Culture(s) in International Relations

by Grażyna Michałowska (Volume editor) Hanna Schreiber (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 376 Pages


This book presents a critical reflection on how the presence of «culture» in theory and practice of international relations is reflected in International Relations as a research field. The authors analyze culture in International Relations scholarship and evaluate culture in the practice of International Relations, as well as in International Law. The contemporary social sciences have put culture on a pedestal. The proliferation of the meanings associated with the notion of what culture is, has gone very far. The results of analyses presented in this book are meant to contribute to solving the existing confusion, to identify the research fields in IR where culture appears.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction. Culture(s) in International Relations (Grazyna Michalowska / Hanna Schreiber)
  • Part I. Culture in International Relations Scholarship
  • Culture in the Theories of International Relations (Anna Wojciuk)
  • Political Culture in Contemporary International Relations (Franciszek Golembski)
  • Culture in the Military Sphere – From Strategic Culture to the Cultural Turn (Boleslaw Balcerowicz)
  • Culture and the Study of International Relations (Edward Halizak)
  • Part II. Culture in the Practice of International Relations
  • Culture and the Economy (Aleksandra Jarczewska)
  • Culture in International Negotiations (Stanislaw Bielen)
  • Culture and International Organisations (Dorota Heidrich)
  • Culture and Nation-State’s Reputation (Justyna Nakonieczna-Bartosiewicz)
  • Cultural Determinants of Conflicts (Wieslaw Lizak)
  • India as a Multicultural State: Political Theory and Practice (Jakub Zajaczkowski)
  • Part III. Culture in International Law
  • Culture in the Making of Public International Law – Custom and General Principles of Law Recognised by Civilised Nations (Boguslaw Lackoronski)
  • Cultural Determinants of the Development and Observance of Universal Human Rights (Agnieszka Bienczyk-Missala)
  • Legal, Political and Cultural Determinants of Gender Policy (Grazyna Michalowska)
  • Role and Importance of Cultural Rights in the Protection of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (Janusz Symonides)
  • Cultural Genocide – Culturecide: An Unfinished or Rejected Project of International Law? (Hanna Schreiber)
  • Culture and Prosecution of International Crimes (Patrycja Grzebyk)
  • Index of Names

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Grażyna Michałowska, Hanna Schreiber

Introduction. Culture(s) in International Relations

No matter how much one trains one’s attention on the supposedly hard facts of social existence, who owns the means of production, who has the guns, the dossiers, or the newspapers, the supposedly soft facts of that existence, what do people imagine human life to be all about, how do they think one ought to live, what grounds belief, legitimizes punishment, sustains hope, or accounts for loss, crowd in to disturb simple pictures of might, desire, calculation, and interest. […] Bent on certitude, Olympianism, or codifiable method, or simply anxious to pursue a cause, one can ignore such facts, obscure them, or pronounce them forceless. But they do not thereby go away. Whatever the infirmities of the concept of ‘culture’ (‘cultures’, ‘cultural forms’…) there is nothing for it but to persist in spite of them. Tone deafness, willed or congenital, and however belligerent, will not do.

Clifford Geertz1

The ‘tone-deafness’ of international relations researchers with respect to the impact of culture on the contemporary world may be now considered an illness of the past. For over thirty years (or even longer, depending on the history of particular discipline) we have been witnessing a ‘cultural turn’ in virtually all social sciences and disciplines of the humanities, including international relations2.

Subsequent surges of interest in the role of culture in international relations, especially from the Western point of view were marked by specific events: the breakdown of the division of the world into two blocks and its consequences, the Balkan conflict, 9/11 attacks, Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, the Arab Spring, activities of ISIS, conflict in Syria, and the migration crisis in EU, among others.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 seems to have been a breakthrough in terms of the return of culture3 to international relations. The year 1989 brought a wave ← 7 | 8 → of optimism and gave rise to the concepts of the end of history, global governance, and global civil society. An emphasis was put on the human rights and democratic discourse; actions were undertaken for a mine-free world and ending the impunity era, such as the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998.4 The post-Cold War period seemed to be a time of blissful transformation, and Samuel Huntington emphasised that the euphoria at the end of the Cold War generated an illusion of harmony.5 In the meantime, after the thawing of the global dualism, the underlying conflicts of ethnic and identity-related (i.e. cultural) nature were uncovered.6 Despite this revelation, however, the impact of culture on the post-Cold War international relations has been long underestimated. The fundamental importance of culture, though still standing in the background of international relations, was not visible until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. This date is mentioned by all the researchers engaged in the study of the role of culture in international relations (e.g. Joseph Nye, Samuel Huntington, Zygmunt Bauman, Mary Kaldor) as key to the ‘discovery’ of the role of culture in this field. Due to the context of these events, culture, and especially religion (as an important element thereof) – together with its influence on the creation of new thought paradigms in terms of security, diplomacy and foreign policy – have been pushed to the foreground of scientific research.

The term ‘cultural turn’ is understood here as an ‘inflated’ need for knowledge that concerns human cultural diversity and its impact on relations between individuals, states, cultures and civilisations, as well as the tendency to put a greater emphasis on the cultural factor in international relations research.

Every researcher who has devoted his scientific life to culture will surely admit that it is such a complex issue that it is simply impossible to define, identify ← 8 | 9 → and describe unambiguously and in a way that would satisfy everyone. Different disciplines of science make efforts to grasp it, attempting to adjust it to their own research needs. They select or highlight some dimensions and manifestations of culture, while disregarding others. That is the reason why culture is sometimes labelled as a ‘cursed’ (Raymond Williams) or ‘suspicious’ (Yosef Lapid) word7. It is however also a ‘sacred’ one; placed on the pedestal of contemporary social sciences and humanities. Culture is ‘a matter of life and death’ (Mahmood Mamdani), ‘culture is everywhere’ (Ulf Hannerz), ‘culture makes almost all the difference’ (David Landes), culture ‘is on everyone’s lips’ (Marshall Sahlins), ‘culture counts’ (Samuel Huntington), ‘culture matters’ (Lawrence Harrison)8. As a result, the proliferation of the meanings associated with this notion has gone so far that researchers now seem all but helpless and give up on any attempts to order the terminological chaos and organise the utter freedom of employing the concept of ‘culture’. If we look at scientific literature on the subject, the use of the snowball metaphor seems more than justified. Zygmunt Bauman goes even further than that, claiming that culture is just an ideology created by intellectuals; a ‘conspiracy’ aimed at creating a specific type of discourse independent of policy-makers and power structures.9 It has become an all-encompassing and totalising concept; impossible to define. Therefore, the 1950s – the time in which Clyde Kluckhohn’s and Alfred Louis Kroeber’s book Culture. A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions was published, with (merely) 164 scientific definitions of culture – might be thought of as ‘blissful’.10

The aim of this publication is to present a critical reflection on how the presence of culture in international relations is perceived nowadays or for what reasons it is ignored. Is culture a theoretical tool which we know how to use in order to make the analysis of international relations more relevant? What are the problems that we face while attempting to operationalise the notion of ‘culture’ for the needs of research in the field of international relations? How do we use it? The ← 9 | 10 → achievements of which sciences do we draw on when trying to tame it? What ‘stories’ in international relations (histories of international relations) does culture allow us to tell? Whose voices it allows us to hear?

The results of analyses presented in this book are meant to contribute to solving at least some of the existing confusion, to identify the research fields where culture either appears or should appear, as well as to present the outcome of analyses of the diverse forms in which culture manifests itself in international relations: both in theory and in practice.

From the very beginning, therefore, we have faced the key questions: how culturally dependent are the studies in the fields traditional to our discipline, such as international political, economic or military relations (and their results), and should international relations treat culture as simply one of its determinants (the other, equally important factors being politics, military, law, etc.)? So, what is the nature of the presence of ‘culture’ and ‘cultures’ in international relations? Even the very fact that the cultural perspective was rarely used in the studies of international relations in the past could be actually a product of IR scientific culture as well. Therefore, is it only a short-lived ‘fashion for culture’ or does it comprehensively change our understanding of this discipline?

This book shows diverse approaches to culture in theory and practice of international relations. It analyses their influence on the development of international law and law enforcement, as well as various types of interactions in contemporary international relations.

The authors present their assessments of the impact of internationalisation of the social life on the preservation of cultural identity and cultural differences. They describe various aspects of international relations and different ways of searching for answers as well as opinions and views, sometimes controversial, on the role of culture; also with regard to the fundamental issue of using precise definitions of concepts built around culture as the main point of reference: strategic culture, political culture, security culture on the one hand, and on the other hand, cultural relativism, cultural imperialism, gender, etc.

The authors employ various methodologies of research and definitions of culture, sometimes they present their own operational understanding of culture useful for the analyses that they conduct. In some cases they do not explain their choice of definition at all, assuming that the reader will intuitively adopt the most appropriate definition. By doing this they make a very similar assumption to that of Herbert Blumer, namely that abandoning definitive concepts and definitions for ‘sensitising concepts’ is a justified academic procedure. The difference is that ‘whereas definitive concepts provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitising ← 10 | 11 → concepts merely suggest directions along which to look’.11 Although sensitising concepts are not formal definitions, this does not mean that they cannot be articulated – only instead of precise reference and identifying signs we have a general sense of what is significant, and instead of a definition we have a description.12

Consequently, one should not be surprised by the multitude of approaches, divisions and means of understanding the ambiguous concept of culture. This was already observed by the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who noted that ‘nothing is more indeterminate than this word, and nothing is more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods’.13 This is also how more than 200 years later, in 1996, the Commission of the European Communities diagnosed the possibility of defining culture, stating that ‘the concept of Culture is a nebulous one which can vary from one school of thought to another, from one society to another and from one era to another’.14 Even by now, there has been no single, normative and legally binding definition of culture developed in international relations (and perhaps this is for the better).

Hence, if we were to invoke Kroeber’s and Kluckhohn’s classification, the definitions adopted by the authors of the articles included in this book belong in the group of normative definitions, which emphasise the subordination of human behaviour to the norms, models and values dominant in the given social group. But they also exhibit aspects of the psychological approach, taking into account the motives of behaviour, forms of expression, dictates and prohibitions, opinions and judgements. Nowadays, such definitions are classified as the broadest, anthropological definitions, which treat culture as a relatively integrated whole which covers human behaviours following certain models, common for the given social community, developed and acquired during interactions, and which comprises the products of such behaviours.15 ← 11 | 12 →

Culture has always played a very important role in the process of identification and integration of social groups, including nations. As Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote, it is ‘a form of the current lasting of the nation’.16 However, even if one considers the process of enculturation to be a natural, intergenerational, conscious and unconscious acquisition of the cultural competences typical of a certain group by an individual, there has never been agreement in science as to whether cultures constitute these groups or are in fact reflections thereof.

In the studies of intergroup relations, culture has been examined also from the perspective of the changes taking place in it, the consequences of endogenous development, and of the inevitable process of diffusion and its determinants (usefulness, compliance with the existing culture, the prestige of those who pass it on, the prestige of the intermediaries). As a result, in this form, it was for a long time the subject of interest mainly for sociologists of culture.

On the other hand, researchers – particularly cultural and social anthropologists – have focused on cultural relativism, the possibility of comparing various cultures, the disputes whether they can be objectively studied and evaluated. Cultural relativism has precluded the existence of absolute, universal criteria that could be the basis for evaluating cultures. It has been a philosophical concept and an almost universally applied foundation in the methodology of research in cultural anthropology (especially in the USA). It has rejected extreme forms of ethnocentrism, believing them to be a tendency to treat one’s own culture as higher than other cultures and, consequently, to judge other cultures according to one’s own standards.

Scholars usually agree that the pioneer of cultural relativism was Franz Boas, who formulated this idea already in the late 19th century. According to relativists, every culture is a unique creation and as such should be studied comprehensively, taking into account the social and historical context of its emergence and continued existence, and it should be judged according to its own standards. This approach was further developed by Boas’s students, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir and Melville Herskovits.

This seemingly strong and established position, according to which all cultures deserve full protection and equal treatment, has been slowly eroding and has been contested with the spreading of universal human rights standards. Transplanted to institutionalised international relations, this problem has become conditional. ← 12 | 13 → A question appeared whether the sense of good and evil can really be the same in every culture and if it is not subject to evolution and changes in time as well.

There are questions about the acceptability of cultural phenomena such as violence in the name of honour, physical punishment in penitential systems, child marriage, and inequality between the genders or races. A broad discussion of gender inequality resulting from cultural determinants can be found in the article by Grażyna MichałowskaLegal, Political and Cultural Determinants of Gender Policy. Discussing the dignity of every human being, the author says: ‘[…] the question whether dignity is an objective value remains open, since the interpretation of dignity is strongly culture-dependent. Sometimes, women’s dignity is at variance with the dignity of men or a group and the government’s compensating actions hit an insurmountable barrier or fall on a completely barren ground. It is so deeply rooted in the local tradition that even the threat of sanctions cannot change it, while any more radical actions involve the risk of causing a disintegration of social groups. The permanence of cultural differences remains so fundamental that, most probably, international standards will remain just an idea – as valuable as it is – for a long time to come’ (p. 295).

But can cultural traditions be considered sufficient justification for infringing upon fundamental human rights? This problem is discussed by Agnieszka Bieńczyk-Missala (Cultural Determinants of the Development and Observance of Universal Human Rights) and Patrycja Grzebyk (Culture and Prosecution of International Crimes). Bieńczyk-Missala notes that: ‘Culturally motivated infringements on human rights will surely persist, as a consequence of the power of traditions, religious laws, beliefs, prejudice, and often also their structural nature, which is difficult to overcome’ (p. 271).17 Answering the question how – taking into account the cultural factor – not only ‘ordinary’ infringements, but also international crimes are to be prosecuted, Patrycja Grzebyk concludes that: ‘The judges need to be culturally sensitive in order to properly assess the severity of the deeds and the guilt of the culprits, in order to establish contact with the witnesses and properly read their testimonies. However, the judges should not use culture to justify their surrender in the struggle for uncovering the truth and to defend the culprits’ actions’ (p. 366).

The issue of protection of cultural rights is discussed also by Janusz Symonides. He focuses on the protection of minorities and indigenous peoples. While the degree of cultural differences of national minorities is an issue quite frequently ← 13 | 14 → discussed in academic literature, indigenous peoples and their rights have been drawing the attention of researchers only since very recently and to a relatively limited extent. The source of this disproportionate interest stems from the difficulties encountered during attempts to define indigenous groups and their specific cultural interests and needs, so different from those of national minorities. Countries are not particularly interested in a clear regulation of the rights of indigenous peoples which would eliminate the ambiguities, because they fear that giving them autonomy (even cultural) could finally lead to their secession, constituting a serious threat to these countries’ territorial integrity and independence. Therefore, the author qualifies these groups as particularly at risk. He mentions the already existing relevant international instruments, including Convention No. 107 of the International Labour Organisation of 1957 noting, however, that the historical definition of indigenous populations was the subject of many controversies and has never been universally accepted. Thus, Convention No. 169 of 1989, concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries, has extended the previous definition. It is supposed to guarantee respect for the specific values and practice of these groups and their protection. What is important, it ensures the possibility of applying their own procedures in events of offences committed by their members and the right to recognise the ownership of the lands that they have traditionally occupied. In the author’s opinion, however, this convention does not seem to fully satisfy any of its addressees either. Only the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, drawn up by the Human Rights Council and adopted in 2007 by the UN General Assembly seems to open a new stage with regard to these special ethnic groups and provide an impetus to ensuring stronger guarantees of their rights in international law.

The problems with taking account of cultural differences in international law, including the very principles underlying it, have also been noticed by Bogusław Lackoroński (Culture in the Making of Public International Law – Custom and General Principles of Law Recognised by Civilised Nations): ‘However, attempts to infuse rules of international law with cultural content, which is supposed to be a part of universal law, can also divide the international community. Such situations occur, for example, during discussions on human rights, which give rise to doubts as to whether the values subject to protection under these rights are indeed universal. Culture can therefore be an ‘obstacle’ in the creation of universal international law, if the rules of this law are created in a way that takes into account the cultural background of one civilisation, leaving out the others’. (p. 249)

At the borderline of these two research fields are the problems of multicultural societies. This concerns not only multiculturalism resulting from historical ← 14 | 15 → multiethnicity, as is the case, inter alia, in Belgium, Spain, Canada18 or many Asian and African countries, but also multiculturalism ‘acquired’ fairly recently through migrations.

The problem is particularly interesting in the context of the European societies which are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. Immigration carries the risk of introduction of traditions and customs in certain segments of life, that are at variance with international law and legal norms of the host countries, who then need to face the serious dilemma how to reconcile political correctness, tolerance and the policy of multiculturalism with the fundamental principle of equality vis-à-vis legal regulations. In many situations, they simply seem helpless.

Cultural differences imply social judgements. In the wealthiest European countries, more and more questions appear about the limits of solidarity, especially during the economic crisis bound with migration crisis, when culturally foreign immigrants reject the possibility of integration and, at the same time, adopt demanding attitudes towards the host countries, sometimes even attempting to enforce their demands by publically demonstrating their displeasure.19

As a result, in the host societies, there are examples of indifference or unspoken consent to radical – although in many cases legally dubious or even illegal – actions of authorities aimed at reinstating the allegedly necessary sanitary order, and a disapproval of behaviours that include culturally justified intrusive begging, reluctance to engage in regular work and the unwillingness to educate children.20

Sometimes people protest against the establishment of immigrant ghettos, enclaves of monoculturalism, ‘islamisation’ of the social life, domination of certain districts in cities by certain religious or ethnic groups, increasing numbers of state-funded mosques, etc. With individual groups isolating themselves from each other, the overtone of the political debate is changing. Multiculturalism is viewed with growing scepticism and the dominant populations are less and less ← 15 | 16 → responsive to arguments about improving demographic indexes or the need to maintain dialogue and tolerance.21

The problems of a multicultural state were analysed by Jakub Zajączkowski in his text about India. The multiplicity of languages and religions and the particularisms of ethnic groups are major challenges for India. The author analyses the challenges of multiculturalism in this country and notes that because of this linguistic and religious variety, it is hard to even talk about an Indian nation in the meaning ascribed to that term in other countries. The foundation of India’s cohesion is the Indian civilisation, expressed in the social system, in the philosophical systems and concepts of the world, and in the sense of uniqueness. On the macro level, this foundation is provided by the secularity of the state guaranteed by the constitution and the democratic governance system, tolerance and the belief stemming from the ancient times that development is achieved through dialogue and debate. Regardless of the many internal differences, the priorities of Indian strategy are integrity, development, attracting foreign investment, overcoming social problems, inter alia through stability, compromise and prevention of the aggravation of conflicts that could be used by other countries to undermine the position of India. Thus, in 2000, taking into account the local interests, three more constituent states were created and four new languages were recognised as official. This does not change the fact that despite experiencing dynamic development, India still consists of two parallel worlds: in the first one people benefit from economic and social reforms and in the second they are left on their own. Nevertheless, Indian society is characterised by an opposition to revolution and extremist views. Although violence does appear from time to time, it is not systemic. The state is a major factor in integrating citizens, and most Indians believe that their country is a major power. Traditional Indian philosophy, however, imposes a peaceful way of change, hence the country’s military potential grows relatively slowly in relation to the growing economic opportunities.

Apart from the aforementioned practical problems, the cultural perspective is clearly spreading to other dimensions of international relations as well. In 1991, Joseph Nye introduced the term ‘soft power’ into the theory of international relations (he used it for the first time in 1980). He adopted the thesis that next to the military and economic potential (hard power), there are other factors that influence the position of the state: the attractiveness of its culture, foreign policy ← 16 | 17 → and political values.22 He assumed that only combined, hard and soft power form the ‘smart power’: a wise and effective force with the potential to attract allies.23 ‘Culture is an important component of this power of attraction; it has the ability to set the preferences of other participants in international relations. In international politics, the sources of soft power are, inter alia, the values which are manifested in the cultures of states or organisations’, writes Anna Wojciuk in the article on Culture in the Theories of International Relations (p. 36). The author also broadly describes the constructivist approach in the study of the influence of culture on international relations.

The highly popular concept of soft power (as Anna Wojciuk notes, it is equally popular as Huntington’s 10-year-younger concept of ‘the clash of civilisations’) is discussed in other aspects also by Justyna Nakonieczna. She focuses on how the soft power of a state, based on its culture, influences its image and reputation (Culture and Nation-State’s Reputation), and wonders: ‘Should all countries look after their reputation? On the one hand, it is obvious that first of all those countries that do not have any particular distinguishing features should consciously manage their images. Since they usually do not have particularly developed ‘hard’ resources, their own culture is their best support. It is through culture that they can become recognised by other people. On the other hand, the standards of promotion are set by the largest and most active entities of international relations and it is they who decide what is desirable and acceptable’ (p. 192).

The problem of studies on culture in international relations is also discussed by Edward Haliżak. The author wonders whether culture can be helpful in the analysis of international relations. Since the 1990s, the explanatory potential of the approach takes into account the cultural factor has been increasingly appreciated, which can be considered a ‘cultural turn’ in the study of international relations. As the basis of his article, the author takes two political and intellectual debates that involve cultural explanations. The first one regards the attempts to identify the sources of the economic success of East Asian countries. The second one refers to the cultural and civilisational criteria of conflict analysis in the post-Cold War world. Culture appears at every stage of the cognitive process. However, the author warns that it is easy to fall into dogmatism when trying to explain almost all the modern challenges with cultural diversity. ← 17 | 18 →

The political and economic changes that took place in the world in the last decade of the 20th century have modified the configuration of cooperation and rivalry of various participants in international relations. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of new economic powers have also brought previously little known dilemmas and challenges to the international community which it is yet to face. How states handle these today is largely determined by the already well-established political culture, which – as Franciszek Gołembski points out in the article Political Culture in Contemporary International Relations – is a consequence of the civilisational context: ‘Against this background, there appears a broader issue, concerning the determinants of political culture related to civilisation. Political culture is not merely a function of the axiological principles underlying the system of values characteristic of a nation state, but of much broader conditions […]. In connection to this, there appears the fundamental problem of the importance of civilisation-related determinants of the emergence and influence of political culture in the general dimension, in other words in international relations’ (p. 61).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Political culture Strategic culture Cultural rights Cultural genocide Cultural determinants Cultural relativism
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 376 pp.

Biographical notes

Grażyna Michałowska (Volume editor) Hanna Schreiber (Volume editor)

Grażyna Michałowska is a Professor at the Institute of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw. Her research interests focus on international cultural relations and international human rights law. Hanna Schreiber is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw. Her research interests and practical experience include international cultural heritage law, with a special focus on the UNESCO normative framework.


Title: Culture(s) in International Relations