Back to the Cultural Diversity and IR Drawing Board

30 Apr 2017

Current discussion of the relationship between cultural diversity and International Relations is based on flawed perceptions of both. STI experts are rethinking the issue on new terms.

The following explanation of the Cultural Diversity and International Order meeting by its Academic Leaders Andrew Phillips and Christian Reus-Smit does much to clarify how they are reframing the issue.  Read on….

International orders are like ecosystems: they are the fundamental context in which states and peoples, like individual species, flourish or decline. Their institutions define who the legitimate actors are (states, empires, non-state actors), how they rightfully can use force, and how complex cooperation problems are addressed, from arms control and global trade to refugees and anthropogenic climate change. A stable, peacefully evolving international order is thus essential to global peace and security.

Yet the modern international order is facing profound challenges. Power is shifting to non-Western great powers; to non-state actors, including transnational insurgents; and within states, as new power constellations challenge established authorities. But the challenges are not just about power, they are also about culture. Shifting configurations of power are entwined with new expressions of cultural difference. Western states, struggling with a resurgence of ethno-nationalism, challenges to multiculturalism, and the rise of the far right, now share the stage with rising powers such as China and India who bring their own cultural values, practices, and histories. And transnational violence is being justified not in the name of national liberation or political ideology, but religious identity and belief.

Understanding how new expressions of cultural difference, entangled with new axes of power, will affect the modern order is thus one of the most urgent challenges facing contemporary world politics. History shows that the assumptions we make—about the nature of these challenges, the adaptive capacities of the prevailing order, and the appropriate policy responses—will have far-reaching implications for global peace and security. Yet we know very little, theoretically or empirically, about the relationship between cultural diversity and international order, and what we think we know is deeply problematic.

Contemporary debate is polarized between two positions. The first sees culture as primary. International orders, it is argued, evolve in unitary cultural contexts, and cultural diversity is corrosive of order. From this perspective, greater cultural diversity among great powers, the resurgence of politicized religion, and heightened ethno-nationalism threatens to undermine the modern internatonal order, eroding the cultural consensus believed to uphold key international institutions and practices. The other position down holds that institutions neutralize cultural differences. The core principles of sovereignty equality, non-intervention, and self-determination allow states and peoples of different cultural complexions to coexist, and liberal, multilateral institutions are open and rules-based, enabling states to pursue diverse purposes.

Widespread as these views are, both are flawed. The first rests on long discredited ideas about culture. Cultures are no longer seen as unitary, homogeneous entities—they are highly variegated and contested, loosely integrated, and deeply interpenetrated. International orders can’t arise out of unitary cultural contexts as no such contexts have ever existed, a fact born out by new histories of diverse historical orders. The second position holds that institutions neutralize cultural differences, but little evidence exists for this. If anything international institutions license and organize forms of cultural difference.

To move beyond these positions, this meeting brought together leading International Relations scholars specializing on international order with key thinkers on cultural diversity drawn from the fields of anthropology, history, international law, political theory, and sociology. Crucial as understanding the relationship between cultural diversity and international order is, IR scholars have largely ignored the insights of specialist disciplines, working instead with 1930s understandings of culture and out-dated historical assumptions. Conversely, specialists on cultural diversity have to date engaged little with questions of international order. This meeting sought to bring these bodies of scholarship into systematic dialogue, pursuing new ways of comprehending the relationship between cultural diversity and international order.

To facilitate dialogue across disciplinary divides, the meeting adopted a novel method. The IR scholars were given a reading list of key works on cultural diversity, often authored by other participants. The specialists on cultural diversity were given a reading list of writings on internatonal order, many authored by participating IR scholars. All participants were then asked to write 4000 word exploratory memos in which they stepped out of their comfort zones and drew on new, often unfamiliar literatures to address the relationship between cultural diversity and international order. This method was extraordinarily successful, producing a set of genuinely pioneering memos and facilitating an unprecedented interdisciplinary conversation.

This conversation produced several key insights that will inform and structure the forthcoming book. First, culture has to be understood as inherently heterogeneous, and analysis must focus on how markers of cultural difference are constituted and deployed, and on processes and practices of meaning making. Second, cultural consensus as well as diversity can generate conflict. Third, ordering is in part about the organization and interpellation of cultural difference and diversity. Fourth, international orders develop ‘diversity regimes’ which define legitimate axes of cultural difference, and relate these to institutions of political authority. Fifth, these regimes don’t just organize existing cultural identities and practices, they constitute these as individuals and communities redefine themselves in relation to licensed forms of identity and difference. Sixth, the politics of culture works at multiple levels to shape internatonal orders---from the local or national level to the international and transnational levels. Finally, in addition to culture being complex and fluid, social movement affects the salience and politics of cultural difference (consider the disruptive effects of refugee movements on Western states’ efforts to preserve open and defend the coherence and integrity of tolerant and self-consciously multicultural societies).

Together, these insights promise a entirely new perspective on how cultural diversity and international order condition one another. Over the coming months we will refine this perspective theoretically, and use this to define the focus and structure of the forthcoming book. Authors will then be asked to develop their memos into full chapters that speak not only to the organizing themes of the book, but also to each other.