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International Relations

An Impediment to Global Governance – Strategic Culture

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In today’s discussion of global interdependence, we highlight a common weakness of those who advocate increased global governance – e.g., the belief that the cluster of values and beliefs that support the concept are universal and not culturally bound. This is of course not true – any attempts at formal global governance must reflect the principle of socio-political subsidiarity if it is to succeed. But in embracing the principle of maximum local control, the seed of collective governance’s destruction, or at least its diminished strength, is at hand. One reason is that the localism represented by subsidiarity is not necessarily compatible with global governance, and the reason for that might be a nation-state’s strategic culture.

According to the political scientist Jack Snyder, strategic culture “refers to a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force.” Alastair Johnston, in turn, defines strategic culture as a “system of symbols…which acts to establish pervasive and long-lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.” These definitions are a big improvement over their less “scientific” forefathers – i.e., the 19th century, Social Darwinist notion of “national character.” Ardant du Picq, for example, noted in his infamous “Battle Studies” (one of the founding texts of the 19th century European military Cult of the Offensive) that the French military historically had no choice but to be offensively-minded. After all, the typical Frenchman was too skittish, nervous, glory hungry, and “Latin” to ever prefer defensive over offensive warfare. (Never mind the Maginot Line.) This type of stereotyping was quite common in the late-19th and early 20th century, but its crudity and caricaturing of nations and peoples soon caused it to lapse into disfavor. The typical Japanese soldier, if we recall, was often portrayed as a robot, an ape or as lice in virulent WWII propaganda, which was nothing if not the ungainly child of earlier “national character” parents. So, it’s interesting to see how the concept of strategic culture has dubious roots, got sanitized over time and yet gained explanatory power in the process. National obsessions and myths do remain an impediment to transnational governance.

Then there is the question of what makes up particular strategic cultures. Let’s look at American strategic culture, for example, which remains even today . . .

  1. Expansionistic (in terms of shaping events and projecting global influence).
  2. Practical and yet idealistic.
  3. Wedded to liberalism-constitutionalism (representative democracy).
  4. Individualistic rather than communitarian.
  5. Indestructibly optimistic (history is the progressive perfecting of human nature and relations over time).
  6. Impatient.
  7. Morally and ideologically self-regarding, if not sometimes self-righteous.
  8. Typically practical and short-term in focus rather than strategic and long-term in focus.
  9. Willing to intervene in areas where it is historically and culturally adrift.

The above 9 tendencies, along with other “tilts” makes U.S. strategic culture less universal than its leaders would like to believe.

Finally, not only are strategic cultures potentially bias-laden and not always universal in their orientation, they can generate a third and final ‘brake’ to political consolidation – i.e., they might be iconoclastic rather than status quo-oriented. Think of America’s symbolic privileging of its Declaration of Independence over its Constitution, for example. Is the Declaration of Independence a child of the status quo or a child of revolution? Well, doesn’t it basically say that the role of government is not necessarily to provide services (as in the cases of the 20th century welfare states of Europe), or to provide a source of plunder/financial stability for your well-connected tribe, clan or extended family. Indeed, it says the goal of government is to provide a level playing field – i.e., an equitable socio-political context where there is a true connection between cause and effect, and between effort and reward. Government, in other words, should provide a fair and open context for you to entrepreneurially make something of your own life. Additionally, the Declaration of Independence privileges the individual over the community, which is the direct opposite from what communitarian nations do. Finally, the Declaration of Independence makes a trailblazing argument that still doesn’t go down well in many parts of the world – i.e., it is the people who “own” sovereignty, not the state. They can and should give the latter the boot if it isn’t performing properly. State sovereignty, in other words, is a privilege and obligation rather than a right. In the aggregate, these beliefs are not status quo-oriented. Indeed, one can argue they are disruptive and advocate change more than anything else.

The concluding point is clear here, or so I hope. The sovereignty-yielding political generosity of spirit needs to make global governance a reality that does not necessarily align well with a nation’s strategic culture. This, in turn, may reflect  1) a system of potentially illiberal symbols and national obsessions, 2) a collection of truly localized values, and/or 3) a collection of feisty beliefs that are not necessarily compatible with the status quo’ism of others. That these three permutations of strategic culture can be politically viscous and gooey goes without saying. They also confirm that impatiently waving aside the ‘brakes’ that inhibit the transnationalization of governance will not help that process occur any faster. The process first has to make its peace with culture – in particular, strategic cultures that are not universal.

One reply on “An Impediment to Global Governance – Strategic Culture”

Nevertheless, there could be a set of rules from which any country would profit – if everyone is in… One aim of global governance should be to deliver platforms/facilities which enable the negotiation process on such rules.

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