The Role of Culture in Politics

culture in politics


By John Harrison

Recognition of the role of culture in political thinking is nothing new. Thucydides in the 5th century, for example, discussed the effect of culture as ‘modes of life’ on the political thinking of leaders in the ancient states of Greece (1). Rushing forward to the 20th century, Mamdani linked the end of the Cold War and 9/11 to the rise of ‘Culture Talk,’ which ‘assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and explains politics as a consequence of that essence (2). ’

Independent researchers have looked at the connection between individualism and democratisation, and suggested that countries where collectivism is more prevalent historically and culturally are less likely to adopt a western-style democratic system than those countries whose culture is more amenable to that. Hofsted suggests a correlation between individualism and the average polity index (a way of measuring a country’s position on a chart between ‘full democracy’ and an autocracy) (3).

Such discussions have not entered western mainstream political debates, and it is normal to judge other people, countries and cultures based on our own norms. For westerners who work abroad, for example in a country like Russia; what Thucydides, Mamdani and Hofsted wrote, becomes blindingly obvious. The same can be said about Russians living and working in the West, although their lives and experiences remain relatively undocumented. In Russia, derogatory terms such as ‘going native’ are used to describe people who have got to know Russian culture ‘too’ well. In any official role, understanding Russian culture on a deep level is not always encouraged, as it can lead to questioning of western cultural norms. Perhaps for this reason, diplomats are rotated regularly (everywhere, not just in Russia). Top level western journalists and academics are not permanently based here; their articles and reports would be difficult to relate to if they were not firmly anchored in western cultural and political roots.

Maintaining the cohesiveness of our cultural identities is, arguably, one of the many functions of the nation state. Nations; sovereign states have not been around for ever. With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the idea of the sovereign state was consolidated, and the need arose to justify the existence of state power. Quite often the state used ideology to unite people together around a national idea, which may or may not have been representative of the whole nation (very few nation states were in fact formed based on one nation one state). An example would be the formation of the République Française (First Republic), and the consequential use of revolutionary causes to unite a country which was made up of groups of people, not all of which even spoke French at the time (4).

Some countries have been more successful in uniting around a single, strong mono-cultural base than others. America, which is a multicultural country seems to have united around its own cultural invention: the idea of being an American, which appears to be, or at least appeared to be until quite recently, more important than race. Trump’s difficulties in implementing an ‘Immigrant Ban’ can be explained by a dichotomy between these different priorities, and this is all perhaps indicative of a kind of present day U.S. national identity crisis. Russia is also a multicultural society, only 41% of Russians are Orthodox Christians. At the present time, ethnic and religious conflicts are not visible. Some say that this is because ethnicity was fairly brutally iterated and neutralised over a long period of time during the Soviet Union. Others say, that this may be true, but perhaps it is also true that Russian present-day ethnicity policies are adequate. Whatever the reason is, the ‘Russian Idea’ is stronger than inherent ethnic and religious differences.

When commenting on the present situation, the researcher cannot help noticing some similarities between countries that officially criticise each other. Not only do America and Russia share many cultural common denominators but, as some culturologists have noticed, both countries’ peoples share fundamental personality traits: such ‘big country’ boldness, pride of their own countries, and arguably, conservatism.

Be this as it may, ‘othering’ of Russia seems to have begun well before the Soviet era. In 2000, writer and journalist Anatol Lievan proposed that ‘Russophobia,’ for example, grew out of British attitudes towards the expanding Russian empire in the 19th century (5). In 2010, James Brown from the University of Aberdeen claims that stereotypical views of Russia derive from Cold War period ‘Russian Studies’ which were ‘orientalist’ by nature (6). In 1918, Oswald Spengler suggested that the Soviet Union was a continuation of Tsarist imperialism (7). Godard and Gibbons explained the popularity of communism in Russia being due to ‘the primitive and non-European qualities of that country.’ Such arguments are still lingua franca in some of our best universities of the world, and are a comfortable basis for constructing Russia-bashing arguments.

After the Second World War, many western countries within the group of nations and alliances commonly known as ‘The West’ saw the limitations of ‘nation states’ and united together in causes that spread across borders and boundaries. The main tenants of ‘Human Security’ (not just state security) were incorporated into U.N. charters. ‘Freedom from Want’ and ‘Freedom from Fear’ were only two of the new principles on the new non-state-centric bandwagon. This was all good news for liberals like me, who saw the world at last coming right. By incorporating human rights into international politics, however, we created political space for the adoption of resolutions such as the ‘Right to Intervene’ when one country assumes the right to invade another, if that country was seen to be unable to provide the security of its own citizens. Our ‘othering’ now included the right to deny sovereignty, although that is not the way we see it.

We discovered that security threats are ‘speech acts,’ as was so clearly established by the late 20th century ‘securitisation theory.’ (8) Issues can be made into a threat, ‘securitised’ by a ‘securitising agent.’ Jargon aside, this means that politicians can convince populations that one issue or the other is a threat through rhetoric (yes, you have heard this before; remember Aristotle).

As theories go, this is a very good one, as it shows the power of politics and ideology. A very gifted orator could convince us that Shakespeare’s works are not that good after all, and that red is blue, but probably not for very long. The theory still needs to be updated because it does not take into account certain ‘felicity’ factors, such as culture, history and geography which we separate as separate academic disciplines.

Underlying culture is important; however it is all too easy to take the argument to the opposite extreme. We do not have to look very hard to find politicians, writers and academics who view foreign cultures as enemies. Samuel Huntingdon (1997) writes about future wars being fought between civilisations, (9) and many of us will go along with that. But we also tend to ignore the fact that in many countries, Muslims and Christians, for example, have lived peacefully together for hundreds of years. The necessity of clashes is debatable and may not be fundamentally necessary despite our efforts to convince ourselves that the opposite is true.

Perhaps the most important question is: Does politics inform culture or does culture inform politics? This is a different question to answer, as it depends on the culture, and the politics. In Russia’s case, her culture has two ways of looking at the world by default. One of them, looking towards Russian and Slavic cultural norms, the attitude of the ‘slavophiles’ and the other outward looking – the ‘westernisers.’

Anybody who lived through the 1990s in Russia, when ‘westernisers’ were in power, and our western democratic and commercial norms were adopted lock stock and barrel, does not need to be told that even the Russian ‘westernisers’ were a very long way culturally (and this was reflected in business practices) from ‘western’ westerners. Russian business practices are still a long way from what we consider normal; as a suicidal English man informed me in Chicago Prime late one Saturday night, as he depicted his problems in sacking Russians. Be that as it may, the differences between ‘our’ way of doing things and the ‘Russian’ way of doing things is not, arguably, as great as between ‘our’ ways and Chinese or Arabic ways of doing things. The problem is our binary thinking. For us, if the ‘other’ doesn’t do things exactly as we do, it is totally wrong. Confusing strength with intolerance, we have forgotten about flexibility, understanding and cooperation, not that these qualities ever predominated in foreign policies directed at countries outside of our own blocks of countries. We have to dominate, or nothing. Clearly, the same problems exist when analysing similar situations from the other side, however it is a matter of capability and degree. More research needs to be done.

Perhaps the beauty of today’s situation is that it may mean a re-examination of foreign policy. It is becoming harder to justify ourselves by criticising others, simply because it is difficult to cover up our own faults to the degree that we were able to earlier. If all else fails (and one could say that we are in such a position now; we are, and have been for some time on the bring of a new major international war), a start to rekindle common understanding between our countries can be made by encouraging more communication between cultural and scientific groups. We can see organisations like the British Council and ELE ( in Russia doing this, however there is a feeling of too little and too late. In Russia, acceptance of the perspectives of long term expats in all the relevant institutions could also be useful. They directly challenge the need for ‘othering,’ and in general point out that civilisations do not need to clash. More about them will be mentioned in my next article.

We westerners must learn to take off the stereotyped, tunnel-vision-glasses, and this is difficult, and at times confronting. As we all hurtle full throttle backwards to realist international politics, which Russia never left, understanding ourselves more fully and thus understanding everybody else may be of great help.

1 Thucydides, Thucydides, and Bc, 1999: 2

2 Mamdani, M. (2005b) Good Muslim, bad Muslim: America, the cold war, and the roots of terror. New York: Three Leaves Press; Doubleday.

3 Hofsted quoted in Brewer and Venaik, 2011


5 Lieven, A. (2000) ‘Against Russophobia’, World Policy Journal, 17(4), pp. 25–32.

6 Brown, J.D.J. (2010) ‘A stereotype, wrapped in a Cliché, inside a caricature: Russian foreign policy and Orientalism’, Politics, 30(3), pp. 149–159.

7 Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918, 1922), translated as ‘The decline Of The West; Stritzel, H. (2007) ‘Towards a theory of securitization: Copenhagen and
beyond’, European Journal of International Relations, 13(3), pp. 357–383

8 Buzan, B., Waever, O., de Wilde, J. and Woever, O. (1997) Security: A new framework for analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

9 Huntington, S.P. (1997) The clash of civilizations: And the Remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.