Cultural values affecting foreign policy?
February 14, 2012 3:22 AM   Subscribe

To what extent do cultural values affect foreign policy making between U.S. and China?

Culture provides people with ways of thinking, seeing, and interpreting the world. People from different cultures will inevitably have different ways of looking at the world, so in situations where cross cultural communication is prevalent, such as foreign policy making, there will always be potential for clashes and conflict.

The conventional view is that foreign policy is dictated by economic and strategic interests, while that is certainly true on an overt level, there must be other factors that form the undercurrent of it all, or else a lot of foreign policy would be much simpler and frankly a lot less interesting than it is. Everything from our racial features, to the food we eat, the way we dress, what language we speak, where we live all form a part of culture.

I choose the examples of US and China because both countries are arguably the superpower in each of their respective hemispheres (West/East), and it helps for comparison as both nations play a significant role (I daresay they may even be the leaders) of the "Western world" and "the East".
posted by espada0 to Law & Government (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely. Culture, particularly understandings of national history and national narrative, play a huge role in shaping national ambitions, and therefore play a role in how nations establish their priorities and to a lesser extent how they manage their policy prescriptions both at home and abroad.

To address the specific question of the US and China: if you've not read Henry Kissinger's "On China," I would highly recommend it. I am by no means a fan of Kissinger's career, but he is still a hell of an historian, and was personally present to witness most of the diplomatic intercourse during the formative years of the US-China relationship.

Kissinger's answer is, in simplified form, yes: the US and the West in general tend to view diplomacy and strategic politics in terms of events and personalities, the Chinese in terms of long-term (hundreds of years) patterns. Kissinger argues that this is due to in part to the long and cyclical nature of Chinese history. China also has a very keen distaste for foreign encroachment on its sovereignty that is based on the humiliating experience of foreign influence in the 19th century.
posted by cirgue at 6:15 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is also a whole literature on Chinese negotiating style, see for example: Richard H. Solomon, Chinese Negotiating Behavior: Pursuing Interests Through “Old Friends”

You can also check out Lynn White's China Bibliography (pdf).
posted by shothotbot at 6:32 AM on February 14, 2012

Best answer: Diplomatic protocol exists to smooth interactions between diplomats. The modern version is the result of many centuries of development, so it's quite well honed. Two hundred years ago countries wanting to do business in China would send elaborate "embassies" to Beijing to basically honor the rulers and hope their wishes were met, as part of the Chinese tribute system. That led to the Canton System of trade.

Still, the agenda today is set by cultural values. Consider China's population. It's so large that it requires a lot of food and resources, so China's diplomatic endeavors tend to have shades of colonialism, depending on the perspective. China is investing heavily in Africa and Latin America, which is really throwing the West's idea of systemic aid (country to country, not related to disasters, etc.). The West's system has built over the years to the present one based on conditionalities and checks to ensure the conditions are met. China, on the other hand, is just giving out loans without conditions, so Western loans are being rejected in favor of Chinese ones. The Chinese loans tend to focus on building things, like roads and railroads, and stipulate the % of workers who can be Chinese nationals. Those workers bring a support structure, free from the One Child policy, which has left a concern that they are colonizing the countries... and why I only half jokingly say we should probably learn Mandarin.

Not surprisingly, since the Chinese aren't using conditionalities they support whoever they want, regardless of human rights, democracy, etc. As a result, in some ways they end up working against Western efforts. The really freaky thing is the similarity to Bismarck's programs like the Mittelafrika. Howard French detailed a bit of that in The Next Empire. Stephanie Hanson has some good general analysis in China, Africa, and Oil. For a high level perspective of the aid issues, try Foreign Aid Strategies: China Taking Over?.

Knowing what you know now, hopefully China's security council vetos and abstentions aren't as much of a mystery. They are a communist country with little respect for human rights, so in their mind countries have a right to self determination and should be left alone. They weren't: the Portuguese and Dutch started it, and then you have events like the Boxer Rebellion. It's a different way of thinking about the world. From this perspective, the West just keeps interfering and China can help other countries avoid the troubles it had. To a certain degree, they have a point too - China had imperial courts with catering manuals 3000 years ago. They've had some time to perfect things. US support for free trade and human rights seems a bit shallow in comparison, especially these days. It isn't, but that's another post entirely.

Disclosure: I'm a grad student in a US based diplomacy program, just studied this topic, and the links are from my current class and final paper research from a previous one.
posted by jwells at 7:11 AM on February 14, 2012

Short answer: very little

Foreign policy has changed dramatically; what we have coming from the U.S. is not foreign policy. I am afraid to say, it is a cross between democratic idealism, very narrow national interests, and a dose of modified imperialism (rebranded to be acceptable to our 21st century world). I'm not arguing any of this is wrong. After all, I am an American - I want the U.S. to remain strong in the next 100 years.

True foreign policy is guided by the protection of our national interests in the course of navigating relationships with other nations and bodies. It is inward looking - it is devoid of ambitious foreign experiments, & truly focused on how to keep one's nation strong and secure, without being isolationist.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:33 AM on February 14, 2012

Communism in China was deeply affected by Confucius. Mao and the Chinese communists did not just swallow European Marxism and Soviet Ideology. They adapted it to their own culture. Chinese Communism is particularly impacted by the Confucian ideal of the government operating in an almost parental role over the citizens.
posted by Flood at 8:19 AM on February 14, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for the detailed answer jwells. I'll definitely have a look at those links you posted. Just a few follow up questions:

When you mentioned that the Chinese provide loans without conditions, would you say that it is one of the methods they employ in order to gain quick economic and political leverage over other countries, allowing them to spread influence abroad and simultaneously satiating the Chinese population's voracious appetite for monetary gain (via any means possible, perhaps a part of the domestic nouveau riche culture)?

I'm not sure I understand the point about the Chinese having little respect for human rights (which I agree with) but yet insist on non-intervention. Surely if they did not care much about human rights then they would intervene, or is it that the Chinese as a culture are first and foremost inclined toward a pragmatic, quid pro quo approach (not intervening unless they can get something economically valuable out of it)?

Kruger5: So this mix of idealism, narrow interests and modified imperialism, is that a distinctly 21st century American approach? Another thing I'm curious about is why the U.S. puts itself forward as the vanguard of democracy and free markets when much of its political processes are far from democratic? Is there something more to it or is it just a part of "American exceptionalism"?

Flood: Seeing as Confucianism constitutes as the bedrock of Chinese governance, would it be reasonable to say that their foreign policies would also have a Confucian undercurrent? I ask because it seems that their policies are driven by static and purely economic objectives.
posted by espada0 at 6:24 AM on February 15, 2012


big point was that cultural values can corrupt foreign policy. Think of the underlying "unofficial" view of English cultural motivations in the expansion of the British empire ... The theme of civilizing the "savages.'

American foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries reflects this. It can be argued that the only cultural values that should be taken into account in U.S. Foreign policy are those espoused by our Founding Fathers towards the values within the U.S.. BUT, that would make for very strange times today, and lots of dramatic changes in our alliances!

Consider this: do our most recent foreign policy expeditions seem wise and sound to you? $64,000 question: do you feel safer today as an American, after our recent foreign policy initiatives?

Foreign policy, devoid of unnatural accomodation of "cultural values" should make us feel secure in our homeland.

(Role of American exceptionalism is for another time :))
posted by Kruger5 at 7:37 AM on February 15, 2012

Response by poster: Is it possible to eliminate cultural values from foreign policy making of today, or is that just a commitment to the nirvana fallacy? How could it even be done without completely removing the human element? Foreign policy is mainly about protecting national interests within the international relations milieu, often these national interests include the continued preservation and prosperity of national identity/culture (although this outcome is achieved indirectly), so its natural and unavoidable that foreign policies would be imbued with their own "cultural signature".

The next question that pops into my head is: if there is no such thing as value-neutral foreign policy, how can we know whether if foreign policy is indeed affected by cultural values since we do not have a "control sample" to compare with?
posted by espada0 at 3:00 AM on February 16, 2012

It would take great political leadership and courage to change the current foreign policy framwork within the United States. Cultural values of the U.S. (Inward looking, i.e preserving the values we believe in, for America and Americans) are not the issue - it's the co-mingling of our our foreign policy objectives with cultural values, or worse, fueling "foreign policy" based primarily around culture and values.
The other way this can happen is if the U.S. embarked on additional catastrophic endeavors (such as Iraq) that caused public opinion to demand sudden and dramatic change in our relations with the world. The danger here is isolationism (which ironically, is a tendency within the same political group as those that espouse adventurism).

As far as a control group to compare to, U.S. Foreign policy in the first 50 years of America's founding is a good start. We don't even have to go that far back. However, the first 50 years offers a kind of simple backdrop to see things in higher contrast (example: the wording & spirit found in The Treaty of Tripoli)
posted by Kruger5 at 6:58 AM on February 16, 2012

Response by poster: What you said about integrating and driving foreign policy with cultural values is fascinating. It seems to me what you are saying is that culture is the driving force behind the construction of US foreign policy. Are there any books or articles that analyse this in detail?

I certainly can see now that social values do play a role in shaping policies, although I would say that it is short term, narrow, and economic interests that dominate the policy arena between the US and China, as their respective ideological approaches that are required to achieve longer term goals are too polarised to the point where maintaining amiable relations would prove to be difficult.
posted by espada0 at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: MeFi is really not the place for such a deep discussion, so I leave you with this as a final comment :)

Read Leo Strauss: he dramatically introduced cultural values as a critical & defining element of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century (he was a 'mentor' of considerable persuasion and influence to many in power today, and yet few know of him).

I don't want to bias the readings with any political leanings of my own, so a good, counter view can be found in Senator Chuck Hagel's book: America, Our Next Chapter.

There are many, many books and articles from all angles on this; enjoy your reading.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:57 AM on February 16, 2012

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