Cross-cultural Dialogue: A New Framework for International Security

Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD-NATO)

Dr. Alexis Crow, Research Fellow in the International Security Programme at Chatham House, heads an ambitious two-year project whose aim is to create a neutral space in which decision-makers and thought leaders from different cultural backgrounds can come together and effectively address complex security challenges that they all face. Crow argues that cultural dialogue based on norms and values—and a refusal to universalize those values—can facilitate greater security co-operation within and outside the Euro-Atlantic region.

The planet is shrinking and power is being redistributed. The views of new emerging powers are different from the Euro-Atlantic worldview that has dominated for the last few centuries. Tell me about this changing dynamic.

The character of the strategic environment in which we now operate has shifted. One of the products of this shift is that we've moved from a world of concrete threats to a world of nebulous risks. The first repercussion is that, in order to manage these risks, we must engage with players with whom we haven't engaged before. The terms of engagement are new, and so the approach we take must change. The instruments are new.

I think there is also another discernible shift that is very important. A product of globalization is a move away from "the state"—Europe being the chief purveyor of this model. Europe chided America for being too much of a "new state"—it wasn't yet post-modern, as Europe is. A lot of the rancor about Iraq was couched in these terms. So there is a lot of talk about a move away from the state, and a shift in the power balance—not only to new countries, but also to non-state actors.

So if we are moving away from the state, I would like to propose that we are moving to "cultures" and "societies." Cultures and societies are composed of individuals who are nebulous, fluid and agile, and therefore any dialogue between them has to be flexible. Talking about cultures and societies, I think, is a good way of not getting rid of the state (which is what a lot of the European Union language has been about), but retaining the state and moving within its flexibility.

"What often happens in international relations is that "culture" is treated as a separate sub-entity. What we are actually talking about is culture in international relations. This is a very important distinction."

Risk perception is highly subjective and culturally specific. For example, Western policy makers may view the world in terms of complex risk with a future-looking approach. Other nations may view risk as concrete threats to their territory. As a result, the instruments selected to mitigate risk will vary greatly.

First, it's crucial to say something about how different players can actually coalesce and co-operate, in order to manage these risks. The problem with a risk—unlike a threat—is that you are making a bet on a perceived scenario about the future. How can you show evidence of this to your proposed co-operating partners? That immediately becomes a problem, and the clearest example of that is the Iraq War in 2003. What makes the most sense is for actors across the spectrum to act with one another—and that's where the cultural dialogue comes in.

Is the idea of using a cultural dialogue framework for international security issues a novel one?

What often happens in international relations is that "culture" is treated as a separate sub-entity. Unfortunately, it is often categorized in the West in specific areas, such as political, economic, social. So when people talk about culture and international relations, they might be talking about how we bring in different sources like the Greeks, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Apocalypse Now. What we are actually talking about is culture in international relations. This is a very important distinction.

What are the objectives of the Cultural Dialogue in International Security project?

The primary objective is to get the West to stop imposing its values on other societies. If we can get the West to realize that it can't go it on its own—which events such as the fiscal crisis and Libya are patently demonstrating—I can die happy!

"A dialogue can take place if you recognize and respect another's values and the intransigence of them, while allowing room for differing cultural expressions of those values."

When you talk of imposing values, you're referring to things such as democracy?

Democracy, rule of law, free elections, market economy, religious tolerance, freedom of the press. The objective is to get the West to stop crusading and imposing its values on other societies.

We are not saying that those values can't grow in other societies; what we are saying is that it has to be locally owned. It has to originate locally rather than be externally imposed. The latter approach is ineffective, and it's also bad for business. This is where we also draw in the private sector. I use the example of how, in 2003, some conservative Texas businessmen broke with President Bush over Iraq and said, "You cannot go into Iraq, you cannot start this war, it's going to be bad for business. It's going to disrupt the foothold that we have in that region and it will completely disrupt the balance of power, allowing Iran to gain strength." Therefore, this current approach is even bad for business.

The second objective is to explore how the West can effectively manage relationships on the most important of all issues, which are security issues. People focused a lot more on security during the Cold War, because they were all going to blow themselves up. But guess what—we might still blow ourselves up!

As we move away from the concept of "war" and "defence," and we move toward "security"—which blends inside and outside, foreign and domestic, future and present—we simply have to get along. We believe that cultural dialogue is the most effective framework for necessary engagement.

You launched your project with an inaugural workshop and, from what I can discern from the report, there was a fair amount of talk and debate about values and norms.

The distinction between "norms" and "values" that we have employed is derived from a collection of Philip Windsor's essays called Studies in International Relations (edited by Mats Berdal). In that collection is an article titled "Cultural Dialogue and Human Rights," and in it Windsor creates this distinction between norms and values. For him, norms aren't behavioural. They are an expression of a value. He also writes that values are unchanging and steadfast. You cannot eradicate values, and you cannot create new ones. A dialogue can take place if you recognize and respect another's values and the intransigence of them, while allowing room for differing cultural expressions of those values.

So two states can share the same fundamental values but disagree, say on a security issue—and still dialogue?

You know what your values are, and they are non-negotiable. You are also prepared to leave as much room for flexibility as possible to engage in a dialogue. For example, the United States has to engage with Russia for national security reasons regarding Afghanistan or Iran, but it can do so while retaining its values. What we are saying (and we are eschewing Tony Blair's Chicago speech) is that it's not all about values, but it's equally not all about interests. This framework of engagement allows you to blend both.

"We have exhausted our treasuries, and we have exhausted our resources. You have to engage with others, and you have to determine the basis on which you can do that."

If underlying values are more or less the same, then there has to be a way to work through differing norms to get to some sort of solution or compromise.

Exactly.

It sounds simple.

Simple when you stay within the West, but it gets trickier when you get to a different set of values. I am trying to change policy makers' minds here in the West. The rhetoric of freedom and democracy is so attractive and so endemic in Western politics, and those policy makers often judge and locate the worth of our own values in terms of their applicability to other societies.

From colonization through to decolonization and the policies of modernization, through the Cold War and then throughout the humanitarian intervention era of 1990s, we in the West have thought that our values are so powerful and so desirable that they should be transmitted to all.

You write that countries must act internationally without thinking universally.

We can't just do it on our own. We have to engage with other players on a flexible and dynamic basis if we are to manage these risks, which are global and trans-national in origin and in scope. However, we can't act universally with our values.

How do you respond to detractors who might say that this is nothing more than cultural relativism?

We say that it's not relativism, because you are standing up for your own values—and there will be times when it's to the detriment of your commercial interests, for example. There are things that are non-negotiable. However, that just means suspension of the dialogue and not its breakdown and dissolution. Besides, what do we have to lose? We haven't done it right for so long. We have exhausted our treasuries, and we have exhausted our resources. You have to engage with others, and you have to determine the basis on which you can do that.

For this to happen, you need a willing partner.

You have hit it bang on. People say, "Why would they want to listen to us?" What we are saying is that we have got it wrong for so long and this might be just the framework within which we can say "we are listening" to others. Not only listening . . . this might be a framework where we can say "we think we have something to learn from you."

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