Cultural Relativism and International Relations

Loulwa Wright

Cultural issues are central to a range of international debates, including those concerning nationalism, autonomy, identity politics, and democratic incentives. Arguably, such matters require a degree of cultural sensitivity, particularly when external organisations and governing bodies are brought into the equation.

However, it is debatable whether cultural relativism actually benefits international relations in practice, or whether it merely serves as a theoretical hindrance to universalised action. Questions surrounding relativism, theory and practice are familiar ground for anthropologists, who have already contributed to debates on public policy, cultural diplomacy and development. This article intends to raise questions about universalised identity, and bring anthropological approaches into the discussion of these issues.

The relativist approach has come to be taken for granted amongst anthropologists today, as an awareness of positionality and representation has greatly affected ethnography since the 1980s. Conceptually, Anthropology has a lot to contribute to International Relations, not least in its interest in what ties people together. With respect to international organisations, such as the UN and the EU, the incentives for membership are arguably not solely economic or political. The communitarian nature of these organisations forms a large part of their appeal for many people, and the ‘international community’ is prominent in the rhetoric of global politics. A cross-cultural approach has many benefits in providing new perspectives on key issues, as well as prompting us to revaluate our assumptions and preconceptions. This approach also allows us to problematize conceptions of the ‘international community’ as a whole, and whether it is a realistic conceptual framework.

Benedict Anderson coined the concept of ‘imagined communities’ in his book of the same name. Through his discussion of the origins and spread of nationalism, Anderson illustrates how political communities are socially constructed, to the extent that this ‘imaginary’ becomes a driving force for state formation and political movements. The international community can be considered in the same way, arguably even more so as it extends beyond the tangibility of geography and human population. In light of this, the imaginary of the ‘international community’ is rather precarious, and an appeal to human solidarity perhaps cannot sustain cohesive international policy. To impose universal legislation, as well as political and economic policy, is an extremely complicated task in the international context. Arguably, this is where cultural relativism may bring useful perspectives. 

In order to achieve practical solutions for international conflicts, the international community has imposed standardised laws. An example of this is Article 2.4 in the United Nations Charter, which denies the use of force or threat between member nations. The internationally imposed criteria for a ‘just war’ also assert a standardised formula for international relations. In the case of war and conflict, ethical relativism has been disregarded by universally imposed regulations, some would say rightly so; arguably, you cannot compromise on issues concerning human life. However, the anthropologist might suggest that a divergence in worldviews, political traditions, and ethical systems across cultures render such standardisations problematic. Tensions in international relations and conflict resolution processes may arise from such differences, and discussions may be more productive if we take a step back from strict universal norms. However, one could argue that by joining organisations such as the UN, nations forfeit their right to values and standards that differ from those imposed by the central authority. While this may be true, the reality is that conflict arises in local spheres, according to local contexts, no matter what the overarching authority dictates.

The ‘international’ cannot exist independently from the ‘national’ or the ‘local’. Moving away from discussions about war and conflict, the particularities of local contexts, both historically and culturally, must feature prominently in broader international relations. Anthropologists should certainly not act as apologists for ethically unsound political regimes, or war criminals, but it is worth bearing in mind the consequences of imposing universal norms on an extremely diverse international ‘community’. The imaginary of the ‘international’ can only support so much cohesion, and has limited practical power. A relativist approach is essential to any form of international relations that wishes to maintain productive and effective discussions between disparate nations, cultures and peoples.