Universal values, particular interests and the role of cross-cultural dialogue in international security
Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org
Faced with the threat and reality of war across the globe, the Enlightenment promise of ‘perpetual peace’ (as in the memorable phrase of Immanuel Kant) appears today to be as remote or utopian as at any point since 1989 or perhaps even 1945.
Neither ideology nor national interest seems capable of providing some common ground on which states and non-state actors can build a minimum of consensus and cooperation.
Instead, ever deeper divides are forming along long-established fault lines, and the world is confronted with the real prospect of sliding inexorably into conflict – not just in Europe but also in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Amid rabid nationalism, hypocritical double standards and mutual vilification, it looks as if we haven’t learned very much from the events of 1914 when Europe embarked on a nearly suicidal civil war from which it may never properly recover.
In my previous essay, I argued that the foundational assumption, which underpins both academic research and public policy, is twofold: first, that both values and interests inherently clash and, secondly, that conflict is an inescapable fact of both national politics and international relations.
In this essay, I outline a broad, conceptual framework for cross-cultural dialogue that can help address new approaches to current security challenges. The aim is to formulate some ideas and mechanism designed to enable countries to pursue their legitimate interests while also acknowledging their respective norms.
What can bind together specific interests and norms is a redefinition of universal values – away from formalistic standards and procedure towards universal principles that are embodied in particular practices.
2. Three rival conceptions of universal values
Currently there are two diametrically opposed conceptions of values that dominate debates in politics and international affairs. First, that there is a single set of objective universal values which are exemplified by democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Second, that there is no such thing as objective universal values because judgements of right and wrong are reducible to subjective preference, taste and opinion – often linked to cultural diversity and difference.
On closer inspection, the two conceptions are far more similar that they first appear to be. Both suggest that values reflect certain interests or concerns and that these differ either between different cultures, or within cultures over time, or within cultures among the generations, or all at once.
Both also eschew notions of substantive goodness, beauty or truth in favour of either formalistic, procedural standards or matters of personal perception and emotion.
Finally, both view reason in largely instrumental terms and view will as more primacy, as we project our ideas into the world and imagine that that they constitute reality.
However, there is a third conception that can overcome the limits and shortcoming of these two accounts while also defending both the universality and the particularity of principles. Indeed, some values are trans-historical and universal.
According to anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and ethicists, human beings everywhere demand fair treatment and resent humiliation. Humans also seek not only power and wealth but also a measure of social recognition – both self-esteem and regard by others. And across cultures over time and space, humans dislike betrayal and disloyalty.
These are all pro-social values, for we are social animals, as ancient, medieval and Renaissance thinkers all taught us. Human predisposition to pro-social values is linked to our linguistic ability, as both these characteristics are about regulating life in society.
In short, there is no sociality without certain shared rules of behaviour that are not purely formalistic and procedural but extend to certain substantive notions of right and wrong or indeed good and evil. Crucially, anthropology has documented how human cultures and societies are governed by gift-exchange, which is more primary than right or contract, and by forms of taboo – absolute ethical boundaries that cannot be transgressed without social stigma.
However, these timeless values or perennial principles are not identical over time and space. Rather, they evolve because the way we apply and implement changes. In other words, the operationalisation of universal values introduces something else into the equation – particular norms. As a result, different cultures can attach great importance to honour, but the meaning of honour in relation to individual or social behaviour can differ fundamentally. For instance, anthropology distinguishes between shame and guilt cultures.
3. Values and norms
The distinction between values and norms in politics and international relations was developed by the late Philip Windsor, a scholar in the field of strategic studies. In his essay entitled ‘Cultural Dialogue in Human Rights,’ Windsor searched for a way in which different cultures could engage in a dialogue on the divisive issue of human rights. He determined that the potential for dialogue rested upon the distinction of norms and values. He wrote
All cultures depend on translating certain underlying values into the norms of social behaviour. For the most part they promptly proceed to confuse the two; so that any criticism of a given social norm is regarded as an attack on the values which it is supposed to represent. Yet toleration implies respect for other people’s beliefs and values, without necessarily implying that the social norms should be condoned. [I]
Because for Windsor a norm is a cultural expression of a value, it is defined in terms of a dialectic with values. As such, norms are related to behaviour rather than cognition. But norms are not regulatory of behaviour – they are neither ‘enabling’ nor ‘constraining’ action. Norms are action based on certain values.
So certain countries, cultures and civilizations may share certain values such as respect for the elderly, hospitality afforded to strangers or a sense of patriotic pride. However, these countries, cultures or civilisations may ‘normatise’, ‘operationalise’ or enact these values in very different ways. There is not one set of norms to which these countries ascribe. Rather, the term ‘norm’ denotes diverse expressions or interpretations of a shared value at any given moment in time or over different periods of time.
Thus, norms are culturally determined and therefore differ across diverse cultures. Often dialogue breaks down or does not take place at all because different participants in the dialogue confuse norms with values: they assume absolute, unbridgeable differences in values when in fact it is a matter of divergent interpretations within a similar set of values that are close to universal.
For instance, countries clash about the meaning of international law – with some countries (in some circumstances) privileging the protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which strictly limits foreign intervention, whereas other countries (in other circumstances) emphasise national self-determination and the new UN doctrine Responsibility to Protect, which can justify external intervention.
Of course both sides in a debate about the pros and cons of intervening militarily will tend to trade mutual recriminations about hypocrisy and double standards. However, the fundamental premise that a divergence on values lies behind a clash of cultures or even civilisations is often false. Rather, it’s a culturally determined, different enactment of the same value that explains divergent behaviour.
4. Becoming who we could and should be
Windsor’s work is important for a culture of peace through dialogue for another reason. If cultures determine the enactment of universal values into particular norms, then it follows that norms are not fixed or static but rather fluid and dynamic. In broad conceptual terms, we can say that norms are in a state of becoming or unfolding rather than being or essence. As a result, Windsor’s conception of cultural dialogue assumes that cultures are in a dynamic state of becoming rather than in a fixed state of being.
In this sense, culture are not identical or the same. But it is also the case that each culture has its own virtues and vices, that cultures can fall and also redeem themselves and that cultures can either aspire to uphold their own best traditions or betray their most noble legacy.
In other words, there is no innate superiority or supremacy of one culture over all others. But nor is there a total cultural equivalence. There are certain perennial principles such as a desire for fair treatment and social recognition and taboos concerning humiliation, betrayal and disloyalty.
For the purposes of dialogue, this means that countries need to be respectful about each other’s legitimate interests, in particular vital security interests. They must also have knowledge and understanding about each other’s cultural specificity, i.e. the way in which particular norms reflect and embody universal values.
Above all, countries need to be honest about how and why their culture falls short of its own best traditions. To foster dialogue and peace, it is also necessary for all countries to be committed to becoming what they could and should be.
5. Brokering peace out of conflict
One foundational myth of modern politics and international affairs is that conflict within and between states is unavoidable. Among the reasons given there is rival national interest, scare resources and selfish, greedy individuals or states that clash with other selfish, greedy individuals or states.
However, all these reasons are nothing more than presuppositions in theory. Nor does the historical and contemporary reality of conflict and violence justify those assumptions. For it is the institutions and practices of modern politics which have produced in practice the circumstances which it originally and arbitrarily assumed in mere theory.
All of history is contingent, so there are no laws about inescapable conflict or violence. Rather, it is the Hobbesian and Lockean idea of a violent ‘state of nature’ that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For if that is indeed the case, then the natural – or in fact naturally assume – anarchy requires regulation by the ‘visible hand’ of the central national state and the ‘invisible hand’ of the global free market. In this manner, natural anarchy legitimates state and market coercion.
Therefore the only alternative account is to reject the claim that the order of being is foundationally violent and that concomitantly international society is fundamentally anarchic – a global ‘war of all against all’ that mirrors the violent ‘state of nature’ at the national level.
That is because the most primary ties, bonds, and connections between human beings are not confined to national borders. They are transnational and indeed universal: language, cultural customs, music, art, literary modes, fashions in manners and dress as well as religion.
Therefore, one key reason why different countries do not wage war all the time against one another is the widely-diffused sense of shared culture and common sensibility, which (in an age of global communications technology) can stretch even across vast geographical distances. Edmund Burke put this well:
Men are not tied to one another by papers and seals. They are led to associate by resemblances, by conformities, by sympathies. It is with nations as with individuals. Nothing is so strong a tie of amity between nation and nation as correspondence in laws, customs, manners, and habits of life. They have more than the force of treaties in themselves. They are obligations written in the heart. They approximate men to men, without their knowledge, and sometimes against their intentions. The secret, unseen, but irrefragable bond of habitual intercourse holds them together even when their perverse and litigious nature sets them to equivocate, scuffle, and fight, about the terms of their written obligations. [II]
In other words, Burke inverts the modern primacy of rights and contracts by arguing that the mutual moral obligations of interpersonal relations are more primary than abstract, formal, and procedural standards linked to activities for either state-administrative or market-commercial purposes. Crucially, this extends to ties across nations and sovereign states, which suggests that the family of nations and peoples embeds the society of states and markets.
Against both the realism of Hobbes and Herder and the cosmopolitanism of Rousseau and Kant, Burke argues that “[…] common-wealths are not physical but moral essences. They are artificial combinations, and, in their proximate efficient cause, the arbitrary productions of the human mind […]”. [III] Here it is crucial to note that by ‘artificial combinations,’ he means human habit and creativity that blends nature with culture – the order of being with the order of knowing and ‘making’.
In this manner, ‘customs, manners, and habits of life’ provide the bonds and ties that infuse the immanent political order with a transcendent, cosmic outlook. Such a Burkean perspective shifts the focus from an artificial commonwealth that coercively regulates natural violence to a natural-cultural commonwealth that upholds peace beyond rivalry. It is the principle of association that underpins the alternative to both bio-political coercion and impersonal contract.
6. Conclusion: The primacy of association
Based on associative commonwealths, globalisation has the potential to promote a plural search for the shared common good and substantive ends that can mediate between the individual and the collective will and thus help bind together members of diverse bodies and polities. It challenges the view that the incommensurability of rival values either requires central sovereign power to arbitrate conflict or else leads to a fragile modus vivendi – a situation in which peaceful coexistence merely regulates a violent state of nature that rules out the ontological possibility of a just, harmonious order.
To suggest that competing values are incommensurable (especially in the late modern context of multiculturalism and the global clash of fanatical faiths) is to assume that different values have equal claim to normative validity and that no hierarchical ordering can command popular assent. In the absence of higher-order universal principles from which particular norms derive their moral character, general values such as freedom, equality and security constitute their own foundation and finality.
However, no value is valuable in itself or as such, not even ancient liberties or modern human rights. Values are valuable because they originate from an ‘invaluable’ source and because they are ordered towards an equally ‘invaluable’ end – a transcendent principle that provides an intelligible account of what is valuable and how it ought to be valued, blending the empirical with the normative.
For example, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person underpin the principles of liberality like fair detention, fair trial or habeas corpus that are central to notions of freedom, equality and security.
In short, the modern promise of ‘perpetual peace’ is linked to a set of ideas, institutions and practices that assume a violent ‘state of nature’ and then bring about violence through a combination of market anarchy and state coercion.
By contrast, a proper culture of dialogue assumes that human cultures and societies are capable of peaceful co-existence insofar as they share some fundamental perennial principles. Culturally determined norms enact those universal values differently, which can lead to conflict, but this is a contingent, avoidable process, not a necessary, inevitable outcome.
[I] See Philip Windsor, ‘Cultural Dialogue in Human Rights’, in Hagihara et al. (eds.), The End of the Century: The Future in the Past (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995)
[II] Edmund Burke, ‘Letters on a Regicide Peace’ [extract], in International Relations in Political Thought: Texts From the Ancient Greeks to the First World War, ed. C. Brown, T. Nardin and N. Rengger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 292-300 (quote at p. 296).
[III] Ibid., p. 293.