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Culture: An Underrated Element in Security Policy

GCSP Geneva Paper – Research Series n°17

Release Date:

December 2015

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Executive Summary

Culture is a strongly underrated element in security policy. For some time we dismissed the importance of cultural differences, particularly since we seemed to be moving towards a globalized world where such differences were likely to disappear. But these differences have come back with a vengeance, as the increasing terrorist attacks in 2015 have demonstrated.

Globalization has continued, but clashes have multiplied. All the issues separating cultures are still present and have not really been examined, let alone resolved. We entered a globalized 21st century without having developed a clear theoretical background about living together on a culturally diverse planet where we are moving closer and closer together.

A proper understanding of culture demands a strongly interdisciplinary approach rarely seen in today’s scientific texts or intercultural trainings; and culture is not static, but is an ongoing process. When we use the term in the plural it should be an indication that culture must be understood on different levels. We must look at the culture of an individual, then of the family into which he or she was born. There is also the culture of a city, a region, and a nation.

The paper develops a theory of culture that allows us to put key notions into a more general context. The focus is on the basics of human existence and social organization, which allows us to develop a comparative theory of culture from its basic elements, the individual and the community. The paper uses anthropological, sociological, and psychological approaches to develop a coherent picture of cultures based on a bi-modal distinction. Closeness and detachment are the key factors of differentiation. They are based on the fact that cultures may either stress the rights and freedoms of an individual or her/his integration into a community. This key difference affects approaches to security policy, both on the strategic and operational levels, and this forms the central focus of the paper.