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Misusing Culture in International Politics: Part I

Cultural arguments, it turns out, need not be rooted in truth to be effective.

Words: Sam Ratner
Pictures: Max van den Oetelaar

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

As recently declassified tapes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s racist rants against Indians, Africans, and others once again demonstrate, perception and misperception of culture play a major and understudied role in international policymaking. Leaders are prone to making decisions based on views of an adversary’s culture that often have little basis in reality. Even if they are not as explicitly racist as Nixon’s complaint that Indians are “sexless” and easily bullied, cultural misperceptions can still shape political outcomes. In the next two editions of Deep Dive, Critical State takes a look at new research on the uses and misuses of cultural differences in international relations.

Historian Jennifer Miller has a new article in the journal Modern Intellectual History that charts a longstanding project by neoconservative defense intellectuals to turn perceptions of East Asian culture into ammunition for a global political agenda. One of the core policy debates of that era was why East Asian economies performed so well while other economies largely stagnated. One answer, popular among American conservatives and neoconservatives, was that East Asian societies were able to prosper due to shared Confucian values that, the argument went, promoted a “collectivism” well-suited to industrialization.

The validity of that explanation is still a subject of debate today. The idea that East Asian countries share one overriding view of Confucian values is a fiction, and even if it were not, historians point out that before Confucianism was thought of as helping usher in modernity, it was often presented as being a major impediment to modernity. Culturally essentialist explanations of historical phenomena tend not to stand up to close scrutiny. Miller, however, is less interested in the truth of the claim than the purpose it served for the people making it. “Why,” she asks, “would this group of Americans, who had minimal expertise on East Asia, claim that the most visible example of recent capitalist success emerged from Asian religious and intellectual traditions?”

By venerating an imagined set of Confucian values shared across East Asia and denigrating other cultures as infected with a “spirit of patrimonialism and mercantilism,” neoconservatives were able to shift blame for economic inequality between states away from colonialism.

The answer, she finds, lies in two political projects that have only a passing relationship to American East Asia policy. The first is a familiar refrain from the right that capitalist success is, in general, tied to maintaining traditional value systems. In 1978, leading neoconservative Irving Kristol wrote that people improve their lots under capitalism through “prudence, diligence, trustworthiness, and an ambition largely channeled toward ‘bettering one’s condition,’” a personal responsibility argument that would not seem out of place in a Republican campaign speech today (or a Tory one in Britain, for that matter). If economic growth in East Asia was really the result of embracing Confucian values, then neoconservatives in the US could make the case that a return to traditional American values would jumpstart lagging economic growth at home.

The second use of the Confucianism explanation, though, was as a cudgel in international relations. Another important policy debate of this era was the fate of a proposed New International Economic Order (NIEO), an effort by many post-colonial states to reshape the world economy in a way that would roll back the damage done by colonialism. NIEO advocates argued that colonialism was responsible for continued underdevelopment in much of the world and sought greater control over their country’s economic interactions with major markets and multinational corporations as well as aid and technology transfers from former colonizers. To neoconservatives, who saw the worldwide expansion of their version of capitalism as crucial to capitalism’s survival, such a change was unthinkable.

Even the thought of the NIEO sent neoconservative writers into high dudgeon. Kristol wrote that fighting off the NIEO was a question of maintaining “liberal civilization in general.” To do so, NIEO opponents would have to argue against the underlying case that colonialism hampered economic growth in post-colonial countries. In that pursuit, the idea that Confucianism caused East Asia’s economic expansion was invaluable. East Asia had been subject to a great deal of colonial exploitation, but, neoconservative analysts argued, it had overcome that past by applying what one termed “effort, hard work, and ingenuity.” Surely, then, it was culture, not colonial past, that accounted for discrepancies in development.

Neoconservatives applied the same level of expert analysis they utilized to praise East Asian cultures in attacking Latin American and African cultures. In books like “Underdevelopment Is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case,” and articles invoking the “extreme backwardness of the aborigines, pygmies, nomads or African tribesfolk,” neoconservatives charged formerly colonized people with being the architects of their own relative poverty through cultural deficiency. By venerating an imagined set of Confucian values shared across East Asia and denigrating other cultures as infected with a “spirit of patrimonialism and mercantilism,” neoconservatives were able to shift blame for economic inequality between states away from colonialism.

Regardless of the role it did or did not play in the East Asian economic success stories of the 1970s and ’80s, the imagined Confucian consensus in East Asia proved valuable to the American internationalist right. In the end, former colonial powers did defeat the NIEO’s proposed reforms, due in no small part to the vociferous advocacy of American neoconservatives. Cultural arguments, it turns out, need not be rooted in truth to be effective.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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