Many interpretations of international conflict share common assumptions regarding the default oppositional nature of states or cultures. According to Realism, the predominant theory of International Relations, conflict arises inevitably, and is a natural outcome of a highly competitive international environment. It is also a reflection, and extension, of the competitive, selfish and power driven nature of man. In a larger sense, “man” can refer both to individuals and to larger communities (or tribes, in ancient times) that one belongs to and toward which one feels protective – by virtue of sharing an in-group identity.
For some thinkers, including some Realists, the origin of this perpetual conflictual mode can be traced to irreconcilable cultural differences. Samuel Huntington’s well-known “clash of civilizations” theory, while notable for implicating culture more deeply in geo-political power relations, nonetheless essentially maintains the commitments of traditional Realism. States continue to be the primary actors in an anarchical system with scarce resources and where self-help is required for survival, but cultural fault lines – arising from civilizational differences – rather than ideological or economic issues are posited as the dominant source of conflict in global politics. Huntington furthermore contends that cultural differences are more constant and thus less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones.
The debate on strategic culture in international relations has emphasized divisiveness along similar lines. It is hard to argue against the fact that countries are influenced in their strategic thinking and security policies by historical narratives of their respective national ‘cultures’, which have sources in history, a shared sense of identity, folklore and cultural heritage. For example, it is erroneous to say that China, the US, Israel or Japan, think and act in their security policies solely based on “rational” calculations. China’s strategic culture is deeply influenced by its history and culture, and among others, by the legacy of its “century of humiliation”, Resilience, the teachings of Sun Tzu, and Confucianism. The US too has a distinct understanding of its role in the world, its sense of exceptionalism and commitment to the values of democracy and freedom. Israel’s policies are profoundly influenced by an emotional and insecure view of its history. Examples could go on. Culture does permeate national strategy but the problem remains that the very notion of what constitutes ‘culture’ is often taken for granted, as a matter-of-fact assumption that it is something that developed intrinsically.
This kind of adversarial characterization of relations between states, whether framed in national or civilizational terms, misconstrues cultures and civilizations as insulated, isolated, monolithic entities, undervalues historical cultural sharing, and overemphasizes the conflictual nature of the international system. As Edward Said argued in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in his 2003 preface to his seminal work,Orientalism, “the terrible conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics such as "America," "the west" or "Islam" and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed.” Transcultural understanding, cultural cross-fertilization, and historically-based cultural commonality have a long and rich history, one that has been forgotten or downplayed by the Western collective memory, as demonstrated by rhetoric such as that espoused in the framework of the global war on terror. Recovering this common history helps us to go beyond cultural and civilizational stereotyping and to recognize conflict as contingent rather than inevitable.