Elena Cata: Spring 2020 Essay

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IS 401 “Culture, Strategy, and Security” can be described as an in-depth investigation as to whether culture influences strategic decisions and if so, how and to what degree? Ultimately, I believe that this course led us to the conclusion that culture must reign universally over strategy because all strategy is constructed and executed by “encultured” people. However, as Colin Gray notes, although culture must reign, it does not always rule. His assertion is perhaps the most convincing approach to strategic culture as it accounts for the critical perspectives of fellow strategists. As Ken Booth notes, culture reigns over strategy because people are culture bound. Booth insists that people see the world through an ethnocentric lens by privileging their own conceptual systems and increasing their comfort by distorting the actions of others. This method engenders a false classification of a state or group’s culture as it fails to account for underlying factors that may not be readily observed. 

Samuel Huntington’s proposal in the “Clash of Civilizations” was clouded by his ethnocentric lens as it limited him from seeing that civilizations are neither monolithic nor homogenous. I found Bernard Lewis’ assumption that all Muslims are enraged by Western modernity to be a particularly narrow and shallow argument upon investigating the history of Western imposition and colonization present among Islamic cultures. Through the works of Amartya Sen, Patrick Porter and Willis Stanley, it is evident that both Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis defined Islamic culture deductively by building arguments to support their own conceptualizations. Amartya Sen notes that democracy is often perceived as quintessentially Western; this attitude is not only misleading, but dangerous. The danger in reducing a culture, and selectively choosing the factors that must inform it, lies within the potential that these actions can foster a “reactive self-perception.” A group that has been colonized and manipulated by the West may reject ideas such as democracy and personal liberty under the false impression that these are exclusively “Western ideas,” and represent a sort of intellectual neo-colonialism. Sen observes this “reactive self-perception” in the way Indians selectively focus on putting their “spiritual foot” forward and, at times in the past, by otherwise downplaying India’s scientific and mathematical heritage. Those who contribute to the insulation and simplification of a certain culture not only do it an injustice but also a disservice to their own group. Upon learning about the implications of “reactive-self perceptions,” I began to imagine a world where “Western” powers did not dictate or define “Eastern” culture. What would that world look like? If Indians perceived that their mathematical and scientific prowess was just as culturally important as their spirituality, what would technology look like today? 

A concentration on the sources of strategic culture throughout this course supported our conclusion that culture is informative, but not predictive. Daryl Howlett and Jeffrey Lantis characterize these sources as geography, history and experience, communications and technology, myths and symbols, and historical narratives. We have established that geography is perhaps the most important cultural informant when it comes to strategic decision-making; Gray claims that geography has always enjoyed pole position as the dominant influence on decisions about national security. Howlett and Lantis describe the impact of history in the sense that states of ancient standing may acknowledge previous circumstances that led to the rise or fall of great powers and construct current decision-making accordingly. Willis Stanley’s analysis of Iranian foreign policy reflects the way in which deeply rooted Persian historical experiences have the power to influence modern-cultural proclivities and strategic decisions. Stanley explores Iran’s political-religious ideology and asserts that “at sum, the regime’s survival interest, honed by centuries living under Sunni Arab domination is reflected in the IRI’s identifiable “red lines”: foreign invasion, externally-supported revolution and outside control over IRI oil exports” (Stanley, 19). These “red lines” reflect the fears of the current regime that have been cultivated for centuries. These include a mistrust of outside power, informed by previous domination through foreign invasion and more recent external attempts to manipulate Iranian affairs and even exploit their resources.  

It could be argued that the main takeaway from this course is that culture has a profound impact on strategy, and I would not dispute that assertion. However, I leave this course with a greater understanding of the utter complexity of culture itself, a lesson that I believe is equally meaningful. Edward Said illustrated the importance of counter-culture by claiming that no culture is understandable without grasping the unofficial and the official. I find it imperative to note that the typical keepers of strategic culture do not always reflect the narratives of all the groups they represent and that there are strains of culture that will never find their way into strategic choices.

My Spanish course this semester, “Introduction to Hispanic Culture” became more interesting when I had the tools to understand the intricacy of culture formation and expression. By outlining the diversity of Persian culture, Dick Davis beautifully outlined the complexity of culture globally.  Culture doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all effect on strategic behavior and if one were to truly explore the culture of a fallen empire, a religion, or a modern state, they would soon realize that culture is not easily identified through superficial markers or what appears to be influential at a particular moment. My final thought is that future strategists, policy makers, and citizens themselves must acknowledge the danger in the superficial practice of divisively seeing the world in terms of “Us vs. Them” in the name of perceived cultural differences. Instead, we must cooperatively focus on fostering Edward Said’s notion of a global mentality that sees the dangers we face from the standpoint of the broader shared society.

Author: Elena Cata

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