If not civilizational paradigm, then what?
Various frameworks exist to understand today’s international relations. One of them is the so called “civilizational paradigm” as propagated by Huntington, and which saw a strong boost particularly after the occurrences of 9/11 (see Abrahamian 2003). However, I do not fully agree with Huntington’s explanations when it comes to understanding current international relations.
In essence, I would like to elaborate on three larger frameworks / approaches, of which I believe to be of a certain importance for seeing international affairs – two in which culture matters as a factor, however in different ways, and one in which culture is rather neglected: the culturalist approach (under which the Huntington paradigm can be subsumed), then the critical approach and last but not least the rationalist approach.
This will be done by means of an analysis along the concepts, theories and aspects of the literature concerning IR and culture. But first of all, let me briefly outline some aspects with regard to the terms culture and civilization. Huntington refers to civilization as a cultural entity, being “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have” – based among others on a common language, religion, history, customs and self-identification (1993, p. 23f.). At this point, I am not going more into detail or to make a well-defined difference between the two terms. After all both – culture and civilization – are contested concepts; they are complex and quite comprehensive. A single definition doesn’t exist for neither term, as various scholars point out (see Texas A&M University website and The Free Dictionary 2009).
Culturalist Explanatory Framework – the popular view
“Culture can help us understand why humans act in the way they do, and what similarities and differences exist among them” (Murden 2008, p. 421).
A framework which we often use to understand international relations (and one of great importance among the ordinary population indeed, but not so much in academia) refers to the culturalist approach. Within this framework Huntington’s civilizational paradigm is to be found. First and foremost, international politics is explained by dint of cultural aspects, it is seen as a process of cultural interactions. Developments and interactions originate from certain cultural conditions and realities. Culture and cultural identity are seen as static and not evolving, and usually entailing a fixed system of “binary opposition” (Bromley and Smith 2004, p. 551) in terms of a better Self on the one hand and an inferior Other on the other hand.
This is exactly what authors like Huntington do: favouring one culture (in his case the West) over another (ditto Islam) –in a generalized and simplified way. Such tendencies have also been exceedingly visible after the New York terrorist attacks in September 2001, when the North American mainstream press placed this strike perspicuously “within the context of Islam, culture and civilisations” (Abrahamian 2003, p. 529/531), thus indicating that the West is severely endangered by an Islamic Other. But this kind of “orientalist backdrop” (Erdem 2002) distorts facts and neglects other factors (for instance colonial heritage, state oppression, other motives etc.) that contribute to certain developments in international affairs.
Moreover, this uncontested view of culture can entail (partly severe) negative consequences on certain actors, states or regions – as we could see after 9/11: “by framing the crisis within the context of Islam, it made all Muslims suspect” (Abrahamian 2003, p. 538), in consequence triggering a generally biased attitude towards Muslims and Islam. Verbal discrimination, but also physical attacks (e.g. at airports) became a common behaviour in the United States.
A mobilization of culture for political purposes can intensify culturalist tendencies and thus easier justify the use of violence to encounter the dangerous Other. As a result of 9/11, Bush’ antagonistic foreign policy defined civilization based on a standard of good and bad (i.e. the civilized and the uncivilized), and “formed around an essentially American vision of freedom and democracy” (Murden 2008, p. 429). Negative representations of the Arab world facilitated the approval for violent policies as a legitimate means, e.g. as to fighting against the “axis of evil”, and more precisely, when overthrowing the oppressive regime of Iraq.
Representations exert a great influence on the formation of identity, and thus in turn affecting politics. Anand elucidates that “representational practices feed the dominant knowledge regimes and structures and shape the very identities they seek to represent” (2007b, p. 7). An actual example for such a practice regarding the Western perception of the Arab world illustrates the strategy of differentiation and classification. This idea "polices discourses, assigns positions, regulates groups, and enforces boundaries" (Anand 2007a, p. 31). Through this strategy the own culture is represented as different from the Other, marked by a different identity and self-image. So e.g. Arabs lag behind in terms of democratic values and progressiveness from a Western point of view. The Orient is downgraded as evil, archaic and ignorant, while the West sees itself as modern and civilized, and thus superior. Hence, many believe that Arabs are hostile towards the peace-loving liberal West. Such perspectives eventually favor such ‘US civilizing missions’ as in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the culturalist framework is flawed when it comes to understanding roots and causes of ethnic conflicts. Ethnic identity (being a part of culture) is used to build up boundaries against the (ethnic) Other and is similar to culture as such seen as given and static, arranged around certain binary categories. In consequence, ethnic conflicts are often explained from a primordialist perspective, with ethnic differences playing the main role for causing disputes. However, this primordialist view neglects other factors that are also at the bottom of an ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflicts are not necessarily rooted right from start in reasons concerning ethnic differences. They rather substantiate in a combination of diverse and complex factors like specific policies and motives brought forward by certain actors.
When all is said and done, the culturalist framework might not be the most qualified one when it comes to understanding international relations in a balanced and objective manner. Within this approach culture is rather seen as a product than a process. The framework is stereotyped, and moreover often a flawed – also with regard to (conflict) roots and causes – due to a simplified view of events. But as Huntington demonstrated: “paradigms do not have to be true to become conventional wisdom” (Abrahamian 2003, p. 529).
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- international relations Internationale Beziehungen IR IB culture Kultur culturalist explanatory framework critical approach kritischer Ansatz rationalism Rationalismus