Role of Ideas and Beliefs in Determining the Strategic Culture of a State

Social Constructivism is a theory which claims that ideas define and can transform the organization of world politics, shape the identities and interests of states, and determine what counts as legitimate action. The concept gained popularity in 1990’s. One of the theorist Alexander Wendth said, “Anarchy is what states make of it”. Now this means that the concept of Anarchy does not have an objective reality, we cannot really see or touch anarchy. It is not a tangible factor. However, it is just a perception of a state. States are the one who believe that Anarchy exists and they have to protect and secure themselves. That is what Social Constructivism talks about, the role of ideas, the relationship between agents and structure, socially constructed reality and role of knowledge.

            An agent could be a human, a state or powerful state but it has a relationship with the structure of the world. This is because the agents can shape and determine the structure e.g. USA is known to be the super power currently so it has the most impact on the international structure. Every other state regulates a foreign policy according to the super power’s likes and dislikes because they presume it to be the superpower. Agents have to be powerful enough to challenge and change the structure of the world. Similarly, the strategic culture of a state can also be determined with the ideas of these actors or agents and the structure. The world is basically affected by two things, the material forces (geography, people, resources etc.) and the role of ideas. There is a discursive link between symbols and ideas already present within the society however, ideas are basically the inter-subjective understanding of reality. It is like a collective thought where if one person comes up with an idea or a social fact the other would agree to it e.g. if US articulates a discourse that democracy is the best form of government then the East would agree to it. Ages ago, monarchy and kingship was known to be the best form of government and the world conformed to the idea of it. 

            A strategic culture of a state is basically comprised of sum of ideas and patterns of habitual behavior that members of national security community share. A strategic culture of a state is determined by its history of enmity or amity, the culture, cognitive characteristics of state and its elite, geographic setting, military history, international image, military technology and civil military relations. Now, the balance of power does not objectively exist out there waiting to be discovered, instead states debate what the balance of power is, what its meaning is, and how they should respond. Social Constructivism claims that the ideas always play a part in determining how the states respond like in a strategic culture of a state it can always be seen that a state has a competition or must have competed in the history. The states claim that they compete because of anarchy, security, self-help and they have to do this because of national interests and to gain power but constructivists claim that competition is merely an idea generated in states that states are a threat to each other, if states start believing the idea that states are not a threat to each other so they will not even compete. Why does not USA compete with Canada which is literally its next door neighbor and has maintained a rivalry here in East Asia with China and in Middle East with Iran? It’s the perception that Canada is not a threat but China and Iran is.

            What makes an Arab state an Arab state? Some people would say that the geographic setting of their strategic culture that they are located in the Middle East. Some would say it’s the culture which makes them Arabic. Some would say that the population speaks Arabic but technically there are rules associated with Arabism that shape the Arab states identity, interests, and foreign policies that are deemed legitimate and illegitimate. All of this is built up on ideas and that is how another state’s strategic culture is perceived. The world works on discourses that are discursively constituted and articulated to produce different meanings for the same thing.

Why is Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan perceived as failed states or safe haven for terrorists why not Denmark, Norway or Sweden? Terrorism can occur everywhere but a few states have been categorized as terror economies and the others as the Scandinavian. Even though looking unbiasedly in the strategic culture of the Scandinavian countries then even they do have history of enmity or extremism against religions but that fact is not prominent anymore. This is because the ideas and beliefs have programmed the mentality of people and portrayed the international image of these states in this way. This is done through powerful/elite/hegemonic discourses of the dominant identities and popular culture as they naturalize themselves and corner others, that it becomes a common sense or reflection of reality and anything other than this seems illogical.

            Another example is how inside the USSR people were associated into a particular Soviet method of thinking and its leaders saw the world through a specific strategic culture. Strategic culture was in this manner characterized as a specific security and military vision, which got persuasive for policy makers. The perseverance of such methods of thinking of ideas qualifies them as appearances of a ‘culture’, as opposed to simple approach.

Every single state enters the international system with its chronicled stuff of experiences, encounters, beliefs, cultural and social impacts and geographic and material constraints, all of which sway its lead. Israel’s exceptionally passionate and emotional perspective on its culture or Iran’s profound requirement for being distinguished are shallow aspects of their ‘national character’ yet consistent and prevalent highlights of their strategic culture. Various states display solid historical motivators, including the Arab World, Turkey, the two Koreas, Japan, India, and Pakistan. Moreover, the US foreign policy discourses have always persuaded the humanity using rhetoric like good vs. evil, capitalism/democracy vs. communism/authoritarianism, civilization vs. barbarism but if seen from a different vantage point then other aspects of US identity come to the fore.

            The particular example of Pakistan also exhibits the role of ideas in maintaining its strategic culture. It is said that, “Strategic culture is that set of shared beliefs, assumptions and modes of behavior derived from common experiences and accepted narratives, both oral and written, that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, which determine appropriate ends and means to accomplish national security objective”. If we talk about the history of enmity or amity then Pakistan’s strategic culture has always been in rivalry with India. Every person in Pakistan be it a kid or an adult has a perception that India is an enemy. Every time when India advances its military why Pakistan falls into security dilemma? Why it does not happen when China upgrades its military? This is because the ideas and beliefs of Pakistanis have been shaped in such a way that what they think or believe becomes the reality for them.

Social constructivism also talks about the role of knowledge in building up these ideas. A person’s knowledge is its cultural construct and historically produced. People support ideas that are historically and culturally imbedded in them. Same is the case with Pakistan, their culture has always been different from India both of them were even separated on ideological basis and the history both the state’s share has inbuilt in them that they can be nothing else but nemesis.

Another example could be Pakistan’s approach towards Israel. Ever since Israel is born, Pakistan has not recognized it as a state and the only reason is the perception Pakistan has of their belief system or the assumptions Pakistan has made about Israelis being deceivers or traitors. So that particular state is being conceived as a threat just because of differences in ideologies, even though Pakistan has never tried to make good terms with Israel. Even if the government tries to the nation of Pakistan would severely agitate because the ideas and beliefs embedded in them are against Israel. Pakistan wants to protect its sovereignty from Israel but the point social constructivist claims is that sovereignty did not always exist, it was a product of historical forces and human interactions that generated new distinctions regarding where political authority resided.

            The ideas and beliefs also gives an insight as to how the states would behave in future with respect to their current behavior. The different beliefs and practicing those beliefs eventually generate set of patterns which are followed and this will organize world politics. The world is being made and remade with actions and actions come from ideas. Prior to the twentieth century there was no legal term such as ‘refugees’ and after World War 1 states started recognizing it and now it has become one of the sustainable goal of development of UN to eliminate the refugee crisis. So all in all, a world of Mahatama Gandhis would be very different from the world of Osama Bin Ladins.

Kashaf Sohail

The author is an Undergraduate IR scholar at Bahria University, Islamabad. She can be reached at

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