Culture clash: assessing the importance of ideas in security studies

TitleCulture clash: assessing the importance of ideas in security studies
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsDesch, MC

This article assesses the latest wave of cultural theories in security studies by focusing on some of its most prominent examples. There is no question that virtually all cultural theories tell us something about how states behave. The crucial question, however, is whether these new theories merely supplement realist theories or actually threaten to supplant them. I argue that when cultural theories are assessed using evidence from the real world, there is no reason to think that they will relefate realist theories to the dustbin of social science history. The best case that can be made for these new cultural theories is that they are cometimes useful as a supplement to realist theories. 

Four strands of cultural theorizing dominate the current wave:

1. Organizational: Legro holds that militaries have different organization cultures that will lead them to fight differently (Legro 1994). 

2. Political: Kier argues that different domestic political cultures will adopt divergent means of controlling their militaries based on domestic political considerations, not external strategic concerns (Kier 1996).  Katzenstein and Okawara (1993), and Berger (1993) maintain that domestic political attitudes towards the use of force vary significantly among states imilarly situated in the international system. 

3. Strategic: Rosen argues that societies with different domestic social structures will produce different levels of military power (1995). Johnston suggests that domestic strategic culture rather than international systemic imperatives, best explains a state's grand strategy (1995). 

4. Global: Finnemore aruges that global cultural norms, rather than domestic state interests, determine patterns of great power intervention (1996). Likewise, Richard Price and Nina Tannenwald claim that global cultural norms proscribing the use of particular weapons best account for why they are not used (1996). Herman argues that the Soviet Union bowed out of the Cold war because it was attracted to the norms and culture of the West (1996). Risse-Kappen argues that alliance such as NATO coalesce around global norms rather than responding to mutual threats (1996). In a similar vein, Marnett maintains that common identiy, rather than shared threat, best explains alliance patterns (1996). Finally, Eyre and Suchman argue that all states will acquire similar sorts of high-technology conventional weaponry, not becauses they need them, but because these weapons epitomize "Stateness" (1996). 

These diverse arguments have a common thread: dissatisfaction with realist explanations for state behavior in the realm of national security. Johnson: "All [cultural approaches] take the realist edifice as target, and focus on cases where structural material notions of interest cannot explain a particular strategic choice." So the key question is whether cultural theories supplant or supplements realist explanations. In order for cultural theories to supplant existing theories, the new culturalists would have to demosntrate that their theories outperform realist theories in 'hard cases' for cultural theories. As I show, however, most new culturalists do not employ such cases.

I begin this article by tracing the rise and fall of cultural theories ins ecurity studies. Next I discuss the challenges to testing the post-Cold War wave of cultural theories. I then show that this third wave cannot supplant realism. Before concluding, I suggest when and how the third wave might supplement realist theories in national security studies. I conclude with a qualified endorcement of ther return to culture in national security studies. 

Good for culture vs realism questions. See page 9-11 on a kind of intellectual history of culturalism in IR. 11-19 on assessing Cultural Theories.

Issue area (ie security studies) does not a 'hard case' make. What makes for a crucial case is: (1) whether the competing theories make different predictions about its outcome, and (2) whether one theory should be expected to do better at predicting it than another.

Instead of assessing hard cases for cultural theories, much of the new culturalist literature in security studies relies on four other types of cases:

1. 'Most likely' cases for culturalist theories (Rosen, Finnemore)

2. Cases that have the same otucomes as predicted by realist theories (Legro, Johnston, Kier, Eyre and Suchman)

3. Cases where the culturalist interepretations are disputable (Price and Tannenwald, Herman, Risse-Kappen)

4. cases in which it is too early to tell what the outcome will be. (Berger, Katzenstein and Okawara)

Ways Culture Can Supplement Realim

1. Cultural variables may explain the lag between structual changes and laterations in state behavior.

2. They may account for why some states behave irrationally and suffer the consequences of fialing to adapt to the constraints of the international system.

3. In structually indeterminate situations, domestic variables sucha s culture may have a more indepent impact.