News - Caspian Studies Program

The Limits of Culture: Islam, Foreign Policy, and the Caspian

I. Brenda Shaffer: “Introduction of Research Questions”

Shaffer opened the conference by outlining the project’s basic theoretical framework. According to Shaffer, Western policymakers usually utilize a “material interest” approach when determining the motivations behind states’ behavior in the sphere of international relations—an approach that takes into account a state’s security concerns, economic interests, and overall desire for self-preservation.

When analyzing the Caspian region, however, these same Western policymakers tend to abandon most of their methods of analysis and rely extensively on explanations that hinge on culture. The popularity of recent works of political science that argue that culture is the strongest determining factor at work in international relations during the post-Cold War era has further contributed to the emphasis on “culturalist” explanations of foreign policy.  The most influential of these works has been Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.

According to Shaffer, there are at least two significant aspects of Caspian foreign policy that do not conform to culturalist explanations. First, the Islamic Republic of Iran frequently makes political decisions that are very much at odds with the state’s self-proclaimed Islamist identity. Second, in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, many policymakers assume the fault lines in this contested region run along Christian and Islamic lines.  In reality, the issues involved in this particular dispute actually have very little to do with religion or “ancient hatreds.”

II. Markus Fischer: “Culture and Foreign Politics”

Fischer described the dilemma in international relations that has emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. With Western liberal rationalism’s triumph in the Cold War, will this system—along with its free markets and notion of respect for the rights of the individual—be adopted by states throughout the world? Or will it generate a strong antagonistic reaction, based on different societies’ desire to preserve their cultural distinctiveness? In considering this question, Fischer made a distinction between “modernization” and “Westernization.” Societies could, theoretically, adopt principles and aspects of modernization—such as innovations in science and technology—without necessarily adopting Western values—such as liberalism’s belief in the autonomy of the individual.

III. Doug Blum: “The Interests of State in Relation to Culture”

Blum’s presentation focused on the ways in which states engage in acts of “cultural production” through the process of nation building.  As far as the state is concerned, Blum explained, culture typically tends to follow from a regime’s policy goals, rather than the other way around.  In order to illustrate this point, Blum brought up the example of Central Asian and Caspian states that have held elections and conducted democratic rituals in order to gain admission into the Council of Europe and (hopefully) into other European and Western political and economic groups.

IV. John Schoeberlein & Brenda Shaffer: “Religion and Foreign Policy”

The panel on the impact of religion (and particularly Islam) on Caspian states’ respective foreign policies featured a presentation by John Schoeberlein on foreign policy dynamics in Central Asia and by Brenda Shaffer on Iran’s foreign policy. This panel was also noteworthy because it included Abdul Karim Soroush, Iran’s leading philosopher and Islamic reformer who is currently a visiting professor of theology at Harvard.

Schoeberlein’s presentation focused on the countries of Central Asia where, in accordance with Shaffer’s expectations, cultural models of analysis usually do not provide an adequate explanation of foreign policy dynamics in the region. Shaffer’s presentation focused on the question of the role culture plays in Iran’s foreign policy. If culture has a strong effect on Caspian states’ foreign policies, the place where one would expect to see it playing the most significant role is in the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” According to Shaffer, however, Iran is in fact one of the most realpolitik-driven states in the international system. For example, rather than make common cause with Muslim-majority Azerbaijan in its conflict with Christian-majority Armenia over Nagorno-Karabagh, Iran has chosen to support Armenia.

In his comments, Soroush acknowledged that the tension between the “Islamic” and “republican” strains of Iran’s revolutionary legacy is a point of debate within Iran itself. This tension is at least partially demonstrated by the fact that the elected institutions of Iran embody republicanism, while the unelected institutions of Iran are more devoted to the promotion of Islam.

V. Mensur Akgun and Arman Grigorian: “Are Their Ancient Hatreds?”

Akgun and Grigorian took up the question of whether or not there are “ancient hatreds” in the greater Caspian region. This idea that ancient hatreds are the root cause of disputes in the non-Western world has a great deal of currency among many Western policymakers. Akgun and Grigorian examined conflicts in the Caspian region more thoroughly in order to delve behind the “ancient hatreds” mythology that characterizes much of the discourse among the Western policymaking community. Akgun’s presentation focused on relations between Russia and Turkey, while Grigorian’s comments focused on Armenia and Azerbaijan.

VI. Roger Kangas: “Politics, Bureaucratic Struggles, and Culture”

Kangas’ presentation on the ways in which bureaucratic organizations sometimes develop interests independent of the ruling regime and assert their own influence over foreign policy focused on the Caspian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. He also expanded his inquiry to consider some of the Central Asian states he has studied extensively—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

VII. David King and Miles Pomper—“Congress, Culture, and the Caspian”

In their presentations on the U.S. Congress, David King and Miles Pomper examined the role cultural and ethnic considerations can play in the American foreign policy process. This panel focused the Armenian-American community’s impact on the U.S. Congress’ approach to the Caspian Region over the past twenty-five years.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Caspian Studies Program. “The Limits of Culture: Islam, Foreign Policy, and the Caspian.” News, Caspian Studies Program.