WWI Analogies: Missing the Role of Culture
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WWI Analogies: Missing the Role of Culture


One hundred years ago began the war to end all wars. World War I, or the Great War, was a war based on unilateral actions, miscalculations and misunderstandings. This inauspicious centenary has been an opportunity for the foreign affairs commentariat to indulge in one of the things it is best at: drawing historical analogies.

It is true that aspects of the global landscape look eerily similar to a century ago. States push the boundaries of international law and act unilaterally, causing regional alarm and global unease. Events in Ukraine and East Asia suggest a return to old-school territoriality. The “Great Game” after all originally referred to Russia’s 19th century contest with Britain over central Asia, including Crimea.

Once again, there is a major redistribution of strategic and economic weight. New superpowers emerge and agitate for a place at the high table of international affairs. This time the shift is seismic, moving across entire continents. Today it is China, India, and other Asian states, as well as Brazil and South Africa. Alongside the growing multipolarity, many have pointed to the increasing great-power rivalry and divergence over major strategic issues like Ukraine and the South and East China Seas, economic cleavages with the BRICS’ New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Arrangement, and India’s stance at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

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Countering these voices of doom is the argument that the interconnectedness of today’s world prevents a global catastrophe. It was in response to WWI that great minds like Leonard Woolf suggested the option of collective security, an idea that gained policy momentum, eventually culminating in the League of Nations. The League failed, in part due to disengagement by then rising powers like the U.S. Following World War II, nations tried again, leading to the institutional faces of today’s interconnected world order: the United Nations and economic institutions like WTO, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund.

Opponents of the WWI analogy argue that the integration of the global economy ensures that any state’s cost-benefit analysis regarding war is skewed towards the negative – it’s just not worth it. It could also be argued that modern technology, advances in intelligence gathering, and the ease with which global leaders can speak directly to each other, has made WWI-style “misunderstandings” near impossible. Media coverage of war has, since America’s involvement in Vietnam, meant the public are intimately aware of the realities of the battlefield, shifting the burden of justification further onto advocates for military action. In response to WWI, international pacifist Lord Bryce stated the “impossibility of war…would be increased in proportion as the issues of foreign policy should be known to and controlled by public opinion.”

Something that seems to have evaded the attention of both the voices of doom and the optimists, however, is that today’s power shifts have far more complex implications than last century’s. While Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” analysis may discount key factors, it draws our attention to an important and long-ignored aspect of international relations – culture. Unlike the United States and Germany in the 19th century, today’s emerging powers encompass entire civilizations – some with thousands of years of cultural continuity. While Japan’s modernization beginning with the Meiji restoration in 1868 included an adoption of existing foreign policy institutions, the same may not be true for China and India.

Culture is making a comeback as a factor in international relations. And it is not merely via chauvinism manifesting itself in the form of nationalist politics that we have seen since the end of the Cold War; not just states saying “my culture is better than yours.” Culture’s influence in the future will be more deeply felt. Its interaction with foreign affairs will be in a way that has long been shunned as too mystifying to serve as a basis for policymaking. Culture will make an impact through values.

In the last century, most Western policymakers have presumed that certain universal human traits govern international affairs. Culture was seen only as an incomprehensible wildcard, of little relevance to the game of international relations. The behavior of states was simply individual self-interest writ large. Rational actors pursued their own interests in a global state of nature, likening it to Hobbes’ proverbial “war of all against all.” But how states define their interests, and more deeply, whether rationality itself is always the driver, is now being questioned.

Cultural values impact what people, and therefore states, want and think in world affairs. It often occurs subconsciously in the minds of leaders and the public. It influences what goals are considered worth striving for, what tools of statecraft are used, what national image is sought, how concepts of war, peace, freedom, equality, livelihood and development are valued.

Already we have seen culture’s impact in the language of international affairs. India has long presented an image of itself as adhering to its ancient societal ideal of non-violence. In the 1980s, then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, called for a new “Non-violent World Order.” In areas as diverse as humanitarian intervention and nuclear posture, Delhi’s rhetoric has been saturated by references to peace. While many states talk peace, research shows India did so even when it meant sacrificing progress toward “rational” strategic objectives. In the Middle East, we’ve seen militarily weak actors, for reasons of honor, projecting an image of strength, even adopting the mantle of dominant aggressor. If rational calculation and self-interest had governed behavior such an image would have been avoided as it attracts global animosity, making attacks by adversaries seem more justifiable.

As Asian and other powers rise and exert greater strategic autonomy, we see culture’s hand in state behavior as well. Rather than security imperatives as most Western analysts would predict, India’s nuclear weapons policy has been fuelled by the quest for international standing. When combined with the value of non-violence, nukes are considered symbolically important but militarily unusable. The benign nature of India’s nuclear strategy made it easier for the U.S. and others to justify giving Delhi special treatment in nuclear cooperation. The cultural value of hierarchy, as manifested historically in the caste system, has a significant impact, amongst other social norms.

Similarly, Chinese policy is colored with the concept of mianzi or face, where importance is placed on social recognition by others. A country’s place within the international hierarchy of status is highly important. Relations with others and context is paramount; individuals have no meaning within a vacuum.

Indian born and Chinese practiced, Buddhism promotes the acceptance of impermanence and changeability. This has significant implications for how China’s foreign policy, including ideology and alliances, is conceived. It may also explain both these countries’ gradual transitions to market economies, as opposed to the more abrupt upheavals seen in Eastern Europe.

Thus far, most non-Western countries have operated using European sourced institutions of statecraft, within a Western-style nation-state system. This made predicting their foreign policies at least somewhat possible. But as the European half-millennium draws to a close, states may evolve their institutions, strengthening the unpredictable hand of culture even more. For some time now, the Middle East’s various spot fires have thrown up actors who operate without state apparatus and disregard international standards, the Islamic State being just the latest example. But these have been of comparatively minor geopolitical significance, something that cannot be said about Asia’s rising giants.

Cultural values impact more than just states’ conduct of their foreign policies. The current international configuration of sovereign nation-states itself is rooted in European modernity. Non-European cultures may exert differing views on international organization. A bellwether will be how rising powers engage with international law. While Western culture sees society as individuals relating to each other through rules and contracts, Chinese scholars highlight a more holistic, interconnected worldview. This has significant implications for concepts such as human security and human rights, which seek to replace consideration of the state with a focus on individuals.

Ensuring the peaceful rise of new great powers requires more in-depth and organized effort amongst Western governments to understand the cultures of Asia and elsewhere. Foreign policy is once again becoming a statesperson’s game of big stakes, after decades of being largely subject to the whims of domestic politics. Western diplomatic services are recognizing the need for more country specialists and greater interaction with academia.

The mainstream media, however, lags behind. Between West and East, North and South, there is a propensity for peoples to live in separate realities.

Just as the League of Nations did not survive the disengagement of the then rising America, the current international system and its key institutions, may not survive disengagement by today’s ascendant powers. The return of culture is not just a debate for constructivists and realists in universities’ international relations departments. If statesmen and women are to handle the big issues of global security and prosperity in a multipolar world, culture is the wildcard they can no longer ignore.

Dr. Kadira Pethiyagoda is a former diplomat whose PhD and upcoming book investigated Indian foreign policy. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. A shorter version of this article first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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