we should relate to the rest of the world. How professors and books present international relations reflects their understanding of America implicitly. But because no international relations curriculum teaches American history or institutions explicitly, serious students are well advised to read about and to understand America independently. Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We? (2004) is a good place to start. The first two volumes of Walter McDougall’s history of the United States—Freedom Just Around the Corner (2004) and Throes of Democracy (2008)—are indispensable.


Ultimately, international relations is about peoples and places that are very different. You must learn how deeply the global village’s many neighborhoods differ from one another. Moreover, the maps that show the world divided into distinct states should not be taken to imply that the entities represented in the United Nations are nations in the dictionary meaning of the term, or that they are equivalent in any way. While no government can make “Bosnia” out of a place containing at least three warring tribes, the word “Japan” describes an entity that exists regardless of government.

Geography makes a difference. What are the soil and climate like? Is the topography steep or smooth, accessible by land or water? How numerous are the people? How young or old? What are their measurable characteristics? How many of them do what? What is in the people’s heads, and what does that dispose them to do or not do? What do they worship, love, and hate? What is acceptable and unacceptable among them? How are they governed, what kinds of people among them set the tone for life, and what do they want? What is it like to make a living there and get ahead? What are their collective fears, hopes, and interests? What is their international agenda, if any? What “comparative advantages” do they have? What do they have to give and need to receive? What kind of power can they generate—how much, and for what purpose?

A good place to begin this tour of our planet is Sir Halford Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919), which shows geography’s influence on politics. As you go through this classic introduction, refer often to a historical atlas as well as to specialized studies of individual regions.

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Because a people’s civilization is the most fundamental component of its character, there is no substitute for knowing and taking seriously the ideas and the history by which the major civilizations foster the mentalities and patterns of behavior peculiar to them. What does it mean for peoples to be part of a Christian (Latin or Orthodox), Confucian, or Islamic culture? Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) and Adda Bozeman’s Politics and Culture in International History: From the Ancient Near East to the Opening of the Modern Age (1960) are good places to begin.

The world’s civilizations flow from very different ways of viewing people’s relationships with God, nature,and one another. We who have grown up in a Judeo- Christian civilization suppose wrongly that all mankind accepts that two contradictory propositions cannot betrue at the same time in the same way and hence that grasping truth is possible and essential; that the human mind can grasp natural phenomena because they occur according to the laws of nature; that nature exists for man’s use; that since men are neither animals nor gods, no man may treat another as if he were a god and the other an animal, and hence that all men are created equal; and that duties to God are different from duties to Caesar. In fact, these propositions are indefensible, incomprehensible nonsense except in terms of the Hebrew Bible’s Old and New Testaments and of Plato and Aristotle’s teachings. They are particular and exclusive to our civilization.

The fact that persons raised in other civilizations now work calculus problems or make automobiles and nuclear weapons should not obscure the more important fact that their civilizations did not enable bright minds to conceive carburetors or imagine atoms. The fact that rulers in other civilizations sometimes respect their own laws does not mean they know that doing otherwise is wrong ipso facto. Because each of the world’s civilizations is an intellectual-moral universe that can be understood only in its own terms, cross-cultural communication is far harder than translating one language into another. Among the biggest mistakes that students and practitioners of international relations make is to assume that the words they hear in English from persons brought up in foreign cultures mean the same to them as they do to Americans—for example, that “freedom” is the same thing among people who believe that all men are created equal as among those who do not, or that “human rights” means the same thing to Jews and Christians, who believe that each human being is made in the image and likeness of God, as to those who do not. Moreover, civilizations, including our own, change as different ideas and emphases vie for prominence and as they adapt to contact with other civilizations. This means that the most consequential cultural clashes happen within civilizations rather than between them. Students and practitioners are well advised to discern to which particular part of his own civilization any given individual or group belongs. Changes in culture are most important because no way of life ever survives the death of the ideas that first gave it life.

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© 2016. Intercollegiate Studies Institute.