Foreign Policy Digital

International Relations Theory Doesn’t Understand Culture

The main schools of thought still cling to an outdated understanding of how civilizations work.

In today’s world politics, culture is everywhere. The rise of non-Western great powers, the return of ethnonationalism, violent extremism justified in the name of religion, and so-called white resistance—the list goes on. Yet those who should be best placed to explain it—international relations scholars—are ill equipped to do so.

Conventional wisdom holds that IR theory has little to say about culture. After all, the argument goes, its dominant schools of thought focus on struggles for material power and treat actors as self-interested egoists. In fact, IR scholars talk about culture all the time. It permeates their arguments about the Western foundations of the modern international order, about China as a civilizational state, and about the fate of the Arab Spring. And if discussions of the Western nature of human rights aren’t about culture, then what are they about at all?

The real problem is that IR scholars cling stubbornly

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Foreign Policy Digital

Foreign Policy Digital5 min readPolitics
America’s Syria Debacle Is Not Trump’s Alone
By going along with the myth that the president is pulling out of the Middle East, his critics are helping make U.S. wars there worse.
Foreign Policy Digital3 min read
Will Brexit Stumble Over Northern Ireland Again?
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that the United Kingdom and the European Union had finally reached a Brexit deal, which will see Britain pay the EU as much as $50 billi
Foreign Policy Digital5 min readPolitics
Parliament Is Skeptical About Boris’s Brexit Deal
Still, if the new agreement fails to gain approval, the public may not blame Johnson at the polls.