Pathfinder: The scholarship of Colin S. Gray and the future study of strategic culture

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Comparative Strategy


There is no place for strategic culture in an intellectual world of indistinguishable billiard balls. In that rarified space, culture is still permitted to exist as a social concept; arguing that all peoples everywhere construct identical societies requires an indifference to contrary evidence so impressive as to be beyond the capacity even of most social scientists. Yet, for a great many IR theorists, culture manages both to be axiomatically central to human life and society and also, somehow, not to matter very much in describing how international relations works. One simply pins on a “neoliberal” or “neorealist” school membership badge and gets on with the business of crafting theoretically elegant models of how humans and their institutions act. Or, at least, how they would act if people were not irritatingly mammalian. The tendency of individuals to respond to stimuli with something other than perfectly rational responses carefully calculated to optimize their interests, as those interests are ranked and prioritized by theorists, is inconvenient.

Discussion of culture has not been pushed aside entirely in the academic study of international relations. Indeed, it remains a subject of great interest on the wilder shores of IR theory, with constructivists, critical theorists, postmodernists, and others arguing about the nature and influence of culture. Most such theorists, however, speak and write in strange argots largely impenetrable to outsiders, and—pieties regarding the importance of “praxis” aside—they generally show little interest in translating their scholarly debates into a form intelligible to government policymakers, much less to the broader educated public. The dominant strains of Western IR theory sacrificed culture at the altar of theoretical elegance, while their competitors generally proved unable to provide alternative interpretations that were simultaneously comprehensible and intellectually appealing.

The historical record is the most reliable tool that observers have at hand to craft predictions regarding the future actions of states. History certainly is not an infallible guide—not only is it imperfectly recorded, but every political decision is unique, with time, place, and actors coming together in an unrepeatable combination. Thus, history is an inherently limited predictive tool and, moreover, one that can be misused grossly. Yet a theory of international relations that took no account whatsoever of history would be self-evidently absurd, a theoretical construct entirely unmoored from lived reality, floating cheerily in the ether. Worse yet, it would not even be an altogether satisfying thought experiment, as the theorists undertaking it would still be members of the actual human species, unable to escape all their preexisting knowledge about history and the factors that shape it—such as the fact that humans are creatures who exist in a social context, and who thus have social norms and understandings that guide their day-to-day interactions with each other. In short, they have cultures.


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