Culture and International Order

A Review of ‘On Cultural Diversity: International Theory in a World of Difference’ by Christian Reus-Smit (2018)

Reus-Smit has written an accessible, engaging and comprehensive volume on how International Relations (IR) theory understands the relationship between culture and international order. Virtually all dominant strands of IR theory (realism, constructivism, the English School, and rational choice theorists) share what Reus-Smit dismissively labels the “default-conception” of culture. This default conception portrays culture as an integrated, internally coherent, bounded social structure which is neatly differentiated from other cultures. In non-academic English this means that culture is viewed as a shared system of meaning that exists within a defined territorial space. People’s views and beliefs are shaped by the culture they live in. On this view, social and political institutions are simply by-products of an underlying homogenous culture.

This default view of culture explains the recurrent worry in International Relations discourse (both academic and mainstream) that the rise of non-Western powers challenges or threatens the prevailing liberal international order. The basic argument is that the current international order was constructed by Western powers, instantiates Western values, and protects Western interests. Non-Western powers, with different values and interests (arising from their different cultures) will undermine if not completely abolish this order once they are powerful enough to do so. For many people, myself included, this is the basic problem facing contemporary world politics.

Reus-Smit argues that this concern is built upon the overly simplistic ‘default conception’ of culture. Cultures are unbounded, internally contested, and polyvalent. Again, let me translate this into non-academic English. German culture doesn’t suddenly stop once you reach the border with Poland; culture is not territorially ‘bounded’. Neither is German culture completely coherent and uncontested; Germans disagree on what it means to be German. All of this is to say that culture is far more complex and fluid than otherwise suggested by the default conception. But how does this relate to the issue of international order? Reus-Smit suggests that cultural diversity cannot be the foil for international order that is presented to be, because international orders have always presided over cultural diversity. Order is a solution to diversity, not an absence of it.

To manage diversity, orders construct ‘diversity regimes’ which are norms that regulate and legitimise cultural variation. In doing so, orders necessarily create hierarchies and exclude some forms of cultural and political expression. The current international order, for example, legitimises states that uphold human rights and delegitimises those that do not. More problematically, it favours democratic states over non-democratic states. The cultural exclusion inherent in order building generates grievances which can be mobilised in favour of political change; we see this at present with non-liberal states such as China and Russia challenging the prevailing international order.

On the one hand, Reus-Smit is correct to appeal to more complex understandings of culture. The point that culture is inherently contested is true. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that this more ‘fluid’ and ‘complex’ approach to culture actually yields much analytic benefit. I agree with Barry Buzan, who wrote that On Cultural Diversity displays a “pervasive sense that the latest intellectual fashion is necessarily an improvement over what came before…In his unquestioning enthusiasm for more post-modern understandings of culture, Reus-Smit risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. ‘Unquestioning’ is a bit unfair, but Buzan gets the broad strokes right. On Cultural Diversity often reads as if it is aimed at thosewho are already predisposed to reject the ‘default conception’ of culture.

Cultures can be geographically vague and fiercely contested, but they still exist. Of course Western culture is not homogenous, but it still contains meaningful differences with Islamic culture or Chinese culture, broadly speaking. Reus-Smit makes this very same argument when defending his definition of international order:

“At any historical point in time, and in any geographical context, there will tend, therefore, to be one overarching international political order, even if such orders are always contested and vary in coherence” (p.197).   

Simply replace the words ‘international political order’ with ‘culture’ and you see my point. Pointing out that Western culture is not homogenous in no way refutes the claim that it contains dominant norms and modes of thought which differ, broadly speaking, with the dominant norms and modes of thoughts of another culture. Of course there are complexities and nuances, but by zeroing-in on complexity, one cannot see the wood for the trees.

All that being said, I still very much look forward Reus-Smit’s forthcoming works which build on this one. The line of inquiry he is opening up is very timely.

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