Absorbing ideas via porous borders

Cultural Internationalism and World Order
July 25, 1997

What do Greenpeace, the BBC World Service, and Bill Clinton's notoriously narcotics-free tenure as a Rhodes scholar in 1960s Oxford have in common? The argument of Akira Iriye's lucid new book is that they are all examples of the cultural side of international relations, usually sidelined by the seductive glamour of the guns, tanks, and G7 summits that have traditionally dominated a field concerned with nation states and the way they exercise "hard" power. Iriye's work has always placed cultural issues at the forefront of international history, and in these days when cultural history is all the rage, it is worth recalling how unusual his approach was when he produced his early work during the height of the cold war. In this book, Iriye examines international relations since the late 19th century "not as a story of interactions among sovereign states, but in terms of cross-national activities by individuals and groups of peoples ... as agents for movements transcending national activities". Iriye gives equal prominence to the impact of thinkers, activists and movements from small and powerless countries, whose influence sometimes stretched beyond national divides. In this definition, "culture" becomes a wide term which can encompass most elements outside the worlds of high politics, military strategy, and economics. Iriye has chosen to deal with this huge subject not by attempting to be comprehensive, but instead selecting examples mostly from the United States, Europe, and East Asia. In doing so, he offers two main themes. First, that culture is as valid a topic for scholars of international relations as geopolitics, and second, that there is a recognisable set of cultural vectors that are able to cross national boundaries.

The book begins in the late 19th century, and identifies the rise of internationalism in Europe as an attempt to mitigate the excesses of the expansive nationalism of the period that culminated in the first world war. Although the horror of war gave the movement a new impetus after 1918, internationalism is generally considered to have failed in the interwar period. The League of Nations, archetypal organ of interwar internationalism, is commonly perceived as flawed in conception and feeble in practice. Iriye does not deny that internationalism suffered heavy blows during the 1930s in particular, but he also discusses more positive cultural steps that were not only significant at the time, but had influence in the shaping of the postwar world. One of these was the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, set up in 1922, consisting of 58 scholars invited by the league from countries that included Brazil, India, Japan and Uruguay as well as the US and Europe. Although "unabashedly elitist", the committee exemplified the cultural sphere where, unlike in politics, colonised nations could stand on equal ground with the great powers.

It was not only thinkers, however, who contributed to the extension of cross-national understanding. Student exchanges flourished, and tourism leapt in the interwar period, with westerners able to see the rest of the world for the first time without having to arrive in a gunboat: in 1900-15, only 2,000 American tourists had visited Japan, by 1920-30, this figure had risen to 55,000.

But the most powerful of the developments during this period was the "decentering" of American culture from its homeland to the rest of the world. Iriye proposes that the values of liberal democracy came to be associated with the US, and that it began to be perceived as a focus of opposition to Soviet communism, the other great internationalist movement. The cultural wars of this era laid the foundation for the competition between the US and USSR during the cold war, when missile crises would be juxtaposed with "kitchen debates".

Iriye does not attempt to gloss over the failure of political internationalism in the 1930s, although he points out that many of the cross-national cultural institutions that he considers endured up to 1940: Japanese and Chinese scholars met via the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation even after their countries went to war in 1937, and internationalism sprouted from national concerns throughout the 1930s, with the establishment of the British Council (1934), the Japanese Society for International Cultural Relations (1934), and the Division of Cultural Relations in the US State Department (1938). The memory of these underpinned the structures set up after the war.

Iriye considers the cold war to have been a major threat to postwar cultural internationalism, but again sees areas where the idea could find its own dynamic, such as space and nuclear energy projects where scientists attempted to talk to one another beyond the bipolar geopolitical parameters. Another threat to the idea was the emergence of the Third World as a political force, leading to a new stress on "cultural diversity". This emphasised the importance of the differences between cultures and challenged the notion of a cultural internationalism based on an assumed universalism in values.

Iriye's conclusion calls for "a cultural definition of international relations". He makes a strong case for the consideration of factors other than the military and diplomatic in our understanding of the relations between states. He also argues that more cultural interchange will oil the wheels of the new world order, rejecting the definition of cultural diversity that assumes incompatibility across borders. In so doing, he issues an unstated challenge to the deterministic models of culture that have seized the popular imagination in so much of the world, from Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" to Singaporean senior minister Lee Kwan Yew's embrace of undefined but politically convenient "Asian values". Iriye imposes a framework of his own, but it is a flexible one, one which values individual cultures, but encourages them to absorb ideas from outside their own spheres.

Iriye has added a quiet (and overdue) polemic for liberal values. He forces us to consider the importance of environmentalists, journalists, students, artists, scholars and musicians who flow between cultures, mitigating the rhetoric of national leaders and the menacing accumulation of troops and arms.

Rana Mitter is junior lecturer in modern Chinese politics and society, University of Oxford.

Cultural Internationalism and World Order

Author - Akira Iriye
ISBN - 0 8018 5457 1
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £.50
Pages - 212

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