Cultural Dialogue in Western Security and Defence

Cultural Dialogue in Western Security and Defence

A paper by Alexis Crow, Research Fellow, International Security Programme, Chatham House, presented for Eighth Rhodes Forum Session, October 2010

As Western societies seek to manage transnational security risks, it has become increasingly clear that they must engage with countries outside their borders, if these risks are to be successfully challenged. Yet the old framework of relations - according to which Western countries sought to impose their values and experience of becoming on other societies – is not only outdated, but it is also fundamentally flawed.

The aim of this lecture is to employ a specific idea of the late Philip Windsor – that of a cultural dialogue based upon the distinction between norms and values – and apply it to the West in the context of security and defence. According to Windsor, all societies translate their foundational values into norms: as such, a norm is a cultural expression of a value. While some cultures share the same values, they inevitably differ in the interpretations of those values. Thus, a cultural dialogue can take place if actors distinguish between their shared values, and the varying ‘normatisations’ of those values. Extended to the West, although its societies are united by a set of common Western values, they often clash in their expression of those values. For example, as General Sir Mike Jackson claimed, ‘We must fight with the Americans but not as the Americans’. Why with the Americans? Because of these shared values. Why not as the Americans? Because Britons and Americans fight wars differently, and these differing ways of warfare are in accordance with different norms. Yet as this thesis argues, if Western societies engage in a dialogue which recognises this distinction, they can dynamically contribute to the re-invention of the West in the twenty-first century.

However, given the complex nature of the contemporary strategic environment, NATO and EU members will inevitably need to act outside of the North Atlantic area. Indeed, as security is increasingly defined in terms of ‘risks’ rather than ‘threats’, Allies and Member States are faced with complex challenges which are transnational in origin and global in reach. Consequently, they will need to engage in an external dialogue with others - such as Russia and Pakistan – in order to combat these risks. Yet they cannot do so based upon the assumption that these values are universal. Thus, it is crucial for these actors to acknowledge that their Western values are not ‘exportable’, and cannot be imposed upon other societies. Though their values provide a steadfast common ground within the Alliance, they do not provide a shared framework for dialogue outside of the geographical borders of the North Atlantic area. As the West seeks to manage risks, it therefore acts internationally, without acting universally.

Men are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies. It is with nations as with individuals. Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life. They have more than the force of treaties in themselves. They are obligations written in the heart. They approximate men to men, without their knowledge, and sometimes against their intentions. The secret, unseen, but irrefragable bond of habitual intercourse holds them together even when their perverse and litigious nature sets them to equivocate, scuffle, and fight, about the terms of their written obligations.’

Edmund Burke

Norms, values, and an internal cultural dialogue

Today, I wish to discuss the potential for cross-cultural dialogue on security and defence in the West. Firstly, I will discuss the prospects for an internal cultural dialogue based on norms and values, and secondly, I will discuss a new framework for an external cultural dialogue as the West seeks to cooperate with other countries and organisations outside its borders.

I specifically define the West in terms of a geographical and value-based identity, comprised of countries and institutions (NATO and the EU) which fall within the North Atlantic area. With regard to values, Voltaire’s description of Europe (which we can extend to the wider West) is particularly useful: the French philosopher described it the land as ‘…kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed…but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principle of public law and politics, unknown in other parts of the world.’ Both Burke and Voltaire wrote of Western values derived from a common historical experience of Christianity: for example, the ‘value of human life,’ the ‘sanctity of person’, ‘respect for property’ and the rule of law. Yet many of those values that have come to be Western find their origins in the Enlightenment, and hence can be termed ‘post-Christian’ values. These include democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of press, and market economy. In examining past historical experience, and indeed in regarding the West in its present guise, these values are neither allocated nor bound by the state. For in Easton’s words, the state is not responsible for the ‘authoritative allocation of values’, and as such cannot reconcile the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal for its peoples. Rather, the values that unite the peoples of Western societies designate what Charles Taylor calls a space of ‘common meaning’ which transcends territorial boundaries. For those populating the North Atlantic area, it is these values which enhance life, and underpin NATO and the EU as institutions. Although they may be shared by other countries around the globe, these values are by no means universal.

And it is my principal claim that a much needed cross-cultural dialogue within the West rests upon an understanding of the distinction between norms and values. This concept is taken from the late Philip Windsor, a British strategic thinker who wrote several magisterial pieces at the end of the last century – one of them entitled ‘Cultural Dialogue in Human Rights.’ In it, Windsor ponders the prospect for cultures with different values to maintain a dialogue on the oft-divisive issue of human rights. Via the philosophy of Hegel and Nietzsche, he determines that different cultures can have an earnest debate, provided they respect the other’s values, and recognise the distinction between a value and a norm. He wrote, ‘All cultures depend on translating certain underlying values into the norms of social behaviour.’ A norm is therefore defined as the cultural expression of a value. In contrast to the English School or Constructivist understanding of a norm, norms within the context of a cultural dialogue are not regulatory, though they are related to behaviour. Specifically in terms of NATO and the EU, its members share certain Western values, and ‘normatise,’ ‘operationalise’, or enact these values in different ways. There is not one set of norms to which these countries ascribe; rather, we use the term ‘norm’ to denote the expression or interpretation of a shared value. Significantly, societies express many different norms over different periods of time.

Specifically in terms of cultural dialogue, norms are culturally determined, and thus not especially affixed to particular states or governments. Norms do not always refer to specific nations: indeed, there are many divisions within states themselves.[1] For example, France under Nicolas Sarkozy has been decidedly more ‘Atlanticist’ in its defence and security policy, even rejoining the Integrated Military Command Structure of NATO. Such a decision was perhaps unthinkable during President Chirac’s tenure, and was unsurprisingly met with sharp resistance by senior military staff who sought to prioritise France’s military concerns as affairs of the EU/ESDP rather than of NATO. Yet Sarkozy’s move was a particular ‘normatisation’ of a value at that time. Let us also take for example US President Barack Obama’s campaign promise of closing the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay: though Obama’s decision marked a decisive break from that of the George W. Bush Administration – and hence a different interpretation of a value – he has met much resistance from the US Senate in attempting to carry out that promise. Thus, despite Obama’s reversal of particular norm, the present expression of a value has now trumped that earlier norm.[2] The potential for such sharp national divisions thus illustrates the fallacy of Kagan’s now (in)famous depiction of war-mongering Americans from ‘Mars’ and peace-loving Europeans from ‘Venus.’ Though there is some validity to Kagan’s generalisations, there are in fact nuanced differences within America itself, and certainly amongst Europeans, and as demonstrated above, within European states themselves.

Thus determined by culture – as opposed to fixed to a particular state – norms are fluid, dynamic, and rest upon an understanding of becoming, rather than being. As discussed in the preceding chapter, Windsor’s entire conception of cultural dialogue assumes that cultures are in a dynamic state of becoming rather than in a fixed state of being. Extended to the West, NATO allies and EU member states recognise that though they share common values, they will fluctuate in their interpretations of those values. As is demonstrated in the previous examples, these norms change over time, not only from government to government, but also within political parties themselves. Certainly within the West, debate about differing interpretations of shared values is inevitable. Yet because cultural dialogue assumes that all cultures are in a constant state of becoming, members can flexibly engage in that dialogue. Indeed, much of the past discord within the West (such as the rancour over Iraq) is a result of disagreement about norms, yet these norms will change over time, and such discord can eventually be overcome. Again, the recognition of a distinction between norms and values is of the utmost importance. Societies in the West have in common a constitutive set of values, which are of a fixed nature, but precisely where they differ is in the ‘normatisation’ of those values, which is of a dynamic character.

Security in a world of risk

Why is this dialogue even important? It is precisely because of the character of the current strategic environment that societies engage in a cross-cultural dialogue on security and defence. Primarily, Western societies define security in terms of risks rather than in terms of threats, and hence in terms of the future, rather than in terms of the present. Rather than seeking to eliminate a tangible threat, one attempts to prevent a future scenario from occurring. Risks are nebulous, hard to define, and often transnational in origin and in scope: consequently, rarely can one actor successfully manage a risk acting in isolation. Moreover, in a world of risk, those who seek to cooperate on security and defence are not unified by a common existential threat – on the contrary, they face a disparate strategic agenda filled with many security risks such as nuclear proliferation, energy security, cyber-war, Somali piracy, state failure, international terrorism, and economic collapse. If Western countries are to successfully cooperate on meeting these challenges, then they must engage in a cultural dialogue. Although these actors may not always identify a common risk (such as Saddam Hussein’s potential to employ weapons of mass destruction), or indeed agree upon the appropriate instruments used to manage that risk (military, diplomatic, or economic sanctions), a revaluation of their constitutive values provides a common and steadfast ground, or framework for dialogue and debate.

Beyond the West: the universal vs. the international

As Western societies seek to manage transnational security risks, it has become increasingly clear that they must engage with countries outside their borders, if these risks are to be successfully challenged. Yet the old framework of relations - according to which Western countries sought to impose their values and experience of becoming on other societies – is not only outdated, but it is also fundamentally flawed. Whether via the processes of imperialism, de-colonisation and modernisation, a declaration of universal human rights, and democracy promotion by force, Western countries (and institutions) often assume that others wish to share their seemingly universal values. However, I staunchly argue that the West cannot impose its values on those societies who do not wish to share them. Such an action is not only detrimental (and often dangerous) to Western interests, but it is also impossible. If indeed these values are to take root, this must be an endogenous process – coming from within – rather than one of external imposition. Thus, as it seeks to manage risks, the West acts internationally, but not universally. It must act outside its geographical borders if it is to manage risks to its security, but it cannot engage with others upon the assumption that its values are universal. In such a way, cultural dialogue within the West provides its countries and institutions with a new framework of relations with its global partners – hopefully one which is a welcome replacement to days of yore.

There is a further question of whether countries can agree on a very basic definition of rights – what some scholars refer to as a ‘minimalist’ ethics – such as the right to life. This – I think – is an opportunity for discussion and debate.



[1] Thus one might say that nations themselves are in a constant state of becoming. As Nietzsche observed, “What gets called a ‘nation’ in Europe today (and really is more a res facta than nata- every once in a while a res ficta et picta will look exactly the same -) is, in any case, something young, easily changed, and in a state of becoming, not yet a race…’ Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil. Similarly, Edmund Burke wrote, ‘But common-wealths are not physical but moral essences. They are artificial combinations, and, in their proximate efficient cause, the arbitrary productions of the human mind…I doubt whether the history of mankind is yet so complete enough, if ever it can be so, to furnish grounds for a sure theory on the internal causes which necessarily affect the fortune of a state.’ Burke, E. From Letters on a Regicide Peace.

[2] What values are being expressed here? One might say that the W. Bush Administration’s original decision was an interpretation of the value of national security, and Obama’s reversal was a normatisation of the value of civil liberty. The opposition he has met from the Senate – Democrats included – is thus another interpretation of the value of national security. See Ward, A. and Demetri Sevastopulo. ‘Blow for Obama Plan to close Guantánamo.’ By Financial Times, 21 May 2009.