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Are Nation States Neutral?

States Have a Cultural Persona

States are never culturally neutral. They inhabit a cultural matrix and possess, one might say, a cultural appearance or ‘persona’. This is a core idea in Samuel P. Huntington’s much talked about book Clash of Civilizations. Huntington thinks that the cultural character of states might determine their geopolitical behavior. As seen by him, culturally akin states are more likely to strike alliances. Western countries, he argues, have formed the NATO as their “central security organization” on account of their “common values and philosophical assumptions.” Similarly, the European Union, according to him, “is the product of a common European culture.”[i] The cultural persona of states seems to become all the more manifest when they have to choose a side during an outbreak of international conflict. For example, Huntington avers that “Muslims everywhere” “rallied against” the Soviet Union when it intervened in Afghanistan since in their eyes it was a “civilizational war.”[ii] It seems that the Afghan War acquired a particular gravity for Muslim countries since they saw it as a clash between godless communism and the ‘only true belief’.

Defining State and Culture

My understanding of state is that it is the final order enforcing authority within a delimited territory. Ernest Gellner, anthropologist and philosopher, for instance, terms the state an “institution or set of institutions specifically concerned with the maintenance of order.” Examples of the latter could be the “police force and courts.” According to Gellner, the state comes into existence when these have attained autonomy and “separated out from the rest of social life.”[iii] The state is thus, to simplify things further, fundamentally those legitimate agencies which keep our persons and property safe through vigilance and arbitration – it is the systematic and institutionalized application of power over a social body. Of course, we also associate with the state a welfare function, but looking at the historical timeline one might conclude that it came to be counted as an essential attribute of the state pretty late. This happened only after the liberal conception of the state became hegemonic.

Let us now resort to the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz to provide ourselves a definition of culture. His understanding of culture is a “semiotic” one. [iv] In other words, Geertz thinks that a culture is a system of symbols. These symbols, as he understands, are both powerful and conspicuous. Collectively, they form “a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions” for the governing of behavior.[v] The “natural habitat” of these symbols “is the house yard, the marketplace, and the town square.”[vi] “Culture is public”, Geertz concludes, “because meaning is.”[vii] Thus, culture, it appears, is a ‘visual paradigm’ of powerfully evocative symbols – these could be sacred architecture, books, deities, messianic personages, and ritual performances – which might determine our conduct by carrying persuasive philosophical and moral suggestions. This is how, we suppose, cultures are “set[s] of symbolic devices for controlling human behavior” and “historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point and direction to our lives.”[viii]

How States Wield Culture. Instances from History

If the state is a set of legitimate agencies controlling and regulating human conduct, culture is a ‘visual paradigm’ that does the same by generating meanings. Since there is a congruence in the essential function of both state and culture, namely, directing human behavior, they have, throughout human history, worked in tandem. States have wielded culture to various ends – to find legitimacy in a social body, project grandeur, or a moral intent – all in order to rally and regulate human beings better. Typically, this ‘wielding’ of culture by states has assumed the form of patronage of religion, since it is always a rich repository of meaning generating symbols. Rulers have sought to create desired visual paradigms of meanings by constructing shrines, or associating themselves with deities and splendid ritual performances. They have also aided the dissemination of preferred cultural meanings through conspicuous clerical effort, a sacred book, or chosen language (these too are ‘symbols’ capable of articulating a ‘visual paradigm’). States, thus, have established themselves in a cultural ambience and acquired cultural personas. No matter what juncture of history or part of the world we are looking at, we shall find this an unchanging characteristic of states. Let me substantiate this argument with some examples.


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