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date: 20 February 2018

Culture and Foreign Policy Analysis

Summary and Keywords

There are several conceptions of culture which have become dominant in foreign policy analysis (FPA) in particular: culture as the organization of meaning, culture as value preferences, and culture as templates for human strategy. Prior to the 1990s, the Cold War constraints of bipolarity had left little room for idiosyncratic domestic-level variables such as culture to affect FP. However, once systemic constraints lessened and the decision making milieu became more ambiguous, scholars increasingly turned to questions about culture and identity. Using classic frameworks as a jumping off point, early work on national role conception and operational code analysis incorporated culture as a significant filter for decision making. Operational code analysis is another early approach that had elements of culture as part of the decision making context. In addition, there are a few works that investigate culture and FP with a different focus than FPA. But perhaps one of the most notable elements of FPA studies exploring culture is the idea that it need not be viewed as explaining whatever cannot be explained by anything else. Instead of merely an alternative theoretical explanation of state behavior, use of culture in the post-Cold War revival and today reflects an effort not so much to refute neorealism but to look at different questions.

Keywords: culture, foreign policy analysis, FPA, foreign policy, Cold War, FPA studies, decision making


While previous generations of foreign policy analysis (FPA) tended to de-emphasize or ignore the role of culture, many articles and books in the subfield since the 1990s have investigated cultural influences. In the broader field of political science, scholars have struggled for decades with definitions of this concept, and it has been used in multiple ways (see Pye [1991] for a discussion). While “culture” in a general sense is the beliefs, traditions, and orientations within society about who “we” are and what “we” do, this essay addresses the definitional challenge. In fact, there are several conceptions of culture which have become dominant in FPA in particular: culture as the organization of meaning, culture as value preferences, and culture as templates for human strategy. What follows is, first, a brief background of the “return” of culture in the study of international relations (IR) and FPA, specifying the questions about culture and foreign policy (FP) that scholars have asked. A second section describes the foundations of this area of inquiry in the area of FPA. To place in relief treatment of the concept within FPA, a third section surveys the approaches taken in a few other subfields. It delineates how FPA is different and argues the “value-added” by exploring culture at the level of FPA. Fourth, the review turns to the current landscape of cultural analysis in FPA. The major approaches are categorized and attention is paid to particular methods that have been fruitful. Finally, possibilities for future directions are mentioned.

The Return of Culture

In her reviews, Hudson (1997; 2007) notes that the Cold War constraints of bipolarity left little room for idiosyncratic domestic-level variables such as culture to affect FP. Once systemic constraints lessened and the decision making milieu became more ambiguous, scholars increasingly turned to questions about culture and identity. Hudson and Sampson note that treating cultural analysis and power politics approaches as theoretical rivals is counterproductive. Instead, state of the art cultural analysis points out how culture is related to the ways in which power “is construed, used, and reacted to” (1999:668). Further, four central reasons for which scholars see the culture variable as worthy of study are outlined by Hudson and Vore: understandings of causality may be different for different cultures; cultures may have different techniques for resolving conflict (for example, the United States Institute of Peace Press has published several volumes exploring the role of culture in negotiation and conflict resolution); structures and processes of decision making may vary by culture; and conceptions of identity vary by culture (1995:227). With regard to the latter, the examination of the relationship between FP and culture leads analysts to ask how people within a state answer the questions, “Who are we?”, “What do we do?”, and “Who are they?”(Hudson 2007:104). One might also add, “And what does who they are mean for what we do?”

Besides the general reluctance in IR to open up the “black box,” even scholars of FPA shied away from treating the culture variable seriously, for several reasons. One concern arose from the association with “national character studies” in the 1940s and 1950s which devolved into negative stereotyping, according to critics (Hudson and Vore 1995:219; Lantis 2002:91). Second, culture has long been viewed as the turf of other disciplines, especially anthropology and sociology. The largest body of scholarship within political science dealing with culture was in comparative politics. For example, Lucian Pye’s work on culture and political development, especially in the Asian context, is often cited (for example, Pye 1965). Crossing the boundaries to investigate how cultural variables affect state behavior in the international system was less common.

Third, methodological challenges abound. Measuring culture as a variable is difficult not only because scholars were stymied by definitions that are too broad for precise measurement, but also because there has been a tendency to treat culture as a constant. The latter was often the problem with national character studies and is still seen in the broad outlines that Samuel Huntington drew in his Clash of Civilizations: the notion that certain cultures (Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, African) are likely to be opposed to others leaves no room for variation in cultural effects among a group of national decision makers or for change over time (Huntington 1993). In recent years, FP scholars have drawn on social psychology. The subfield of political psychology has suggested new methods for addressing measurement challenges.

Because the turbulence of the 1990s was related to the assertiveness of ethnic nationalism, IR scholars began to reconsider the significance of culture and identity. A steady growth of publications in the subfields of security studies (Katzenstein 1996; Lantis 2002), IR theory (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996), and FPA is obvious. As Hudson notes, in the late 1990s, three journals published special issues about culture and foreign or security policy: Political Psychology, Security Studies, and International Security (1999:767).

The Foundations: Early Approaches to the Study of Culture in FPA

Several of the classic frameworks of FPA provide initial thought about how to situate the culture variable by providing the idea of the “foreign policy context.” Different from Almond and Verba’s treatment of political culture as a society-wide variable only (“the specifically political orientations–attitudes towards the political system and its various parts, and attitudes toward the role of the self in the system” [1963:13]), these approaches give us the notion of culture as part of the “psycho-milieu” (Sprout and Sprout 1965) or Brecher’s idea of the “psychocultural environment” of the individual decision maker (1972). Thus, while one way of thinking of culture is indeed the beliefs, traditions, and orientations of an entire society, necessary to a full understanding of the FP decision making process is how these beliefs – this culture – affect an individual’s perception of a particular situation.

Using the classic frameworks as a jumping off point, early work on national role conception and operational code analysis, which are similar approaches to leader beliefs, incorporates culture as a significant filter for decision making. Holsti (1970) shows how elite conceptions of national role shaped FP choice. An individual leader’s role perception was determined in turn by many factors, several of which are clearly cultural variables (Holsti 1970: Figure 2, 245; Table 1, 255). For example, significant influences on role perception are the “cultural-ethnic composition of state,” “desire for ethnic unity,” and “sense of belonging to region” (1970: Table 9, 296–7). This approach, refined in recent studies discussed below, bridges the gap between the general beliefs in a society and the beliefs of FP decision makers.

Operational code analysis is another early approach that had elements of culture as part of the decision making context. George (1969) refined Leites’ framework that the latter had developed to look at the culture of decision making within the Soviet politburo. George’s well-known model asks five questions in each of two areas: philosophical and instrumental. For example: How likely is conflict? What is the leader’s sense of his power to change events? What is the best way to achieve goals? As George notes, “the way in which leaders of nation-states view each other and the nature of world political conflict is of fundamental importance in determining what happens in relations among states” (1969:190). Answers to the questions (which George developed in order to operationalize these perceptions) are rooted in one’s culture. The operational code gives us a sense of the “norms of behavior” that an individual has internalized and helps observers understand how elites from diverse political cultures see things differently. With both the national role conception and operational code frameworks, this author has indicated that certain aspects of the measures relate to culture, especially those related to distinctions between “us” and “them” and other items having to do with identity. The approaches’ focus on leader beliefs as a whole, however, should not be conflated with culture. Indeed, culture involves (among other things) beliefs about particular kinds of issues. Extensions of operational code analysis within the FP decision maker and strategic culture literatures form part of the current body of work.

Alternative Looks at Culture in IR: Placing FPA in Relief

It is helpful to note a few works that investigate culture and FP with a different focus than FPA. This exercise allows greater clarity about the domain of FPA and also puts in relief the progress made in the field. One category of works involves country- or region-specific analyses such as Culture and Foreign Policy: The Nigerian Example by Adefuye (1992). The author treats Nigerian culture as the driver of its FP, stating that identification with “fellow blacks all over the world dictated foreign policy postures” (1992:viii). He notes that for Africa FP is more “an extension of domestic policy rather than a series of reactions to situations in the international arena” (1992:8). Adefuye sees culture, not unlike work in FPA, as providing motives for human and group behavior, as well as providing criteria for evaluation (1992:6). Methodologically, Adefuye moves away from efforts in FPA by his level of analysis. Instead of specifying the linkages between decision makers and the more general culture of Nigeria, he asserts that the states’ affinity for Jamaica and other black states is based on similar cultural roots. Also, by conceptualizing culture as an unchanging factor this study is limited in any conclusions it can actually make about the role of culture as a variable.

Reviewing literature ranging from Thucydides to Kissinger about how national sentiment affects FP, another comparative politics study takes a more systematic approach to measurement. Ebel et al. (1991) define culture as political values, attitudes, and behavior. The national political culture is shaped by the elites’ “supraculture” and the masses’ “subculture” (1991:10, 22). The authors create their cultural theory by describing a list of Latin American traits and drawing out three broad cultural orientations. They then test propositions about the cultural roots of the general features of Latin American international behavior since 1945. The authors do not allow for variability of this culture over time or for much variation among the countries of Latin America; the focus is on the culture of a region as a whole, not the cultural aspects of the decision maker’s prism. Culture’s utility as an explanatory factor is limited by these broad strokes.

A third type of study treats culture in yet another way. Wilson’s Diversity and U.S. Foreign Policy pays attention to the various ethnic groups in America and how the existence of these multiple cultures impacts FP. An edited volume, its chapters look at many angles of this question, including interest group politics and decision makers’ ethnicities (2004). Hill (2007) takes a comparative view with similar questions. In “Bringing War Home: Foreign Policy Making in Multicultural Societies,” he investigates the influence of multiple cultures on a state’s FP. He concludes from a look at Britain, the US, and France that four problems can arise: special vetoes offered to particular groups, FP incoherence as the government tries to respond to the demands of particular groups, exacerbation of social tensions when groups in a society are on different sides of an issue, and having to walk a tightrope between the risk of treason and/or domestic terrorism and the development of a powerful security state to control cultural groupings (2007:269–70). Both the Wilson and Hill approaches get at the effects of having multiple cultures within a society yet, unlike FPA, they do not have the actor-specific, decision making focus which forces the analyst to clear up the vagueness of claims often made about culture.

Fourth, some studies investigate politicians’ uses of culture to manipulate particular groups to support their foreign policies. For example, Kline discusses how George Bush revived “culture war nationalism” after September 11, 2001, to forge an alliance between the religious right and neoconservatives to support security and economic initiatives in the fight against “evil” (Kline 2004). The instrumental use and manipulation of culture is a significant focus for FPA scholars, as well, though the goals in the latter subfield have been more self-conscious to develop a systematic framework for exploring these questions, as opposed to telling the story of the single case.

Within the subfield of IR theory, Shaffer and the contributors to her edited volume describe the limits of culture. The authors investigate the role of Islam, a “collective culture,” in shaping the foreign policies of the Caspian region and Central Asia (2006). Shaffer defines culture as “the force or group of forces that determines a predominant self-identity of a specific and sizeable collective of people” (2006:1).

In order to test the proposition that culture matters, they begin with the argument that culturally based goals should explain policy choice when these goals clash with basic material interests (2006:2). Shaffer’s discussion of the ways in which “official state culture” does not explain FP reveals exactly the intriguing questions that FPA scholars have been exploring recently. For example, she notes that the studies in the book illustrate how “official state culture does not necessarily limit foreign policy options. Leaders can stretch identities wide enough to allow a large variety of foreign policy options” (2006:4–5). As will be shown below, FPA advances have been looking at that question, that is: How do leaders posit notions of identity, which ones succeed in mobilizing the public, and why?

While these scholars find that “cultural affinity does not necessarily translate into political alliances and close cooperation” (2006:5), FP analysts have been working on frameworks with which to ask when it does and why. Shaffer concludes that culture will matter when material costs are few or unknown to decision makers, or when domestic constraints get in the way of pursuing a material agenda (2006:326–7). Without a theory of or methodological approach to decision making, the reader cannot evaluate the validity of such conclusions, however. Indeed, IR theorists often make conclusions at the decision making level without having used the appropriate tools to provide validity to those types of conclusions.

There are clear limits to this kind of analysis that treats culture so broadly, since the main focus for the Central Asian and Caspian region is Islam. Indeed, a conclusion of the book is, “religious identity should not be assumed to be the primary cultural influence affecting a regime’s identity or behavior” (2006:5–6). Instead of imposing what we think a subject’s culture is, or which aspects of a culture are most relevant, it is necessary to develop ways to investigate empirically those very questions. In the end, Shaffer notes, “Culture should be considered one among a number of factors that have varying impact on foreign policy outcomes, but it should not be approached as a constant and necessarily predominant factor. Analysts should be trained to approach the impact of culture on a case-by-case basis and to assess its impact.” She also points out that the cultural factors that are relevant may vary (2006:334–5). Because these scholars seek to address the discussion amongst IR theorists about the role of culture, they end where FPA begins instead of bringing to bear some of FPA’s actor-centered frameworks. Indeed, the argument of FPA since its founding is that such analysts must have theory-driven tools as they approach each case.

Finally, security studies experienced a revival of the concept with many scholars looking at a state’s “strategic culture.” The term was coined by Snyder in the 1970s, who brought the culture concept into security studies from the broader effort to theorize about political culture (Lantis 2002:87). His definition was “a set of semipermanent elite beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns socialized into a distinctive mode of thought” (Lantis 2002:104). Strategic culture was nearly unchanging (“semipermanent”) and shaped by history. In Russia, historic insecurity and authoritarian control predisposed Soviet decision makers toward preemptive, offensive uses of force (Lantis 2002:94). Also writing in the security studies area, Booth concluded, “Society and culture affect perceptual interpretation, motivation, behavioral norms, and the structure of man’s expectations; man organizes his cognition and perception of reality in terms of cultural meanings and values” (1979:144). This emphasis on cognition, perception, and motivation mirrors the kinds of questions asked in FPA. As with other approaches, the lack of rigorous methodology for identifying culture was a key criticism.

Well-known studies in the newer era, for example, are the chapters in Katzenstein’s edited volume, including work by Jepperson, Wendt, Katzenstein, Kier, and Johnston (Katzenstein 1996). Among the frequently cited is Johnston’s work, which suggests an orientation of “cultural realism” in China’s Ming dynasty (1995) and also in the Mao era (1996). He argues that his constructivist approach, showing how societal characteristics have created a realpolitik mindset among decision makers across vastly different structural contexts, explains a continuity for which classical realists and neorealists cannot account (1996:217; Lantis 2002:88). Johnston is exemplary of much other work in this area. As Hudson and Sampson (1999) and Lantis (2002) note, most of this literature sees culture as static and as a factor used to explain what power calculations cannot. Further, Johnston’s China studies look at societal texts: “the formative ‘texts’ of a particular society’s strategic traditions” (1996:222).

Kier’s study of culture and military doctrine argues that the behavior of militaries is shaped by their organizational culture, and she determines this culture with “an extensive reading of archival, historical, and other public documents” (1996:203). These methods are innovative and appropriate. However, missing is an appropriate “match” on the decision maker side. In other words, it is important to understand the culture that informs decision makers, but without a theory – and a method to sort out the observable implications of that theory – we cannot know which elements of the broader culture influence a particular individual’s decision. And crucially, unless the view of culture is deterministic, the research design and methods should be able to explore how a decision maker may be using cultural beliefs to persuade the broader society toward his or her view of the answers to those all-important questions: Who are we? What do we do? Who are they? What does that mean for us and what we do? In his synthetic review of strategic culture, Lantis notes the need to consider this instrumental aspect in security studies work: “elite behavior may be more consistent with the assertion that leaders are strategic ‘users of culture’ who ‘redefine the limits of the possible’ in key foreign and security policy discourses” (2002:107, quoting Cruz).

FPA and Culture: The Next Generation

Perhaps one of the most notable elements of FPA studies exploring culture is the idea that it need not be viewed as explaining whatever cannot be explained by anything else. In fact, Hudson and Sampson (1999) even titled their editor’s introduction to the Political Psychology special section, “Culture Is More than a Static Residual.” Instead of merely an “alternative theoretical explanation of state behavior” (Lantis 2002:90), use of culture in the post–Cold War revival and today reflects an effort not so much to refute neorealism but to look at different questions.

The contributions made in extant literatures about how a society’s culture shapes its general policy or strategic orientations and why those orientations may be unchanging because of culture are significant. And the fact that culture is, at some level, a collective phenomenon “not reducible to individuals” (Legro, quoted in Lantis 2002:100) should be recognized and addressed in any study. The uniqueness of FPA is its actor-centered approach (Hudson 2005). For that reason, the value-added in terms of cultural analysis is bringing the broad notions of culture closer to the definition of the situation, the actual process of making decisions, and the selling of decisions. Also, other subfields tend to ignore the fact that there are almost always battles to define a society’s culture and battles over defining what that culture means for “who we are” and “what we should do.” In terms of framing, how do decision makers use culture to move publics toward their positions? (Grove and Carter 1999). How does culture provide a resource to help in the scripting of certain culturally understood roles? (Hudson 2007). Indeed, cultural analysis within an FPA paradigm provides a way of looking at the relationship between elites and publics and seeing how that framing fits with the cultural context.

Turning to the newer generation, one could use the Hudson and Vore list cited above as an organizational device (understandings of causality may be different for different cultures; cultures may have different techniques for resolving/dealing with conflict; structures and processes of decision making may vary by culture; and conceptions of identity may vary by culture). One might also consider how culture is conceptualized. For example, Hudson looks at three approaches: culture as the organization of meaning, culture as shared value preferences, and culture as available templates for action (2007:108–10). In practice, it is difficult to classify most studies in either of these two ways. For example, taking the latter, tripartite framework, the organization of meaning has some purpose, usually related to action, so whether a study that looks at both should be put in the first or third category is unclear.

Though all share in common the basic notion that culture is about the beliefs and values of a society, there is no unified theory about it. This author does not see a problem with this lack of unified theory. Culture is a broad concept because “beliefs and values” are broad notions, thus we should expect a broad range of applications. The crucial points are that scholars are clear in their conceptualizations, employ research designs that are appropriate, and apply methodologies that target the indicated level of analysis. It seems simplest to approach the contemporary literature in terms of the kind of questions the study aims to answer. Two categories emerge. First, one category takes culture as an influence on the perceptions and thus behavior (in terms of FP choice) of a decision maker. Within this category, the analyst’s emphasis may be on the source of perceptions or, on the other hand, on how culture relates to the FP choice (so the emphasis may be at different points of the process). Second, the focus may be culture as a tool decision makers use to mobilize support. In the latter formulation, culture is most likely also an influence on the leader’s perceptions and policy choices, because often individuals are promoting policies or “definitions of the situation” that they truly believe in too. However, in this kind of study the emphasis is different.

This section will highlight a few notable works that are representative of each category. Drawing on Gaenslen’s admonishment, good research design is crucial for cultural explanations to be compelling; analyses should attempt to explain differences, consider alternative explanations, and aim to be explicitly comparative (though this latter goal can be achieved in multiple ways) (1997:276). Hudson also notes several “desiderata”: comparative analysis; subnational analysis; discourse analysis (looking at discourse between power nodes – what are rival or alternative stories and which win?); horizon analysis (what becomes possible and not possible from each competing story?); and interaction analysis (when two countries have different stories/definitions of the situation that are ascendant, how do they interact?) (2007). Most studies are not able to or do not have the goal of meeting all of these criteria. The primary effort in this part of the review is to note what role culture plays and how methodological tools are applied to analyze culture as a variable in actor-centered theory.

Culture and the Decision Making Process

First, culture affects the structures and processes of decision making. This category includes work on perception, cognition, and reasoning. Culture may affect decision making because it influences the organization of meaning; it may provide shared value preferences or available templates for action; and it may affect the ways in which individuals reason about FP problems. Advances in this arena include extensions of role theory and operational code analysis. Other notable works are included as well.

Breuning’s work on Belgian and Dutch aid policy investigates how different histories produce different cultures which in turn explain variation in behavior. Sampson (1987) and Sampson and Walker (1987) also look into how cultures come to think of their roles in particular ways. Breuning’s research design is appropriate to isolating culture as embodied in perceptions about historical role by choosing two states similar in their positions in the international environment, controlling for party politics, and controlling for the role individual ministers played in the foreign-assistance decision making process (1997). She argues that culture is embodied in “axiomatic beliefs” about three issues: the state’s relation to the international environment (actor versus subject orientation); the nature of the international environment (universalistic versus particularistic worldview); and rules of behavior (intent-based versus results-oriented) (1997:113). Although her framework is more nuanced and elaborate than can be described here, she uses a theoretically based content analysis of Dutch and Belgian parliamentary debates to determine cultural orientations. The Dutch see themselves as playing a more active role in international affairs, have a universalistic worldview, and see behavior as based in principles. In other studies, Breuning shows that these culture-based orientations affect FP behavior: the Dutch have a more generous foreign aid program than the Belgians.

While Breuning’s (1997) extension of early work on national role conception is more focused on the sources of decision maker’s perceptions, other extensions look at the other part of the equation, which is shaped significantly by culture: the effects of role conception on FP choice. Chafetz et al. (1997) argue that the idea of the national role helps us understand how national cultural characteristics translate into specific FP behaviors, in this case differences in Belarusian and Ukrainian behavior regarding the nuclear nonproliferation regime. They also create a research design that is laudable in its choice of cases, in which state behavior cannot be explained by other major theoretical approaches, and which show the effects of variation in culture across countries, and also within a country over time.

With quantitative content analysis of the highest-level decision makers’ statements using modified role categories from Holsti’s study, they find that Ukrainian leaders articulate role types the authors hypothesized as likely to have a tendency toward nuclear proliferation (for example, regional leader and global system leader), while Belarusian leaders articulate role types they hypothesized as likely to move away from nuclear proliferation (such as regional system collaborator and global system collaborator) (1997:188). When they look across time periods, they find that Ukraine slowly adopts the role of bridge between East and West, which helps explain a shift over time to comply with the nonproliferation regime (1997:191). This finding shows that aspects of culture are shaped by pressures from the external environment as well, which highlights that culture should not necessarily be seen as explaining phenomena that power cannot account for, but instead as part of understanding reactions to power.

Jones (2003) introduces the concept of global paradigms in his study of Georgia’s FP; this approach is similar to Chafetz et al. in that Jones argues that culture provides a guide to policy choice and its meaning. He defines political culture as the “values, perceptions and attitudes towards neighboring cultures and foreign states” (2003:84). He articulates four global paradigms in Georgia’s FP debates, which he defines based on historical themes and debates: religious identity (Georgian Orthodoxy), a Western identity, pan-Caucasianism (?), and anti-Russianism. Official documentary evidence illustrates the existence and the importance of these paradigms in elite thinking. Next, he discusses FP actions of two post–Soviet era leaders (Gamsakhurdia and Sheverdnadze), how they fit with and sometimes deviate from the expectations the global paradigms provide, and why. Though he recognizes the need to extend his study to allow for more specific conclusions, his discussion about how culture matters is admirable for its nuance. “Culture is an essential context for Georgian foreign policy,” but decision makers have had to compromise deeply held values at certain junctures (2003:104).

Indeed, it is necessary to understand how culture works within the context of power relations. Jones begins to get at this question, as well as the crucial one of how culture relates to the shaping of the “national interest.” Jones’ approach (if extended) has the potential to meet some of the desiderata put forth by Hudson: by starting to look at subnational comparisons of the same culture, his study is comparative; further, by highlighting the need to look at when policy choices diverge from culture’s predictions, he broaches interaction analysis (Hudson 2007:121–2).

Another collection of studies in this first category (the decision making process) looks more closely at the individual decision maker’s perceptions. Extensions of George’s operational code analysis are examples. These studies are made possible because of the advances of Walker et al. in creating a quantitative tool for textual analysis (Walker 1990; Walker et al. 1998; Young and Schafer 1998). The Verbs in Context System (VICS) analyzes a leader’s public statements in terms of the ten questions and locates a leader within the quadrants of the typology (Type A, B, C, or D leaders, which vary in terms of their rankings of specific policy strategies: settle, deadlock, dominate, submit). VICS provides values for six attributes of each verb and the context in which it is used: subject, verb category, domain of politics, tense of the verb, intended target, and context. Certain questions such as the leader’s image of the political universe, belief in the ability to control historical development, and the leader’s belief regarding the most effective strategy for achieving political goals are taken as most significant. With this tool, one can calculate strategies that may shift across different contexts. Walker et al. have created indices and mapped them onto the typology. Further, they have created a norming group of world leaders, so that a researcher can locate his or her subject leaders in terms of standard deviations from the means of the indices for the norming group (1998; Malici 2006:44–45). Two examples show specifically how this method is applied in cultural analysis.

A recent article in Foreign Policy Analysis provides a single-country approach, looking at Germany’s post-unification FP behavior (Malici 2006). Situating this study in the strategic culture literature, Malici argues that Germany’s cooperative multilateral behavior is contrary to realism and neorealism’s predictions; further, neoliberalism underexplains the source of this behavior (why does Germany enmesh itself in the network of institutions?). The explanation proffered is an FP culture of reticence: “a culture of restraint and accommodation that can be traced to well-defined sets of fundamental beliefs of German society as a whole and German political elites in particular” (2006:38). The author makes a connection between elites and the public by noting that the elites take positions of power in part because they put forth a vision of Germany’s identity and (tied to that) its role in the world which resonates with deep, cultural beliefs within the nation (2006:38).

The study of the culture’s effects is conducted in a comparative manner with five security episodes in the post–Cold War era as case studies. George’s confluence procedure is employed, which means that, across the cases, the analyst asks if there is correspondence between the explanatory variable and the policy outcomes one would expect given the observed value of the independent variable (Malici 2006:39). To measure culture, the author consciously aims for a systematic method which goes beyond the difficulties of dealing with ideational variables and thus uses VICS, which allows for shifts in policy by reference to culture. This method is a significant improvement on most work in strategic culture.

The analysis focuses on the statements of the chancellor and foreign minister in each of the five episodes; the goal is to locate the individual in the quadrants. If the German elites validate the hypotheses that there is a culture of reticence, the leaders will be Type A or Type C leaders, whose first preference is “settle.” With the exception of the war in Afghanistan, which the author argues may have muted cultural influences because the traumatic experience of September 11, 2001, contradicted the culture’s very tenets, German leaders’ behaviors in the four other cases are consistent with the hypothesis. Malici goes even further to investigate the ways in which situational factors may have played a role, and does this with MANOVA tests to see the relative impact of cultural variables and situational factors (here, whether the case occurs inside or outside Europe). He finds that geographic proximity did play a role in the elite’s decision making, but the effect was not strong enough to change the belief system. He also finds that “while individual German leaders may diagnose the political situation in different ways, they utilize strategies and tactics prescribed by the culture of reticence” (2006:56). This comparative, systematic approach that allows for change over time and for investigation of the role of situational factors is exemplary and fills many of the gaps in previous approaches to strategic culture aforementioned.

Another contemporary study enters the debate with a critique of the current state of the art in the strategic culture paradigm. Feng notes that Johnston’s approach to China’s “offensive realism” misses the fact that leaders’ beliefs may shift with context. By using a research design that ranks strategic preferences only for “self” and not providing for interactions with the “other” or for changes in the strategic environment, Johnston misses the dynamic relationship between culture and decision making (Feng 2005). By using VICS to analyze the relationship between leaders’ beliefs as influenced by strategic culture, Feng introduces more rigorous methodological tools to bring the measurement of cultural variables closer to the individuals making the decisions. Johnston’s approach cannot explain important episodes where China’s strategic behavior is better classified as defensive realism. For example, Feng investigates (using VICS) Mao Zedong’s public speeches during key episodes (the Korean, Sino-Indian, and Sino-Vietnam wars) to see if his belief system better reflects offensive or defensive strategic culture. After comparing the results to Johnston’s, the author shows how the operational code approach best predicts to the observed defensive strategies; Johnston’s analysis is only partially correct. In a later study, Feng elaborates on additional cases, including those involving current Chinese leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. By showing the interaction between beliefs, strategic culture, and FP behavior using rigorous methods and an appropriate comparative research design, Feng’s work within the field of FPA offers much potential.

Turning to another area of contemporary literature which focuses on the role of culture in the decision making process, Geva and Hanson highlight “sociocultural similarity” as a key variable explaining democratic peace. They set out to extend the perceptual approach to the democratic peace question by looking at “the effects of sociocultural factors and foreign policy behaviors on public perceptions of similarity with other nations and assess their implications for approval of the use of force” (1999:803). While the studies noted above looked at decision maker perceptions, note that here the focus is on the information processing of the public. The authors start with an intriguing point. All explanations of the democratic peace idea, whether structural, normative, or political, require that the adversary’s regime type be recognized as democratic or not. Thus, while perception by the leader and publics is crucial we know little about this difficult classification process. Drawing on literature from social psychology highlighting the role of perceived similarity in identifying with ingroups and outgroups, Geva and Hanson argue that cultural cues help publics determine whether or not the other state is a “good guy” (one of us) or a “bad guy” (one of them); a second set of factors is the actions of the other state compared to “our” actions (whether they tend to line up or not). The data they classify as cultural is partial information about the ethnicity, race, language, or religion of an adversary, which might be transmitted by television interviews of a nation’s representatives or by geographic information that triggers stereotypical inferences of that area (1999:805–9).

The authors employ an experimental design in order to focus on the decision making process – an appropriate method to get at the kind of questions they are asking. This design also forces the experimenters to be explicit about how they measure the culture variable. Subjects were given hypothetical scenarios about interstate regional conflicts that posed a chance for US military involvement or used the level of US involvement as an experimental manipulation. No information about the regime type of the target state was provided, but subjects were given cues about similarity or dissimilarity to the US. Based on previous work, they included Islamic/Arabic sociocultural features to prompt dissimilarity and Anglo-Saxon heritage, English language, and Christianity as prompts for the similarity condition (1999:811). They also varied the target nation’s actions as using either military force or economic sanctions against its neighbor. In a second experiment, they kept the target nation’s behavior the same (as invading its neighbor) and varied the American response (use of force to control the situation or imposition of severe economic sanctions). Geva and Hanson found that, more than actions, perceptions of similarity and dissimilarity are key factors in determining response. Indeed, these experiments provide evidence that the behavior involving the use of force by democratic states toward other states cannot be fully understood without including the role of culture.

The critiques of experimental methods in FPA are well known, notably the question of the generalizability of results to the “real world.” However, with this study the effort is to understand how cultural factors affect the judgment and then how they affect support for policy in an average member of the public; the methods are appropriate for the types of conclusions reached. The authors are sure to note the preliminary nature of the findings and point out the next steps to further understand the nuances that may come with variation of other aspects of context. Three directions stand out. First, these experiments used cultural information as a way to see if publics infer similarity or dissimilarity; future experiments should include both cultural information and regime type. Second, Geva and Hanson state that similar experiments should be conducted in different cultural environments to deepen understanding of how other cultures formulate the ingroup–outgroup distinction. Third, because the aspect of the experiments that manipulated FP actions of the adversary and the US showed some effects on approval of the use of force, they note the need to look at the effects of additional situational/contextual changes (1999:823). Indeed, they acknowledge that perhaps there are some situations extreme enough to negate the role of cultural similarity. While they have not addressed these items in this study, their work makes a significant contribution in providing a method to get at the processes through which culture has an effect and the conditions under which it is most significant.

Another experimental approach explores the ways in which individuals reason about FP problems. Sylvan et al. (1994) draw on extant work in psychology to posit three modes of reasoning that may be common in FP decision making: case-based, model-based, and explanation-based. Though the authors do not explicitly mention culture, because they develop a clear experimental design that could be used in different cultural settings and in fact the results show variations by type of decision making group (experts versus novices in political affairs), FPA scholars could systematically apply this method to delve more deeply into the effects of culture on the decision making process.

Culture as a Link between Elites and Masses

As noted above, a second category investigates culture as a tool: in the process of gaining political support for a policy or for their definition of the situation, elites make an effort to “tap into” the tenor of the times or mobilize a group by appealing to long-standing cultural values. As Gaenslen states, cultural explanations may be most relevant when the context makes collective identities salient or “makes possible their [elites’] mobilization of the collective identities of prospective political allies” (1997:267). In addition, cultural beliefs and values can provide “mental antidotes” to the challenge of uncertainty because they can serve as “sources of sociopolitical meaning and as guides to political action” (1997:268). It is these scope conditions that most scholars apply when working with the instrumental use of culture. Indeed, it is difficult to separate work on culture and work on identity in FPA. This is primarily because culture is about beliefs and values of one’s society, which are inherently tied to identity. This section will highlight work that explicitly addresses the links between culture and identity.

The idea of “national action templates” is an intriguing way of investigating not the individual decision maker as in the previous section but the other side of the equation – the potential cultural understandings to which elites might appeal: “what’s on the shelf,” so to speak (Hudson 1999:768). Action templates are a product of the history and experiences of a nation, as well as of the interaction with other states or entities over time; they are indicators of a society’s culture. In her exploratory study of action templates among citizens in Russia, Japan, and the US, Hudson states, “A nation’s culture includes many things, and among those things are generalized expectations about how that nation (through its leaders) will react in certain foreign policy situations. These expectations are what we call action templates” (1999:770). In an effort to look beyond other research that finds templates in elite-produced textual sources, Hudson uses an experimental design in which she compares responses of groups of people (graduate students) in each society who are provided with realistic FP scenarios and a list of FP options. Subjects read the scenarios and were asked to rate which options their government would likely choose, and also what the other two cultures might do in those situations. She found much agreement within cultures about what they and “the others” would do in given situations, though the ability to identify the action templates did vary across cultures. Given these results, Hudson argues that this line of research merits further study (1999:781). Indeed, this study advances the effort to understand the culture variable in FPA because it puts forth an empirically testable argument about culture. Development of this approach provides a methodologically sound way to get at how people perceive their own culture and what that national culture means for particular situations.

Several approaches to the instrumental uses of culture have focused on specific cases where elites attempt to gain support. One example is Lotz’s use of the “myth” concept to explain how Vice President Gore won over public opinion on NAFTA during a debate on Larry King Live on November 9, 1993. He argues that politicians use stories to put forth their perspectives on issues; when the stories draw on “historic memories pertaining to values and symbols,” he labels them myths. Myths are not necessarily fictitious or true. Myths serve the purpose of helping people in society “produce a common interpretation of the world in a situation where many individuals possess little information.” Especially when politicians have to compete for support from the public, they will appeal to society’s core values in these myths (1997:73). Unlike the national character studies, he does not analyze the origins of a culture or myth but focuses on identifying its existence to evaluate its effects on FP. A central question in this kind of study is how we can understand which myth, or which depiction of culture, wins when both politicians appeal to different myths.

This methodological approach allows him to do what he sets out to do at the appropriate level of analysis. Lotz conducts a content analysis of the Gore–Perot debate. Using explicit rules about coding, he defines three myths: American Dream, American Exceptionalism (which has two variants: Isolationism and Leadership), and Populism. He finds that Gore used the American Dream much more frequently than Perot, whose most frequent myth was Isolationism. Lotz argues that, since the American Dream is the most central American myth, Gore’s more frequent use of it resonated more with the public. The author then goes on to look at public opinion before and after the debate, which shifted from 34% support before to 57% after the debate. Opposition stayed similar at 38% before to 36% after the debate; most support came from the “no opinion” category, moving from 28% to 7% (1997:90). Lotz argues that nearly 75% of undecided voters had followed Gore’s argument, and most members of Congress who announced support of NAFTA after the debate cited Gore’s performance. Beyond the provision of a methodology to get at what kind of rhetoric is most likely to win debates for American politicians, Lotz makes a contribution to understanding the instrumental use of culture by acknowledging the importance of looking at the battle to define culture. “Culture” in earlier generations was so often treated not only as static over time, but as decided, agreed upon, uncontroversial. In fact, especially in periods of uncertainty, it is the true political battleground.

Wilkening’s study of Japan’s response to acid rain is another example of seeing culture as a toolkit, here a “toolkit of environmental ideas” (1999). In this case the study takes culture as a toolkit of the masses, who then pressure elites to take up a particular issue. Culture is a “huge collection of knowledge/feelings in the collective mind and heart of a group of people that can be drawn upon relative to any situation. Also, the collection is always changing.” Wilkening notes that seeing culture as a resource emphasizes the fact that there is a vast amount of material to draw upon and there are multiple ways of drawing on it. When analyzing a specific issue, we have to ask what ideas are being drawn on and how (1999:705). In his exploration of the role of culture in Japanese discourse about environmental policy, Wilkening treats culture as part of the organization of meaning about environment and acid rain, as advancing understanding about shared value preferences in Japanese society, and as a provider of templates for action in the environmental arena.

The methodology of discourse analysis is an appropriate tool to use in this study, since the author really is trying to get at the way culture affects the Japanese public’s influence on that government’s FP about acid rain. He describes how thinking about and measuring acid rain became a national obsession, which is visible in news media, public action campaigns, and haiku. By looking at the role rain and forests play in the Japanese psyche, the fact that the dominant discourse portrays acid rain as a threat to traditional symbols of Japanese heritage, and the fact that acid rain is seen as a potential tragedy, he shows how culture is one factor accounting for the Japanese public’s “surprisingly unified support for regulation of the domestic portion of the problem and for pursuit of cooperation on the international portion” (1999:709). He argues that the sentiment (shaped by culture) that is visible in the public discourse gets transmitted via the media to the bureaucrats who are pushed to deal with the problem.

The idea of using analysis of public discourse to get at dominant cultural ideas is intriguing. Along with Wilkening’s use of it to map the way culture influences the public’s thought, one can envision this approach as a method to specify the constraints and opportunities encountered by elites trying to appeal to cultural values for support. However, there are a few shortcomings in the method used here (somewhat similar to those noted for Kier’s study), improvements on which could provide FPA scholars with a more generalizable, more widely applicable method. First, the analysis of discourse is not systematic. Clear answers to several questions should be specified: Which texts or behaviors should be analyzed in assessing the dominant discourse? Is there a reliable way to decide, if there are competing themes, which constitute the dominant and which the dissenting discourses (as Lotz does in his content analysis method of speeches; though discourse analysis is different in that it is at the societal level, it should be able to confront similar questions)?

Second, in this case the author comments that there is widespread consensus in the Japanese public; he does not provide suggestions about how analysis might proceed if there are competing ideas present in the discourse (using culture in different, opposing ways). Third, research about the role of culture in a given case is least convincing when it is not comparative. His purpose here was more to be illustrative of a cultural approach than to present a conclusive, generalizable study. Future work should look at the same questions within Japan over time, compare the acid rain case with other cases of environmental policies in Japan, or compare Japanese cultural effects on acid rain policy with the effects of culture within another society. Finally, Wilkening’s piece is weakest in the link between the public’s view and the influence the public has on policy. Very little time is devoted to this at all, yet one of the most crucial questions for FPA scholars seeing culture as instrumental (whether as a tool for the elite to manipulate the masses or as a tool for the masses to push elites) is the way the two come together. Indeed, this is also one of the most difficult questions.

Addressing the linkage between elite and mass views is a core focus in public opinion research. Thus it is not surprising that FPA scholars might draw on political psychological work in the field of public opinion when investigating instrumental uses of culture – specifically the concept of framing. Grove and Carter (1999) offer a systematic method to explore the ways in which leaders compete to ground in a group’s culture their definitions of “who we are” and what that means for “what we do.” Focusing on communal conflicts which often take the form of struggles for self-determination (here, the Northern Ireland case), Grove and Carter (1999) begin with the notions that: (1) cultural factors are central to how nations define their goals and their group boundaries (the “self” that seeks “determination”); (2) especially when conditions are uncertain, leaders within nations compete to define who that “us” actually is; and (3) a collective’s culture (a shared system of meaning) changes over time through interaction with others and in response to context but our theories about culture are predominantly static.

The authors see three dimensions of a cultural explanation: culture plays a role in the leader’s framing of the group’s identity; culture plays a role in the leader’s framing of the definition of the situation or the “culture of the conflict”; and culture plays a role when it comes to external influences, since third parties react based on culture and those reactions can then boost or undercut a particular leader’s message (1999:727–8). Understanding these phenomena is a necessity for policy makers in third-party states and international organizations, “who must decide whether and how to intervene in conflicts involving issues of national identity” (1999:726).

The authors use a content analysis method to demonstrate how John Hume and Gerry Adams’ rhetoric prior to crucial elections “was the site of debate over group culture” during two crucial periods in the Northern Ireland conflict, and they track how “differences in the rhetoric reflect different cultures of the conflict” (1999:726). There are two parts to the content analysis for the independent variable. The first deals with the group identity, and is based on the social psychological concepts of social identity and optimal distinctiveness (Brewer 1991). The authors create a method to specify the “identity profile” of the group as depicted in leader statements; essentially, they aim to capture self-identified cultural markers. Specific labels that leaders in Northern Ireland might use when describing both the ingroup and the outgroups are listed. Though the labels are specific to this case, the method is actually generalizable because the labels (“group references”) are arrayed on a continuum from more inclusive conceptions of the group to more exclusive conceptions (“group delineation”). The “identity strategy” used by each leader can therefore be specified similarly in any case. The second aspect of the content analysis focuses on the second way, noted above, in which culture is important – the culture of the conflict. Grove and Carter (1999) provide a detailed content analysis method for measuring the primary definition of the situation a leader puts forth in his statements (this method is developed in Grove [2001]).

They argue that which actor’s concept of the group identity and mission resonates with the public can be measured through electoral shifts, especially because, in these cases, the elections were widely viewed as referenda on the very issues of “who we are” and “what we do.” Indeed, “by showing this move away from one leader and toward another, we show how aspects of the audience’s ideas of culture changed” (Grove and Carter 1999:727). Thus is presented a way of measuring systematically both the independent variable of leader framing of culture and the dependent variable of the predominant notions within the public discourse about the group’s culture (in the form of identity and mission). The third notion of culture listed above – the external dimension – provides for understanding how the external context affects leaders’ efforts to mobilize the public around their notions of identity and mission. Indeed, culture is not at all static and is not solely determined by internal debates; foreign actors can behave in ways that privilege one leader’s framing over another’s. Hudson (2007:122) points out that this study achieves all five desirable characteristics she recommends. At least, it proposes a systematic method that is replicable in other studies applicable to other kinds of cases/contexts, is comparative, is capable of dealing with contested notions of culture, is able to measure the dynamic nature of culture, and proposes some way of theorizing the linkage between elites’ instrumental efforts and the public discourse about what the dominant culture is (and what it means).

Future Directions

Several scholars have recently written about the current state of FPA as a whole, and in that context have touched on continuing gaps or potential future directions. Some of those thoughts are applicable to the study of culture. In a 2003 symposium in International Studies Review edited by Jean Garrison, Kaarbo mentions the need to return to being comparative (2003:157). This is especially important to the advancement of work dealing with the cultural variable because it is so difficult to pinpoint the role of culture as separate from other variables. Unlike the view taken by international relations theorists that culture is more of a residual category useful for explaining puzzles for neorealism (for example), most of the contemporary work in FPA has shown that culture is part of how actors interpret their contexts, including power and other structural factors. As a recent text by Breuning (2007) has as its fundamental premise, without rigorous comparative studies, it is not possible to make conclusions about the conditions under which culture has particular influences.

Kaarbo also highlights the fact that research on identity and FP should draw more on psychology. This argument also applies to research on culture and FP. As with identity (and because of its links to identity), culture “remains a fundamentally psychological concept in that it concerns the ways in which people (or states) view themselves […] Because identity [and culture] is social in nature, it concerns the self in relationship with others – the very topic of social psychology” (2003:160). Indeed, psychology’s emphasis on the individual level of analysis and how social contexts have influence on the individual may offer FPA scholars looking at decision making appropriate methodological tools. Even though it is crucial to acknowledge that culture is a social phenomenon, how it affects the decision making process is through individuals. More adaptation of experimental design methods to appropriate research about culture is needed, such as the extension of the Geva and Hanson study.

Kaarbo also draws attention to one of the gaps noted: “the connection between elites and mass identities and the influence processes between the masses is usually assumed” (2003:162). As Grove and Carter (1999) and Grove (2001) begin to do, Kaarbo advises drawing on work in other areas of FPA to address when elite and mass identities (and, here, conceptions of culture) conflict with each other. Specifically, one may look toward work on public opinion’s influence on leaders, leaders’ manipulation of public opinion, and government structures that link societal groups and leaders (2003:162).

Schafer’s contribution to the symposium recommends expanding the repertoire of empirical techniques, specifically with computer-based textual assessment, state-level psychology, and experimental methods (2003:174). This review highlighted several of these methods in several cutting-edge cultural analyses (such as the VICS advancement and the experimental methods of Geva and Hanson). Other studies reviewed here also use content analysis, but Schafer makes an excellent point: most content analysis schemes are not computer-based and therefore take a great deal of time and energy. We make calls for comparative work, especially testing initial schemes on more cases, yet many studies end up being one-shot deals because researchers do not want to invest more painstaking effort in coding speech after speech. The potential for theoretical advancement, especially in terms of moving forward our understanding about the role of context, is evident, however, by the example of VICS. As Schafer notes too, the much faster nature of machine coding offers scholars a chance to investigate construct validity. Because it takes so long for human coding, scholars have paid less attention to whether the operationalization of specific concepts is appropriate (2003:175).

In mentioning the need to focus on state-level psychology, Schafer points out that computer coding of psychological characteristics can address societal variables such as national mood, national role conceptions, ideology, strategic culture, and norms. “Using output from the media, Internet, web [sic], party platforms, ads, and pamphlets, for instance, we could begin to assess not only what the public is being urged to believe but also the effect that such information appears to be having on the public.” He specifically mentions the kind of work by Grove (2001); computer-aided coding would indeed enable analysts to view the role of culture and identity over a wider range of contexts if the central methodological tool made the empirical work faster, easier, and more reliable.

Schafer also calls for more experiments. Indeed, because experiments are especially useful for isolating causal effects (2003:176), cultural analyses using experimental design would contribute greatly to our understanding of the role culture plays in the decision making process. For example, Geva and Hanson (1999) were off to a good start in showing the significance of cultural factors for understanding democratic peace. Extending this work in the ways they and this author have suggested would allow a deeper understanding of how culture matters in various contexts. Finally, Schafer notes the need for methodological pluralism. Indeed, this call applies as much to the study of the culture variable as to other variables that are common in FPA. As this essay has noted, there are many methods that show promise: content analysis, discourse analysis, experimental design, comparative case study (usually using one of the other methods). But, as Schafer suggests, the investigation of a particular variable could be strengthened by looking at the question from another angle with another method, when appropriate. Still, perhaps the biggest need now is to apply methods that have been useful for a particular case to additional cases so that we work toward generalizability about when and how culture matters in the making of FP. This may help address three of Hudson’s goals for a research agenda (1997): determining (1) the extent to which cultural factors affect any given FP; (2) how cultural differences lead to predictable patterns of interaction and under what conditions we expect culture to be more important in IR; and (3) how we recognize and evaluate change in culture.


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