Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Culture and Foreign Policy

The Neglected Factor in International Relations


Howard J. Wiarda


Farnham: Ashgate, 2013

Hardcover. xiii+ 153 pages. ISBN 978-1409453291. £50.00


Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth

Gannon University (Erie, Pennsylvania)




Howard Wiarda Strikes Back: Culture as an Antidote to American Hubris


Howard Wiarda is the Ben Kenobi of foreign policy experts. Prominent yet far removed from the halls of political power, he may not be a hermit hiding from Darth Vader on Tatooine, but he has been the veritable wise voice in the wilderness. Arguing against a crusading and missionary foreign policy during the age of Reagan, humanitarian interventions, and neoconservative regime change, Wiarda has largely fought a rear guard action. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, have given his ideas newfound relevance. Perhaps, his emphasis upon culture and foreign policy and the concomitant limits of American power have found their moment. Indeed, his newest book, Culture and Foreign Policy, represents a succinct summation of his views as they relate to the twenty-first century’s global challenges.

Culture and Foreign Policy is a historically informed work aimed at the present and future. In this book, Wiarda places the contemporary era’s dominant ideas and foreign policy misadventures into context. To him, there is no Manichean choice between Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” Instead, the twenty-first century will be marked by a “democratic peace” in the developed West and a clash of civilizations within the underdeveloped world and the occasional clash against the West.

Packed within the dueling Fukuyama-Huntington dichotomy is a debate over Globalization. On one side, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists proclaim Globalization as a positive development that spreads free trade, democracy and human rights. Countering that supposition are realists and the radical left who proclaim this “New World Order” is “destructive” and “prone to produce unemployment and conflict over scarce resources” [x]. Similar to the Fukuyama and Huntington debate, Wiarda refuses neat and tidy divides. He rejects a one-size-fits-all Globalization for plural globalizations that influence the world’s primary “culture areas” in differing manners.

Fukuyama, Huntington, and the globalization debate serve as the superstructure for Wiarda’s primary thesis. Since the “end of history” was intended to apply to Europe and the North Atlantic and globalization has spurred greater diversity in political, economic and social models across the underdeveloped world, American leaders should holster their messianic aims and pay heed to political culture as they craft policy.

To Wiarda, it is culture rather than foreign aid that shapes politics and developmental outcomes. Thus, foisting American values onto the developing world constitutes a lesson in futility. Culture and Foreign Policy has arrived none too soon. Wiarda rightly criticizes US foreign policy of the left and right for pushing an “American model of development” anywhere and everywhere. Rather than this one-size-fits-all approach, the author claims a civilization’s political culture, values, beliefs, orientations and behavioral patterns, are crucial determinants of a region’s developmental trajectory. More than anything, Wiarda begs specialists and policymakers to heed political culture and internal domestic politics when they approach foreign policy.

To bring his ideas to life he discusses the political culture of the globe’s six great civilizations: Europe, Russia, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Wiarda’s dissection and discussion of the six primary cultural areas comprise the heart of his book. Succinctly depicting the political cultures, historical patterns, and developmental trajectories of the entire world is a herculean task. As a result, the chapters are uneven. His thoughts on Europe, Russia, and Latin America are a tour de force. Correctly seeing the USA as slowly drifting away from its traditional West European partners, the author sees twenty-first century America becoming less and less like its traditional allies. He also realizes that Russia has created its own model of development that fits historical norms and its political culture. As a specialist in Latin American politics, Wiarda’s section on that region is especially strong and revealing.

Similar to his chapters on Europe, Russia, and Latin America the author properly finds that the USA is pivoting toward an ascendant Asia. To Wiarda, the “Asian model” of development that emphasizes economic growth within an authoritarian political structure offers an enticing model for the developing world. Though this eventuality could harm U.S. national interests, he pleads for the USA to follow Frank Sinatra and allow Asia and the developing world to “do it [their] way” [65].

Culture and Foreign Policy’s weakest sections are devoted to Africa and the Middle East. In terms of the former, Wiarda largely recognizes the region’s obstacles and pockets of economic revival. Thus, it is a fine, if brief, little primer on the continent. The latter section on the Middle East is the more problematic. Though he offers a strong summation of the region’s history and developmental straits, his depiction of the region’s social life seems more of a description of Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is comprised of more than austere Salafists. In Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq alcohol is readily available in large cities and some small towns, women dress in modern styles, attend university in large numbers and defy Western stereotypes.

The political cul-de-sac that is Afghanistan and Iraq has rendered Wiarda into the analyst of the moment. Eschewing neo-conservative regime change, realist dogma, and starry-eyed liberal internationalism, he offers the Rosetta Stone for U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century: culture matters and American power to shape events is limited. As a result, he sagely asks officials to pursue a modest foreign policy premised upon understanding the world on its own terms. Unlike, Ben Kenobi, Howard Wiarda is not more powerful dead than alive. It merely took a series of foreign policy blunders to make his ideas palatable to a nation imbued with messianic aims.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.