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Foreign Policy

Different Cultures Breed Different Diplomacies

Apr 27 , 2016
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Diplomacy as sovereign behavior is deeply rooted in the culture of nations by which it is exercised. In other words, foreign policies or diplomacies are derived from the core values of cultures or civilizations those nations represent. More often than not, diplomats all over the world speak and act on the basis of their cultural upbringings as their internal moral compasses.

As China surges ahead in her national rejuvenation, an in-depth study of China’s world outlook and diplomacy from the perspective of Chinese culture or civilization that has lasted for several thousand years is certainly in order and will help us understand better the big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. It is also necessary to have a comparative study of the American cultural values guiding the US foreign policy in order to have a clear comprehension of why the US is doing what it does in the world today.

For China, her good-neighbor policy of “closeness, honesty, benefits and inclusiveness”, the principle of “no first use of nuclear weapons”, the proposal to build “the new type of big-power relations”, the initiative to build new “Silk Road” (Belt and Road Initiative) and the idea to knit “a global network of partnerships” — all those can find their roots in Chinese cultural and civilization values such as “harmony” and “peace”. Confucianism and Taoism, as part and parcel of mainstream Chinese culture, both can offer a full spectrum of ideas in conformity with those values.

For the US, its culture has several features that are in sharp contrast with China’s. The hegemonic urges to deal with rising powers heavy-handedly and strategy of “off-shore balance” or “rebalance to Asia-Pacific” are typical of the American cultural values with obvious aggressiveness. The recent aggressive approach by the US towards South China Sea issue with its about-face change from behind-the-scene maneuvers to direct involvement has once again borne witness to its cultural footprint. The same goes with the pursuit of “Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement” (TPP) wherein President Obama repeatedly said that the US did not want China to make the global economic rules. The hegemonic aggressiveness and blunt threat of force are features in American culture that come from its history of conquering North America by force and the fact that most white Americans were immigrants persecuted by their European motherlands. Nuanced statements and settlement through negotiation are not preferred options in American diplomacy.

Professor Huntington of Harvard and Dr. Henry Kissinger have offered their respective interpretations of how different cultures can influence the behavior of different nations. “Clashes among different civilizations” was the conclusion Huntington made, suggesting that human civilizations were driving forces in their interactions to each other and in the end clashes or wars were inevitable.

Dr. Kissinger, on the other hand, was more pragmatic in describing the cultures of East and West as games of “Go” and “Chess”. China’s diplomacy as Kissinger said was like playing the game of “go” in the sense that it sought long-term strategic advantages rather than satisfying itself by tactical gains. Simply put, it seeks a win-win outcome where “live and let live” is normal. Meanwhile western nations’ culture as Kissinger suggested the mind-set of “zero-sum” games is like chess playing, by going for tit-for-tat exchanges.

Another example is about democracy.

Chinese culture bequeaths us the principles in international relations of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, mutual respect for other peoples’ choices of political systems and models of economic growth and settling differences through dialogue and negotiation. “The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence” as pronounced in 1955 at Bandon Conference and upheld ever since by China and other developing nations are telling examples in this connection. The fundamental principle of “win-win through cooperation” as promoted by China in her efforts to build the “B & R” along with 60+ other countries has proven that cultural values have been and will be the rock foundation for diplomacy leading us towards a community of nations with common interests, responsibility and destiny.

Let us take a close look at the Western idea of democracy as it is applied in international relations. Military intervention and occupation under the name of democracy has been commonplace. The Iraq War at the beginning of the 21st century is a case in point. Even presidential candidate Hilary Clinton admitted in a recent interview the mistake she had made by supporting the war. “Regime change” and “Color Revolution” are two instruments in the tool-box of Western democracy that have been often used to interfere in other sovereign nations whenever and wherever western nations believe necessary. The “Arab Spring” that started in early 2011 in Tunisia and the messy and horrible reality subsequent revolutions have left behind is a mind-numbing experience for the nations involved. The yearnings to spread democracy worldwide as defined by the US and other Western nations also are typical of Western culture: the sense of being “the beacon on the Hill” destined to guide human beings wherever they live.

Still another aspect that warrants attention is the rising populism or populist sentiments in the US and European nations as evidenced by the wildfire “Trump Phenomenon” in the US, the upcoming critical vote on Bri-Exit and the fact that various right-wing and left-wing anti-EU parties are gaining traction in elections in France, UK, Germany and other European countries. The one-man-one-vote principle so dearly held by Western culture now comes back to bite them, threatening the key ideas of free trade and free movement of people.

As we enter a new age of globalization with ever deepening economic interdependence and widening gap between rich and poor, cultural interactions and mutual enrichment among nations become the essential determinant in global governance in so far as our future will depend on their successful outcomes. To turn a blind eye to the important role cultural exchanges and civilization dialogue plays in diplomacy and international relations is a peril that humankind cannot afford.

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