Culture and Foreign Policy: The Neglected Factor in International Relations

Book Review

Reviewer: Marek Neuman (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)

Publisher: Ashgate ISBN: 978-1-4094-5329-1
Available at: Amazon
Author's page: Howard J. Wiarda

Culture and Foreign Policy: The Neglected Factor in International Relations

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In his book Culture and Foreign Policy, Wiarda’s point of departure is the recognition that US foreign policy often pays insufficient attention to the many expressions of (political) culture that can be found in the various countries the State Department has established relations with. Wiarda’s contribution to the understanding of US foreign policy could not come at a more critical time; the debate of American unilateralism, of the frequently criticised one-size-fits-all model, is as vivid today as one decade ago when it was revived in the aftermath of Washington’s decision to invade Iraq.

Building his argument, the author first introduces the Rostow-Lipset model of development through which, according to him, the United States’ long out-dated and culturally insensitive foreign policy needs to be read. In what follows, Wiarda divides the world into six distinctive cultural regions – Europe, Russia, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa – before introducing the reader to the political culture of each. In what turns out to be very carefully crafted chapters, the reader learns the gist about the region in question. For instance, readers learn that the Europe of today continues to be divided along ‘social, economic, regional, religious, and political fault lines.’1 That Russia – once again asserting its role within the international arena – should be treated with greater respect for her own way of “doing business.” That Asia, with her unique entrenched value system originating in the Confucian tradition, stands apart from all the other regions, giving rise to her own Asian model of development. That the Middle Eastern countries have had only limited ‘contact, interchange, and cross-cultural connection’2 with the Western civilization (and where they did, this usually took the form of Western imperialism or colonialism). Similarly, also in Latin America, the ‘traditional culture of the [colonial] past still hangs heavily over the present and future.’3 Finally, we discover that in Africa, political culture is still characterised by the old habits of ‘patronage, personal loyalty to a clan leader, and special favouritism for family and tribal members.’4 With this knowledge in mind, the author assesses the present approach the State Department has taken towards each of these culturally distinct territories, only to be assured that – yet again – that Washington fails to adopt a strategy that would duly recognise the many existing cultural differences.

As such, Wiarda’s contribution could be valuable not only to scholars of US foreign policy, but also to its practitioners as each chapter concludes with several policy recommendations that – if implemented – would most likely change Washington’s course. Unfortunately though, the one aspect of American foreign policy that the author criticises the most – its universalism – came back to haunt him. Throughout the book, the reader cannot help but notice that Wiarda’s own analysis is rather ethnocentric. He is intrigued by the question whether Russia can be integrated into the West or whether she is permanently ‘fated’5 to be a separate civilization, provoking us to believe that the latter was only the second best option. And, while the author’s description of Eastern Europe as a ‘peripheral no man’s land’ characteristic for its ‘bloated bellies in the children, illiteracy, disease, malnutrition, [and] malformed babies,’6 indicates a somewhat distorted picture of the – admittedly – poorer parts of Europe, his portrayal of the Islamic societies of the Middle East only reproduces the stereotypical image of illiberal regimes so popularly referred to in the West.

Similarly, reading the individual chapters, we at times wonder whether the author has not adopted a somewhat idealistic – and at times even naïve – reading of US foreign policy. Put simply, US foreign policy certainly cannot be equated with development policy and external democratisation! While those remain key aspects of Washington’s external policy orientation, there are others. Yet, these are somewhat side-lined in Wiarda’s analysis; we are left with the impression that it is always in the American foreign policy interest to develop and democratise the remaining regions in the world, while we know that in fact US foreign policy preferences are much more diverse.

Despite these points of caution, Wiarda’s book is a valuable contribution to the academic debate on cultural sensitivity within foreign policy making. Still, while he calls on US policy makers to adopt a more diversified approach towards the outside world, he ultimately commits the same fallacy of oversimplification by treating the six cultural regions homogeneously, not paying enough attention to intra-regional diversity. Yet, the question of whether this can be prevented – whether a more nuanced analysis within such a holistic framework even would be feasible –emerges. In view of this, then, Culture and Foreign Policy should be seen as laying the stepping stone for further, more tailored, research addressing the – undoubtedly – relevant question of the role of culture within foreign policy making.


1 Wiarda, Howard J. Culture and Foreign Policy: The Neglected Factor in International Relations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013): 21.
2 Ibid.,: 87.
3 Ibid., : 101.
4 Ibid.,: 121.
5 Ibid.,: 16.
6 Ibid.,: 28.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3