How Should Culture Affect Foreign Policy?

Western ideas—which many in the West believe are universal—collide with the ideals of Middle Eastern societies in ways that aren't always obvious.

Tunisian lawyers gather as they demonstrate against the government's proposed new taxes, near the courthouse, in Tunis, Tunisia October 21, 2016.
Tunisian lawyers gather as they demonstrate against the government's proposed new taxes, near the courthouse, in Tunis, Tunisia October 21, 2016.  (Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters)

This month, in a piece called “Among the Post-Liberals,” The New York Times's Ross Douthat offered an exposition on how on how the “new radicals,” “new reactionaries,” and “religious dissenters” within the West are engaged in trenchant critiques of the Western, liberal, democratic, capitalist order, though none of these groups have developed a unified theory of what ails this system or of what should come next. Of Douthat’s 808 words, it was the following passage that really grabbed me:

It [the Western system] delivered peace and order and prosperity, but it attenuated pre-liberal forces—tribal, familial, religious—that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.

In explaining the weakness of the liberal West, Douthat was explicating—in an unintended way, of course—an important underlying reason why analysts and governments consistently fail to understand the Middle East.

For some time, observers have struggled with how to incorporate culture into their analyses of the region. There are good reasons for this, not least of which is the difficulty of defining culture in a rigorous and analytically useful way, as well as the slippery slope of sweeping generalizations based on cultural observations. Think of all the arguments about the so-called Sunni-Shia divide, the alleged millennia of conflict between these two Islamic sects that purportedly shape politics in the Middle East today, or the “clash of civilizations” that Samuel Huntington first wrote about in Foreign Affairs in 1993. At first glance, these are appealing arguments, but they wither quickly under close examination. Add to these important reasons the fear of being labeled an Orientalist—an epithet in contemporary Middle East studies that can carry professional consequences—and you can understand why scholars have avoided examining culture as a possible explanation for what ails the Arab polities. This is a mistake. It strikes me that it is worth asking if the dynamic interaction between Western cultural preconceptions of the region and Middle Eastern predispositions is a reasonable explanation for Washington’s failures in the Arab world.

It is hard to take arguments about culture seriously whey they are presented in their most extreme form because they often boil down to the noxious, self-serving claims of Islamophobes and Islamists alike. Both camps are engaged in a mostly discursive, but sometimes violent, struggle for superiority, borne out of mutual fears concerning civilizational destruction. This is where conspiratorial books about the coming of “Eurabia” and half-baked accounts about the United States and a dubious policy of “creative destruction” come from. Yet it is possible that many scholars have gone too far in their collective aversion to studying culture. It seems worthwhile, at least, when thinking about U.S. policy in the Middle East, to understand the way in which Western ideas—which many in the West believe to be universal—interact with the principles, ideals, and mythologies that make Middle Eastern societies tick.

In anticipation of the critiques that I know are coming, let me first emphasize that there are, of course, many people in the Middle East who embrace their local identities and who are steeped in their indigenous cultural milieu, and also desire to live in more liberal societies. Second, I am well aware of the dangers of cultural relativity. The Egyptian government has already employed this tactic in its efforts to deflect criticism of its appalling human rights record. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has, for example, argued that human rights is a Western concept that does not necessarily apply in other cultural settings.

So how should we think about culture and U.S.-Middle East policy? Recently, Tunisia has experienced protests among students and others who are angry over their limited job prospects in an economy that is struggling. Tunisians are demanding jobs and the renewal of a social safety net that has eroded over time. This takes place at a moment when international financial institutions, the United States, and the European Union, are counseling the Tunisians to undertake reforms. But they are facing resistance. There is nothing culturally specific about Tunisia—a country that has, among other things, North African, Arab, Berber, and Muslim influences—that has brought people out in front of the Ministry of Employment. There have been similar kinds of protests in the Greek capital, Athens, in response to austerity measures. And yet, I detect a cultural aspect to the problem, though culture of a different sort than what people often associate with the Middle East. Instead, it seems reflective of the cultural artifact of a big, authoritarian state that Arabs regarded as their salvation after long periods of colonial domination and European penetration. The existence of this kind of state has, over many years, embedded ideas about its role in people’s lives.

Is it possible that the effort of authoritarians to establish political control over their societies through incentives like jobs, education, and generous subsidies, created a “culture” of expectations and ideas about the social and economic responsibilities of the state? The big Arab state may be a thing of the past, but it seems that after decades of the socialization and assimilation of its functions, citizens remain predisposed toward the dependencies that Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Houari Boumediene of Algeria, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, and others, created in the mid-twentieth century. It is not just in the region’s republics where there may be a cultural challenge to reform. Saudi Arabia’s much-discussed Vision 2030 program promises to alter the relationship between Saudi citizens (including the elite) and a system that has provided generously for them. I am willing to allow that there are straight-forward explanations based on political economy that can account for the resistance to the type of change technocrats believe to be necessary. But again, I wonder if analysts are missing something when they avoid thinking about culture, specifically a political culture cultivated by the state.

My only point insofar as U.S. foreign policy is concerned is that our collective anxiety about dealing with anything associated with culture as well as our ingrained sense that liberal ideals are right and good and applicable anywhere perhaps blinds American officials to the political needs and, yes, cultural concerns of their interlocutors. Maybe Egyptians, for example, have not been able to carry out economic reforms hatched in Washington effectively because those reforms undermine a sense of communal solidarity and a large, patriarchal Arab state, which seem linked to an Egyptian cultural milieu that valorizes these things. One need not look too far for clues of this phenomenon. After all, despite the state’s recent failings, it remains central to the mythologies that shape politics and culture. From regulating the flow of the Nile by building the Aswan High Dam,  to the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal, to the recent widening of that body of water, there seems to be an ingrained sense about the proper role of centralized authority. Of course, there are a slew of other potential reasons why the Egyptians have been unable to get their economic act together, but Egypt’s economic policymaking and poor economic performance is—with a few brief exceptions—a persistent problem. The Egyptians know what they need to do, so why don’t they do it? This is why I am starting to believe that we need to think more broadly about state culture in authoritarian regimes.

The challenges that Tunisians, Egyptians, and others face have less to do with the particularities of a Middle Eastern way of life than with the cultural milieu that authoritarianism has bred, which includes ideas about the role of the state, individual rights, honor, community, and identity, that has had a lasting effect on politics and society. This may be why the technocratic solutions to the array of problems before Arab societies are simultaneously appropriate and deficient; they assume a cultural vacuum or void. Societies certainly change and cultures evolve, but as Douthat explains, ideas matter to people. It might seems strange to remind readers of this fact. It seems obvious, but it is worth repeating because of the analytic community’s collective aversion to grappling with anything associated with culture. There are no doubt material consequences of failing to undertake reform, but there are also significant cultural costs in pursuing them that societies may not be willing to pay.

This post appears courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations.