Cultural Relations and Policies

Akira Iriye

Cultural relations may be defined as interactions, both direct and indirect, among two or more cultures. Direct interactions include physical encounters with people and objects of another culture. Indirect relations are more subtle, involving such things as a person's ideas and prejudices about another people, or cross-national influences in philosophy, literature, music, art, and fashion. When cultural interactions deal with such matters as officially sponsored exchange programs or dissemination of books and movies, they may be called cultural policies. But not all cultural relations are cultural policies; there are vast areas of cultural interactions that have nothing or little to do with governmental initiatives. This essay, therefore, will deal primarily with broad themes in the history of American cultural relations, mentioning cultural policies only when they play a significant role in determining the nature of the overall cultural relationship with other countries.

The basic assumption here, of course, is that the United States is definable as a culture, as are all other nations in the world. In other words, each country has its own cultural identity in that it is defined by people who share certain traditions, memories, and ways of life. In this sense, all international relations are intercultural relations. The United States's dealings and contacts with, and the American people's attitudes and policies toward, any foreign country are conditioned by the historical and cultural outlooks of the two countries. Insofar as no two nations are completely identical, any discussion of foreign affairs must start with the assumption that we are analyzing two societies of different traditions as well as two entities embodying distinct sets of interests.

This is a different approach to the study of foreign affairs from the usual interpretations that stress military, security, trade, and other issues that affect a country's "interests." In terms of such factors, nations are more or less interchangeable. Balance-of-power considerations, for instance, have a logic of their own irrespective of the cultural identity of a given actor, as do commercial interests or national security arrangements. In a "realist" perspective, international affairs are comprehended in the framework of the interplay of national interests, and while each nation determines its own interests, all countries are similar in that they are all said to be driven by, or to pursue, considerations of their interests.

Cultural relations, in contrast, are both narrower and broader than the interaction of national interests. Instead of power, security, or economic considerations, cultural affairs are products of intangible factors such as a nation's ideas, opinions, moods, and tastes. Symbols, words, and gestures that reflect its people's thought and behavior patterns comprise their cultural vocabulary in terms of which they relate themselves to other peoples. Not so much a realistic ("rational") appraisal of national interests as a "symbolic" definition of a people's identity determines how they may respond to the rest of the world. In this regard, there are as many cultural relations as there are national cultures, and nothing as vague as "national interests" suffices to account for them. At the same time, cultural relations are also broader than the interplay of national interests in that they include cross-national interactions such as emigration and immigration, tourism, educational exchange, missionary and philanthropic activities, and various movements to promote human rights or the protection of the natural environment. These are cultural phenomena in that they cannot be reduced to security or economic considerations and deal with the interrelationships of individuals and groups across national boundaries.

A history of U.S. cultural relations, then, must deal with all those themes that together define a different world from the one consisting of sovereign rights and interests of nations. The bulk of work in international relations still focuses on the latter phenomenon, and historians have only begun to take the former themes seriously as objects of study.


Chisolm, Lawrence W. Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture. New Haven, Conn., 1963. Biography that illuminates intellectual interchanges between Americans and Asians. Cohen, Warren I. East Asian Art and American Culture: A Study in International Relations. New York, 1992. Analysis of the American reception of Asian art.

Costigliola, Frank. Awkward Dominion: American Political, Economic, and Cultural Relations with Europe, 1919–1933. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984. A close examination of transatlantic cultural influences during the interwar years, going in both directions.

Diggins, John P. Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America. Princeton, N.J., 1972. A detailed study of what Mussolini meant to various segments of the U.S. population.

Field, James A., Jr. America and the Mediterranean World, 1776–1882. Princeton, N.J., 1969. The best historical treatment of American cultural relations with Middle Eastern countries.

Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E. Transmission Impossible: American Journalism as Cultural Diplomacy in Postwar Germany, 1945–1955. Baton Rouge, La., 1999. A fascinating study of an attempt to reshape German culture after World War II.

Hay, Stephen N. Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. Another biography that casts light on the discourse on East-West relations.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York, 1997. A good study of U.S. cultural policy during the Cold War.

Iriye, Akira. Mutual Images: Essays in American- Japanese Relations. Cambridge, Mass., 1975. Includes several monographs on American-Japanese cultural relations.

——. "Culture and International History." In Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds. Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations. New York and Cambridge, 1991. An essay that notes some of the landmark studies of the history of intercultural, as distinct from intra-cultural, relations.

——. Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American-East Asian Relations. Rev. ed. Chicago, 1992. A multicultural treatment of American–East Asian relations.

——. Cultural Internationalism and World Order. Baltimore, 1997. Puts international cultural relations in the framework of the development of internationalism in modern history.

Isaacs, Harold R. Scratches on Our Minds: American Images of China and India. New York, 1958. American attitudes toward China and India.

Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York, 1986. Analyzes transatlantic intellectual and political movements at the turn of the century, comprehending developments within the United States as an integral part of the story of the Western world's coming to terms with the realities of modernization.

Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. New York, 1987. Study of wartime culture that focuses on use of the movies as a tool for indoctrination at home and propaganda abroad.

Kuklick, Bruce. Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880–1931. Princeton, N.J., 1996. Studies American fascination with and archaeological activities in the Ottoman Empire and Near East.

Lancaster, Clay. The Japanese Influence in America. New York, 1963. Impact on American philosophy and literature.

Ninkovich, Frank A. The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–1950. Cambridge and New York, 1981. Treats the origins and development of official U.S. cultural relations.

Northrop, F. S. C., and Helen H. Livingston, eds. Cross-Cultural Understanding: Epistemology in Anthropology. New York, 1964. Contains essays dealing with the problem of cross-cultural understanding.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York, 1990. One of the most penetrating analyses of the relationship between the cultural and other aspects of U.S. foreign affairs.

Park, Robert E. Race and Culture. Glencoe, Ill., 1950. Contains some of the earliest and most penetrating observations on the global "melting pot."

Pells, Richard. Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II. New York, 1997. One of the few systematic studies of transatlantic cultural relations.

Reynolds, David. Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942–1945. New York, 1995. Study of American culture during the war that explicitly treats international affairs.

Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. Analyzes transatlantic intellectual and political movements at the turn of the century, comprehending developments within the United States as an integral part of the story of the Western world's coming to terms with the realities of modernization.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. Rev. ed. New York, 1982. Argues that officials in Washington often informally cooperated with private businessmen, religious organizations, and philanthropic as well as other associations to spread the American way of life to other lands.

——. "Cultural Interaction." In Stanley I. Kutler, ed. Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. New York, 1996. Incorporates the vocabulary of cultural hegemony into a discussion of U.S. foreign relations.

Sumner, William Graham. Folkways: A Study of Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. Boston, 1913. An American anthropologist who not only described but also raised methodological questions about the study of other cultures.

See also Colonialism and Neocolonialism ; Globalization ; Human Rights ; Imperialism ; Race and Ethnicity .

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