Culture, Power, Geopolitics: How All Three Explain Us

Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory helps us understand why states behave the way they do.

Manhattan New York
View of Manhattan, New York from the Empire State Building (Unsplash/Phil Hauser)

It’s very easy to make geopolitics seem simple — Country A and Country B have a bad history. Both want something from Country C. Alas for Country C, it’s rather weak, so Countries A and B go ahead and have proxy war in Country C.

And while that may explain the rough outlines, it’s still too Civilization V — as if millions of people can be motivated by a leader’s whims as readily as a video game’s AI.

Delving deeper into the human condition provides better understandings of why we get along — and sometimes don’t — on the scale of world war.

Thankfully, someone’s been hard at work helping us with that.

Enter Geert Hofstede

Born in 1928 in the Netherlands, Hofstede spent time under Nazi occupation and, following the war, decided to travel the world rather than stick around for all the messy postwar bits. As one does while traveling, he experienced culture shock. But rather than writing it off as mere homesickness, he began to delve into the deeper reasons why so many of don’t like leaving home for very long.

Over the decades, he created the Hofstede cultural dimensions theory.

The theory deserves a great deal of credence because of its depth. Rather than focusing on the outward appearance of culture — the kinds of clothes people wear, the kinds of foods they eat, etc. — he researched the deeper social bonds between groups that so often makes us feel like foreigners are just so different, even when we try to keep that to ourselves.

After all, someone from cosmopolitan London may culture shock just as much in New York as they might in New Delhi.

He broke down culture into six broad categories:

  1. Power distance index: This, essentially, is how much a group of people tolerate distance from power. The higher the number, the more they accept the remoteness of their leadership. A kingdom like Saudi Arabia has a predictably high number: Saudis expect their faraway king to stay that way and are just fine with it. Democracies, on the other hand, produce lower numbers, because people in democracies expect to have access to power and stronger personal relationships with those in charge.
  2. Individualism versus collectivism: Just like it sounds, this measurement looks at how a culture values groups versus individuals. Naturally, places like the United States have very high individualist scores while places like China have lower ones. In such places, cultural power is given to whomever aligns with the cultural score. In America, everyone is always trying to be unique and “find themselves,” even if for many practical purposes they aren’t all that different from their neighbors. In China, on the other hand, everyone is hoping to conform, even if on a deeper, emotional level their personalities vary wildly from one person to another.
  3. Uncertainty avoidance: This is the risk-taking part of a culture: how much do people within a given culture prefer to know a roadmap? Innovative places tend to have lower scores here, since they’re willing to try — and fail — while stifled, traditional places wish to rely upon the tried-and-true.
  4. Masculinity versus femininity: The terminology here is problematic, but it’s Hofstede’s category, not mine. What it essentially means is how conflict-driven versus collaborative a given place is. The more masculine, the more it rewards confrontation, conflict and competition as the drivers of best results. The more feminine, the more collaboration, nurturing and modesty are seen as ways to solve problems. Masculine cultures brag and fight: feminine cultures work together as a group.
  5. Long-term orientation versus short-term orientation: This category identifies how much a culture identifies future problems with the present and past: traditional societies score low here because they see tradition as the answer to the future and don’t think much of adapting to circumstance. Pragmatic places, on the other hand, score higher, as they plan and worry about the future.
  6. Indulgence versus restraint: Finally, this category goes over how much a culture embraces the pleasures of life, whether through holidays, food, relationships or personal choice. An indulgent society thinks individuals are in the driver’s seat for their own happiness; restrained societies think other factors beyond yourself make you happy.

And these cultural factors are hardly limited to the rank and file — leadership must play along with culture as well

More so than many geopolitical factors, to cross a nation’s cultural taboos is to risk ruin. Wise leadership understands a nation’s cultures and plays by the rules; weak or irrational leaders don’t and rarely last long. After all, the shah of Iran’s fatal mistake was assuming Iranians as a whole wanted a modern, European-style culture. In reality, many of them wanted quite the opposite.

Understanding these factors for a nation state can help us understand said state’s behavior. Let’s look at the results for Saudi Arabia:

  1. Power index: 95
  2. Individualism: 25
  3. Masculinity: 60
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: 80
  5. Long-term orientation: 36
  6. Indulgence: 52

This paints a picture of a society that tolerates remote and strong leadership — the king is the king and shut up already about it. Individualism, lowly scored, clearly subsumes people into groups: tribes, families and religious identity are more important than you and being too different is risky.

Masculinity too shows that Saudis prefer to resolve differences through conflict rather than collaboration. This doesn’t mean they have to shoot one another — though a century ago they might have been preferred — but that resolution comes after arguments, recriminations, negotiations and hurt feelings. Relying as they do upon strong, decisive leaders, Saudis call upon the hierarchy to restore order between equals: When two friends have a spat, they look to a social superior (a higher-ranking tribesmen, perhaps?) to resolve the issue rather than sort it out themselves.

Meanwhile, Saudi society is hardly innovative, relying up the tried and true. But it’s long-term orientation numbers are creeping upwards, implying Saudis are becoming aware that long-term planning is becoming important. In a time of low oil prices, that number would be expected to creep up: nothing forces problem solving like immediate problems.

Meanwhile, indulgence is muddled: the excesses of oil wealth mixed with Wahhabi conservatism to breed a hybrid culture of citizens who will follow certain pleasures to the hilt but entirely avoid others. Saudis can and do smoke bags of tobacco in public, but shy away from booze and drugs unless they[re sure the blinds are closed and the doors are locked.

Which makes the whole rentier state — and the recurrent failures to bring Saudi Arabia’s economy into modernity — all seem quite reasonable. Saudi citizens overwhelmingly don’t want to make their own decisions: they want the tried-and-true past of jobs-for-loyalty, doled out by powerful leaders and overseen by managers who take both responsibility and blame. Their lack of interest in innovation is precisely the reason why change is so hard: why fix what they don’t think is broke?

But the power index also helps us see why it is the Saudi government, not Saudi society, that is forced to lead change: Saudi citizens simply don’t think it’s their business. Over time, the Saudi government can shift these attitudes, but each step taken risks blowback, since the Saudi government can’t fully know where their society’s red lines lay. They may well take a bridge too far on women’s rights, or working hours, or some other reasonable reform, that activates Saudi Arabia’s cultural propensity for masculine conflict. That doesn’t dictate civil war, but it makes it all the more likely.

Now let’s break down the superpower

  1. Power index: 40
  2. Individualism: 91
  3. Masculinity: 62
  4. Uncertainty avoidance: 46
  5. Long-term orientation: 26
  6. Indulgence: 68

Is it any surprise that Americans tolerate less distance between themselves and power? Yet this also translates to how America acts on the world stage. Rather than be capable of committing to long-term imperial strategy, America vacillates in response to its citizenry — only after two world wars could Americans be convinced of the necessity of American power in Europe. This cycle is happening yet again in the Middle East, where by American power is deployed, withdrawn and deployed again in response to popular discontent with war back home.

The high individualism score also demonstrates much of American geopolitical expression: rather than think collectively, American leadership is idiosyncratic to a high degree. Think Bush versus Obama, Clinton versus Reagan — not merely party shades but personality shades as well. American foreign policy often gets named after the president: the Bush Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, etc. Barack Obama’s current doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” is a wonderfully individualistic expression of Obama’s own personality and colors the White House’s unwillingness to deploy superior power to destroy the Islamic State.

Masculinity, as well, helps us understand Americans willingness to continue to volunteer in the numbers needed to run the superpower’s military machine. This is because Americans, on the whole, think conflict solves problems more than collaboration. While there are plenty of collaborative Americans, America’s overriding mentality allows conflict to override consensus — this year’s primaries, after all, demonstrate that to a high degree. This makes Americans confrontational and willing to use force abroad so long as it doesn’t start a nuclear war — diplomacy is a back seat exercise in America’s geopolitical understanding of the world.

But it is America’s long-term orientation score that helps us understand America’s geopolitical mentality. American presidents rarely think beyond the end of their term. If they are the domineers of foreign policy, that means consistent policy lasts a maximum of eight years before some other president comes to change it.

While during the Cold War the Soviet threat helped focused American power onto communism, how that power was expressed was highly idiosyncratic. Dwight Eisenhower built alliances; Lyndon Johnson started the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan bled the Red Army in Afghanistan. These were not predetermined actions: any of these presidents might have confronted the Soviets differently. But because of the high degree of individuality in American society coupled with a distinct lack of long-term planning, policy rarely carried over from one president to another.

This makes America appear erratic and hypocritical: one president says one thing and then a new one does something entirely else. America’s presidents have matured over time; after World War II, none of them questioned the need for American troops in Europe and Asia. But it also makes learning the mistakes of power much slower for the United States. Unlike a small state, which both can and must learn quickly, the United States’ vast size and relative isolation allows it to dither and wander through the geopolitical landscape.

While not the be all, end all, the Hofstede view helps explain much of how nation states tick

Rather than thinking of countries as pieces on a board, its better to think of nation states as living entities, some of which are lucky and grow well with ease while others struggle to survive. Within them are environmental tolerance limits: put too much sun on a houseplant and you’ll kill it, and expose a conformist society to individualism too fast and you risk revolt or worse.

Perhaps this is one reason why the American occupation of Iraq failed as it did: while Iraqis expected clear and decisive leadership, American troops thought Iraqis wanted a say in the process of occupation. Instead of building a democracy, Americans brought anarchy, simply because they, highly individualistic, could not comprehend any society that might prefer to conform and simply be told what to do by the strongest person in the room.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, May 18, 2016.