Konur Peterson: Spring 2020 Essay

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Culture, and all of its inputs, influences our strategic decision making and security behaviors in unmistakable and unavoidable ways. Our historical experiences, beliefs, values, traditions, language, and even our geography (all cultural inputs) are ingrained in our identity and it is impossible to fully divorce ourselves from them when making decisions. As Ken Booth reminds us, we believe all of our own cultural inputs to be superior to those of other individuals and other groups. This tendency, known as ethnocentrism, is emphatically inescapable and, as it is a belief, is a part of our culture in its own right.

If properly understood, the influence of culture on strategic and security behaviors can be seen historically and in the contemporary world. We looked at case studies of modern states in class. We saw how China’s historical insecurity and geographical location play a role in China’s modern geopolitical behavior as well as its explanation of it. We examined how Iran’s historical experience as the seat of the Persian empire influences the country’s current behavior which shows a desire to reassert itself. We looked at how the mosaic of Indian history and culture has formed a modern Indian culture which is an amalgam of all of its historical inputs from the various ethnic, religious, invading, and trading groups that have made their way through India. We can even see culture in our security decisions regarding the current pandemic; for example, American conservative-leaning groups/individuals invoking their values in pushing to ease restrictions. The current situation seems to be so polarized with individuals from all groups rallying to arguments based on their long-held beliefs that may not necessarily be coherent with the facts on the ground. I think it’s safe to say culture is a powerful influencer in this respect.   

Culture may be an inescapable factor in our decision making, however there are other factors in decision making as well, and these factors can be any number of infinite things. I find it very useful to think about Alistair Johnston’s model of rationality to understand how culture influences decision making. Johnston basically says that culture influences our decision making to a degree that varies depending on who you are and what the circumstances are. Limited rationality is when strategic culture simplifies reality (often by ignoring or minimizing cultural elements). Process rationality is when culture informs strategic behavior by helping to create rank-ordered preferences. Adaptive rationality is when culture is strongly invoked to guide choices. Obviously, there are more than three degrees to which culture can influence behavior. I think the best way to understand the model is to envision a scale where behavior/decisions can be placed at any point along the scale depending on the degree to which culture was an influencer. 

There might be examples of decisions or behavior where it appears that culture is not playing much of a role. For example, a political scientist using game-theory or the rational black-box model to make decisions. However, I would argue that culture is actually influencing this behavior in more subtle ways. It might be generally stated that political scientists prefer predictable models to explain behavior; if so, is this an element of culture (e.g., the culture of political science and its desire to make predictable models) that is influencing the political scientist? Further, the identity/culture of the individual may be such that they emphasize, ignore, or minimize other, more nuanced cultural inputs in their decision making. 

Much can be said about culture and its impact on strategic decisions and behavior in the security domain. I really enjoyed class this semester and I believe it helped open my mind and increased my awareness. If someone asked me for a couple sentences on how culture influences decision making and behavior, I would say: culture is in everything we do and it influences decision making in inescapable ways. However, it is not the only influence. Culture informs but does not dictate behavior.

Author: Konur Peterson

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