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Pt. 3, Culture—The Vital Differences That Color Life


Kerry M. Kartchner, foreign affairs advisor, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Advanced Systems and Concepts Office, Washington, D.C.

It has become increasingly important to understand the cultural context in which U.S. foreign and defense policies operate. Our failure to anticipate the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11 was more than a “failure of imagination,” as the 9/11 Commission formally concluded, and it was more than a failure of the intelligence community. It was a failure of the United States to understand its place in the world, to understand the impact its actions were having on various segments of world opinion, and it was a collective failure to appreciate that cultural values can sometimes drive political actions.

Several government-commissioned studies and reports over the last several years have concluded that understanding strategic culture is vital to effectively implementing and safeguarding U.S. national security and foreign policy. One example is the 2004 Defense Science Board Study on Strategic Communications. This report concluded, among other things, that hostility to U.S. national security goals and policies is undermining U.S. power, influence, and strategic alliances. It further asserted that much of this hostility is driven by a lack of understanding of the cultural and regional context for U.S. policy. As with other studies, it called for educational and training efforts to be undertaken to address the need for greater cultural understanding.

In this context, there has been a revival of interest in “strategic culture,” which had been of great interest to scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, and is a subset of the broader study of culture and foreign policy. Strategic culture can be defined as “shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior, derived from
common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written) that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.” This is the definition that was developed and adopted by a two-year project undertaken by the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to explore the potential for strategic culture to help understand the motives states and societies might have to proliferate or use weapons of mass destruction. This study found that the concept of strategic culture captured the domestic sources of these motives much better than either traditional realist theories of international relations or more recent constructivist theories.

This study involved a focused and structured series of case studies of those countries and their associated cultures that are most closely associated with weapons of mass destruction, either in the sense of acquiring them, proliferating them, or threatening to employ them. In each case, we determined that such policies either were driven by strategic cultural considerations, or had to be reconciled with strategic cultural themes in order to be accepted as legitimate.

For example, for many years the Islamic Republic of Iran refused to engage in the development of its own chemical weapons arsenal, citing the Koranic proscription against “poisoning the wells of your enemies.” But Iraq’s relentless chemical attacks against Iran during the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s, and the international community’s failure to come to Iran’s aid, or even to condemn Iraq for its use of chemical weapons, convinced Iran that it had to acquire its own chemical weapons defense. This was a difficult decision for Iranian clerics to make, and when the decision to acquire them and to use them in battle was eventually made, even though the decision was based on political realism, it had to be reconciled with Iran’s Islamic precepts. This reconciliation was found in the Koran’s prescription to arm oneself with the weapons with which one’s enemies come against you.

This could one day be taken as a precedent for Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, which it currently claims are prohibited for religious reasons but could easily be justified as required to confront its alleged enemies. When that time comes, we must be prepared to recognize that understanding Iranian strategic culture will be essential to implementing successful deterrence policies.


Jan R. Van Orman, assistant international vice president, BYU

There is a vast chasm between gripping world poverty and our abundant wealth in the U.S. Fundamentally, this results from a cultural gulf: a lack of constructive interchange between those who need and those who have. In our Latter-day Saint community, many feel compassion to reach out. My neighbor recently registered her own NGO to help school children in Kenya. This past summer she went to Africa and saw the world of poverty firsthand—AIDS orphans, squalor, and children who cannot read. She wants to help, as do the hundreds of other Utahans who went abroad last year on self-styled humanitarian crusades.

The cultural chasm manifests itself when my neighbor and others decide that they know what the school children need, and that she should supply it. From her perspective, money can provide books and pencils. But is this really the problem? And how does her giving help?

Students in my international development class have shared some of their experiences. “Sarah” describes the Christmas project she organized to bring toys to kids at a women’s shelter. While she and her friends handed out their gifts and played with the children, Sarah was struck to see their mothers standing at the back of the room with downcast faces. Only then did she realize that her presents made these women feel even more marginalized—accentuating their deficiency and dependence. Her charity didn’t raise their self-esteem. It didn’t help them to change the humiliating circumstance in which they found themselves.

“Ned” wanted to help the Russian people he came to love on his mission. He gathered generous donations from his neighbors with which he helped a destitute state-run orphanage fix up its bathrooms, lighting, and add fresh paint. When he returned the following summer with more resources, the orphanage was gone. The building had been taken over by a government office that took a liking to the refurbished space. The orphanage had been moved to another—worse—location. Ned learned that local sociopolitics weigh heavily upon any effort to change the status quo. He came to appreciate how difficult it is for outsiders to understand complex economic and cultural issues and to predict the unintended consequences that usually follow external donations.

Both the orphans and displaced moms were deserving and needing help. The real challenge is to discern the best way to help. The only way to truly overcome poverty is to enable people to help themselves. Only this makes them free. From the outside looking in, poverty situations often appear easy to change with a few resources, but disadvantage is rooted within people themselves and in their relationships with others. It is the interrelationships that are encumbering, or that could become enabling. The challenge for givers is to recognize that problems are inherently personal and bound within culture and context. People’s progress is inhibited more by deficient relationships than by scarcity of resources. Random giving seldom empowers people—it rarely dislodges the deep roots of petulant poverty. External donations sometimes even do more harm than good—if they undermine people’s ingenuity and initiative, demean their self-respect, or lead them into a more vulnerable or dependent position.

I’ve spent my career and my life learning from those who are pulling themselves up through heroic self-help efforts. The reality of these people is quite different from the situation outsiders perceive. Too often donors come with prescriptions for narrow problems they have defined. These are palliatives and stop-gap. Too much charity is simply dropped off, without givers understanding or addressing many interrelated needs that are left wanting. This cultural myopia is a consequence of an outsider’s inability to fully appreciate a receiver’s priorities and capabilities. We bring little hope to receivers when we see them as deficient and needy, rather than as competent individuals who live in a foreign environment—on the other side of a cultural chasm. Few givers take the time or are able to build the relationship that fosters understanding, and the dignified interchange that truly lifts people up.

I applaud the generous efforts of those who seek to humanely rescue people in deprivation. I honor the good will and compassion shown by their kindness. However, decades of experience has shown that short-sighted interventions and insular gifts seldom change things. Consider the fact that after trillions of dollars in foreign aid and millions of NGO projects, there are nearly as many people living in poverty today as there were in 1950. This is the cultural chasm.

A better answer for my neighbor might be to find a sensitive, effective NGO on-the-ground in Kenya that can establish a supportive relationship with the families of “her” schoolchildren. Such organizations exist. You cannot really lift another from a distance. For other compassionate people who want to help those in need, I remind you of wise counsel. True charity requires giving yourself. To exalt the needy we must lower ourselves. This recommends staying closer to home, where we can truly reach our “brother.” At home the cultural chasm is less wide. I know this is counterintuitive to some and perhaps less personally satisfying. But that’s not what true charity is about. There are many excellent local organizations that provide opportunities for givers to share their time and hearts in meaningful and needed ways. To cross the cultural abyss, we have to be willing to travel a different road.


C. Brooklyn Derr, professor of organization, leadership, and strategy, BYU

Managing culture is an oxymoron. Culture simply exists and begs to be understood. However, as the business world becomes increasingly global, many are involved in numerous global work activities, such as business travel, cross-national teams, global supply chains, outsourcing to offshore sites, virtual teams, global product launches, interacting with inpatriates and repatriates at corporate and regional headquarters, and project task forces solving international problems. In all of these situations, one must quickly understand cultural basics and how they impact business transactions. Managing culture, in this sense, means adapting to core cultural reality and trying to change what is culturally ambiguous.

For example, it is a cultural reality that French business leaders come from a very different education and background than do U.S. MBAs. It is also an established cultural fact that most French leaders prefer stability, planning, hierarchy, and government regulation and have a lower tolerance for ambiguity and change than do most U.S. leaders. A question for a U.S. corporation in France or for acting effectively in a Franco-American joint venture, therefore, is how to adapt U.S. forms of organization to French culture while, at the same time, carefully selecting those French who might prefer a different corporate culture. It is also important to consider how to use U.S. cultural work methods to exploit (in the strategic sense) the situation and gain competitive advantage. General Electric (GE) has done this very well.

So how do global businesspersons manage national culture? Mostly, they turn to CultureGrams (developed by the Kennedy Center at BYU and now sold by ProQuest), and they talk to colleagues who either live in-country or have been to the country. It is also quite common for them to refer back to the national culture analysis frameworks used in business schools.

The Geert Hofstede (1980) framework is the most common of these cultural frameworks from which one would gain a sense of the attitudes and behaviors of many with the same passport on four key dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, collectivism, and quality of life, or what Hofstede terms the masculine/feminine aspects of the culture. Edward T. Hall (1976) put forward a common cultural framework from which one may ascertain the distance between one’s own culture and the host culture, assuming that it will be more difficult to understand those cultures more distant or different from one’s own culture. Hall also offers a useful shorthand concept of “high context” (more relational, more time fluid) and “low context” (more task oriented, more punctual) for various national cultures. And Edgar Schein (1992) explores the idea of culture depth and how to differentiate between more superficial corporate cultures and deeper national cultures, with the idea being to ascertain the deeper national culture assumptions that impact the nature of organizational behavior.

These cultural frameworks are sometimes called “sophisticated stereotyping” of people from a national culture based on research findings. Mary Yoko Brannen (2003) and others point to the many variations on these broader cultural themes. Busy global executives and professionals need some quick way to make sense out of important differences imposed by national culture. These cultural frameworks help them get beyond simple stereotypic assumptions or reading facts about a country. Of course, when actually living and working in one country or cultural region as an expatriate employee, one would be expected to be much more knowledgeable about the national culture.

As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, it is estimated that about 70 percent of national culture variance may be controlled using a global standard and a strong corporate culture (norms, values, common reward, and reporting systems). The concern, therefore, is with the 25–30 percent of the national culture factor that is deep-seated and will impact basic assumptions and organizational behavior. National culture frameworks will help global executives and professionals operate more effectively across borders.

See Pt 1 and Pt 2 for more cultural insights from this issue.