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Cultural Characteristics and Foreign Affairs
Personal Musings by
Roy M. Melbourne

I have been struck repeatedly over the years how cultural idiocyncracies can affect foreign relations in significant ways. The reflections below represent an effort to explore how some of these differences of perception and outlook reveal themselves to persons of different cultural backgrounds.

Beginners in the American Foreign Service, such as I was many years ago, are sometimes surprised by seemingly odd reactions by nationals of other cultures. For example, a man of my acquaintance back then, the Japanese chief steward of a foreigners’ club in Kobe, had his toddler son tragically drown in the club pool. His only response to heartfelt condolences from club members was a nervous laugh. This reaction, strange to me at the time, was explained as defensive; the steward could not reveal his true feelings to a person not directly affected by the family tragedy.

Since Japan was my first experience of an exotic culture, the nation and its people naturally struck me forcibly with their differences from what was familiar to me. After retirement, a Japanese– language officer of our Service, a close friend with whom I had shared house arrest in Kobe after Pearl Harbor, continued to engage in various Japanese-American activities and to keep up his Japanese contacts. At lunch one day I asked him whether the Japanese really had changed since the war. He looked at me strangely and replied, “They haven’t changed at all.” I was reminded of a TV program I had seen. The narrator, an Englishman who knew his subject well, described the training of promising junior Japanese executives, comparing it with the training wartime kamikaze pilots received. One got the impression of not a cultural transformation, but rather a cultural transference.

In July 1941, the United States embargoed the sale of scrap metal and oil to Japan. Everyone recognized that this was a crucial turning point in our relations. We who were stationed in Japan knew all too well that the commodities were vital to the Japanese war machine, and our resident Treasury attaché calculated Japan had reserves for another six months. In the fifth month, Japan struck at Pearl Harbor.

In the Kobe consulate each Saturday morning during this period we asked each other, half lightly and half seriously, whether we would be at work Monday morning. We understood from a basic knowledge of Japanese attitudes that if war came, it would be by surprise aggression on a weekend to take advantage, as in ju jitsu, of an opponent’s maximum vulnerability. We knew it would happen in that fashion, but not precisely when or where. Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, came as a shock, but not a surprise.

Writers have remarked upon the immediate and unquestioned Japanese acceptance of their World War II surrender, once it was announced by the emperor. My explanation is that the people saw the end of their nuclear-shattered military régime — to be replaced by another, as yet unknown — as the mandate of heaven. Japan had acquired its basic culture from China, and in Chinese history, a series of preordained natural disasters inevitably brought the downfall of existing dynasties.

The Japanese military régime had impressed upon its soldiers the ignominy of personal surrender, Death was preferable to this disgrace, for once they had surrendered, their families considered them dead. Not alone in thinking their cultural behavior was understandable to others, the Japanese accordingly treated Allied prisoners callously, believing that their families deemed them already dead.

This form of inner toughness survived American acculturation in the Nisei second generation. Convinced they had something to prove, the Nisei fought fiercely against the Germans in World War II and suffered heavy casualties, with the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team becoming the most decorated unit in the American army. The exceptional senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye, one of its young lieutenants, lost an arm at Monte Cassino.

A wise colleague once observed that the polygraph was of little use on anyone born east of Vienna. Americans, raised in another tradition, find that truth is a relative term in many areas of the world, those where political authoritarianism is the norm and personal suppleness in coping with the system can become a question of survival. Explanations of one’s action and motives can take convoluted paths compounded by suspicion and unshaken belief in the weakness of human nature. In a country such as Iran, a lie is not necessarily a conscious act. It may be the result of complex rationalizations that stretch credibility.

Since political leaders know these traits of their peoples, they try various ways to outwit them. On the last day of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein announced by radio from Baghdad to his public that he had won the war. At the same time U.S. General Schwarzkopf proclaimed an Allied victory. Further to convince his people and to gain a brief respite to purge reluctant followers, Saddam Hussein established a cordon of troops south of Baghdad to prevent fleeing Iraqi soldiers from entering the city and giving credence to the Allied claims. That the Iraqi dictator still led the state, with his followers taking orders from Baghdad, gave credence to his claim to have won the war. In years to follow, he continued his dangerous, illegal production of weapons. The United States had flubbed it.

Russia has a classic old story of two friends meeting in a Moscow railroad station, one carrying a valise. The other asks, “Ivan, where are you going?” The first man hesitated and replied, “To Leningrad,” whereupon the other becomes angry, exclaiming, “Why do you say Leningrad to make me think you are going to Kiev, when you are really going to Leningrad!”

Many features of American life that we take for granted are deemed unique by the rest of the world. In Western culture, black is the color of mourning, while in East Asia it is white. American cultural attitudes are increasingly derived from films and television, which are often portrayals of conflicts between good and evil. As youngsters, a generation of Americans learned from cowboy films that the hero is clean shaven, sings well, and rides a white horse. His opposite number sports a mustache, is not musical, and rides a black horse. In films and television, story conflicts are satisfactorily resolved in at most a few hours. A public nourished by such fare expects life to mirror art and for problems to be resolved within an early predictable period of time. Hence, although major international issues may require tedious negotiation or patience for resolution, Americans are noted by the rest of the world for our impatience to get things done.

Unconsciously reflecting our culture, Secretary of State Dean Acheson expressed surprise that many of the problems coming to his “IN” box were the same he had confronted in an earlier assignment as an economic under secretary. Those problems had not gone away in the interim. At the outset of the Marshall Plan, Winston Churchill confessed that his major concern was whether American impatience for results would prevent the United States from staying the course.

When World War II began in Europe, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, directed his staff to prepare hypothetical scenarios which could draw the United States into that war. He specified one important proviso for the study — if the United States did become entangled in the war, U.S. participation in the struggle could not last more than four years. He reckoned from his study of American politics that beyond that period of time major domestic dissensions would arise. Marshall reportedly noted the sole exception to this limit had been our own lengthy Revolution. His thesis escaped begin tested when our when our involvement in World War II ended three months short of four years. Subsequent events, e.g., the long war in Vietnam, marked by severe discord at home, appear to validate Marshall’s dictum on America’s lack of patience.

Americans are not immune to the cultural psyche of other worlds through long exposure to them. A friend once told me he met an unsavory politician on the street in Sofia, Bulgaria. The politico greeted him effusively and remarked what a really fine day it was. Passing on, my friend wondered what made that SOB think it was such a fine day? What did he really mean? Then suddenly he realized he had been in the Balkans too long!

The cultural insensitivity of America’s allies had a striking effect in one episode. In October 1956, Great Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, planning to seize the Suez Canal and overthrow Egypt’s President Nasser, this without prior warning to their close ally, the United States. The action took place one week before President Eisenhower’s reelection. Supposedly the three powers knew America well; many leading officials in their governments had extensive first-hand knowledge of the United States. Yet, to avoid giving a public impression of ineptness and naiveté, Eisenhower was obliged to react harshly and to demand the invaders’ withdrawal from occupied areas. An imperfect understanding of American culture brought strained relations and serious consequences. Only one of the latter results was the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, having to resign, his political career at an end.

A misreading by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers of American politics and the position in the political system of the U.S. President constituted one factor in the onset of the Cuban missile crisis. On the level of personalities, Kruschchev thought Kennedy so lacking in resolution that he would not oppose the USSR’s strategic move. But the Soviets at best underestimated the importance of American public opinion as a determinant of the President’s actions. The President made the private comment to his brother, Robert Kennedy, that he had to take forceful action in the crisis; if he did not, the public outcry would lead to his impeachment.

In the Middle East there is an exceptional love of words. An orator is admired for his expressiveness rather than for the content of his message. This encourages bombast and emotional hyperbole which can bring about admiration, even from political opponents, but frequently at the same time can have effects in foreign affairs leading to misunderstandings. In Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq owed his eminence to his spellbinding oratory. After attending a parliamentary session where Mosaddeq spoke, I met one of his political opponent at a reception. The man kept repeating what a fine speech it had been. When I asked “What did he say?” this English university-educated man simply exclaimed, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. It was a marvelous speech.” Because colorful language flows so effortlessly in the Middle East, provocative, challenging words are irresistible. This feeds the durable country feuds, such a feature of the area, and are a guarantee that they will last.

Bodily gestures and expressions also have unexpected meanings in various parts of the world. A diplomat in negotiations with a Middle Easterner, for example, may be surprised. The latter, in response to a query as to whether he agrees on a certain point, may make a seemingly unmistakable affirmative head nod accompanied by a soft tick of the tongue. The unknowing American cannot congratulate himself on securing agreement, however, for the gesture, in Middle Eastern terms, is clearly intended as a negative.

Among the political issues that have haunted the Mideast, a dominant problem over several years was the British oil embargo of Iran. This was Britain’s response to the Mosaddeq government’s nationalization of the country’s oil resources, including British interests, at a time when Iran was the world’s leading oil exporter. The U.S. ambassador was authorized to negotiate with Mosaddeq over the impasse. The latter kept a small black notebook in which he recorded decisions agreed to during the talks. An issue arose which the ambassador said had been agreed to earlier, but which Mosaddeq denied. At the ambassador’s suggestion, Mosadeq consulted his little black book. After a search therein, he blandly informed the ambassador he could find no record confirming the latter’s recollection. Without putting it into words, both knew that he had simply consulted a different black book. Domestic pressures had forced Mosadeq to deny a clearly agreed-upon point.

The Swiss are fine people, but their obsession with money is their own worst enemy internationally. Before the Salk vaccine was available, there was a polio epidemic in Bern, yet no word appeared in the Swiss press. They did not want to hurt their tourist industry. A like instance happened at Zermatt in the skiing season; a typhoid epidemic from defective sewer pipes occurred, and quite belatedly, the public was tersely informed. The most recent example of the Swiss obsession with money is the commandeering of large amounts of assets from World War II unnumbered bank accounts without seeking the heirs.

Diplomatic protocol, which seems to involve mainly trivial niceties, can have important cultural effects on substantive matters. The basic premise of protocol is the equality of all nation states. In the United Nations there are some 185 of these, with a wide range of size, population, national wealth, political stability, etc.. The United States might be considered at one end of this spectrum, with others which can be called at best quasi-states (as one newsman has called the latter, “tribes with flags”). All proudly proclaim and jealously guard their national days. Once in my experience, because July 4 came on a weekend, our ambassador changed the national day embassy reception to a different date. This latter day, it happened, coincided with the national reception of a culturally sensitive Latin American country. Before the diplomatic grapevine could circulate this latest example of Yankee arrogance, the U.S. ambassador, recognizing his error, apologized to the Latin nation’s emissary for the inadvertent coincidence, and my wife and I, representing our embassy, spent a late and lively evening at the other reception as a form of penance.

A cultural outlook can be such a determining factor in international relations that some among our Foreign Service officers think it outweighs even political and economic considerations in importance. We tend to lose sight of this in our Western zeal to extend American concepts of international law, ethics, and other basic conduct to all nations.

But even with cultural differences, and despite the mistakes that result from misunderstandings, Americans believe there is no substitute for basic integrity and the need for professional respect. Working within that context over a great many years, I found that those principles went far to overcoming problems in diplomatic practice that arose from the world’s immense diversity.


Roy MelbourneDr. Melbourne, a member of this journal’s Editorial Advisory Board, served as a career U.S. diplomat from 1937 to 1972. He held assignments at nine posts abroad and now lives in retirement at Durham, NC.


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