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Friction in U.S. Foreign Policy: Cultural Difficulties with the World

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew W. Stewart. | June 2006

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The United States is so culturally different by virtue of its "New World paradigm" that its direct leadership style is becoming counterproductive. If the United States were more "street smart" on the world scene, it could better identify nuanced subtleties and better leverage allies, who, in turn, are better positioned to further American ideals abroad. However, such an indirect approach to world affairs is counterintuitive to most Americans, who are better known for their directness and cultural ineptitude. The U.S. approach to "culture" traditionally has been to blur the differences and seek commonality, which has been at the core of American domestic success in assimilating immigrants. The American challenge is to differentiate better between domestic and foreign policy formulas for success, which need to be different if America wishes to succeed in both areas. Americans must learn to work in more indirect ways with like-minded allies to create a world favorable to U.S. interests. This paper examines the ideological threats confronting the United States and America's lack of cultural savvy, along with its implications, proposing a new outlook for policy leaders and strategists.


History reveals that few states have risen to dominate their epoch, and no nation has been able to maintain dominance forever. Unlike past states, the United States does not seek to rule directly but to create a world order in which it can prosper with its values intact. Yet, as a western power, the United States cannot overlook the fact that the majority of the world's population no longer wants direct pejorative leadership from the "white man." Americans need to think counterintuitively to their own culture to find successful long-term strategies for creating a better world. Such strategies must avoid mirror imaging, the trap of seeking commonalities, and idealistic wishful thinking. Given its relative minority status, the United States needs to apply more cultural savvy, working in the world as it is in order to build the world it desires. America has worthy goals in promoting democracy and free trade, but needs to figure out how to better pursue them more indirectly, through like-minded allies. Never before have the following words been more relevant advice for U.S. policymakers who need to identify how to sustain American leadership and promote core values, while addressing root causes of anti-Americanism clearly gaining momentum today: "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and our time is short."94

Cultural savvy, for the sake of it, is simply not compelling to the pragmatist, unless it provides tangible results. In today's world, pragmatic reasons to promote cultural savvy can be found in the hard reality of addressing why U.S. leadership is being challenged by friend and foe alike. There is real need for introspection in how to adapt and overcome this "push back." Better cultural savvy also is needed to reconcile the American view of the world with the rise of competing foreign ideologies. The existence of pragmatic non-Western ideological alternatives seems lost on American leadership. While this paper focused on the mobilization of extremist Islam against the West as a case study, the United States must not be so myopic as to miss the level of anti-Americanism around the world, and how other alternative ideologies are on the march. With improved cultural savvy, it is possible for a more objective assessment of what America is in relation to the world, and adopt strategies which will promote the U.S. worldview. Cultural education and training must be shifted from techniques that restrain Americans to knowledge and methods that empower them. Unless the United States grasps and applies this strategic truth, it will not be able to sustain its positive balance of economic, political, socio-psychological, and military power in the global community.


94. Lawrence, as referenced by Wunderle, slide 15.