The Geopolitics of Culture

Extracts from an essay by Nayef Al-Rodhan, neuroscientist and geo-strategist,  in the Harvard International Review, entitled ‘The Geopolitics of Culture: Five Substrates’.

‘Culture has a salient geopolitical relevance in a world that defines itself by much more than diplomatic exchanges and inter-state relations. This is primarily because of the deeply visceral and emotional connotations associated with identity issues. This has been the case throughout history, as exchanges have taken place between people of different cultures for millennia, but today they are marked by unprecedented intensity and scope of relations. This offers great opportunities on a number of levels but also has the potential to initiate tension or conflict when combined with injustice, inequalities and insecurities.

Cultures are cognitive structures that shape how people view themselves, relate to the world and to each other. As I have explained in my theory “emotional amoral egoism”, human beings are motivated above all else by emotional self-interest. This includes ego, which entails negotiating between inner needs and social context and which requires a sense of belonging and a positive identity. Identity performs its functions by drawing boundaries. If the social context  precludes a stable and positive group identity– for instance, because of being negatively defined by others – people are more likely to generate a resistance identity, with boundaries that appear impermeable and safe, or by engaging in identity construction that can lead to xenophobia, rigid ethnocentrism, or forms of ideological radicalism. Because of the emotional nature of identity issues, identity construction has to be authentic to each group itself and will be rejected if defined by others.

Having a positive group identity and self-identity does not have to imply denigrating difference, even if one’s own group is ultimately preferred. I would even argue that cultural and ethnic diversity can be thought of as benefiting humanity’s future, survival, strength and excellence. It promotes what I call cultural vigor similar to the way in which molecular and genetic diversity promotes “hybrid vigor” in nature and thus strength, resilience and a higher potential for a problem-free future. However, in order to yield such productive results, cultures and sub-cultures need to evolve in a non-exclusive manner in a context of transcultural security . . .

Transcultural security . . .  refers to the integrity of large collective identities and the absence of hostile clashes between members of different cultures. This implies a treatment that primarily emphasizes human dignity, as dignity is a fundamental human need in the absence of which no engagement with other peoples, cultures or nations can be successful . . . Advances in human civilization are cumulative and each high point in the history of human civilization has taken place after borrowing and building on the achievements of other cultures whose “golden age” may have passed. In fact, cultural entities would become stagnant and ossified without these kinds of exchanges. Individual cultural triumphs contribute to the advancement of human civilization as a whole. Therefore, rather than thinking in terms of multiple and competing civilizations, we need to think in terms of one fluid human story, comprised of multiple geo-cultural domains that contain cultures and sub-cultures.  All relationships of trust and respect are premised, among other things, on reciprocity, and that includes recognition of our debts to others and in part on knowledge . . .

As a philosophical narration on history, the thesis outlines the pivotal role played by dignity throughout history and its fundamental relevance to human, transcultural and transnational relations. Dignity is much more inclusive than freedom, and means much more than just the absence of humiliation and includes nine governance-related needs, which are: reason, security, human rights, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation, and inclusiveness. In this view, good governance must be accommodated to different local and cultural specificities and concomitantly meet minimal global criteria of human rights and international law. This is critical for transcultural relations, too often determined by undignified and antagonistic exchanges that are injurious to security and mutual coexistence.’ click here.