The Limits of Culture

From Belfer Center Studies in International Security

The Limits of Culture

Islam and Foreign Policy

Edited by Brenda Shaffer





In recent years, analysts of world affairs have suggested that cultural interests—ethnicity, religion, and ideology—play a primary role in patterns of conflict and alliances, and that in the future the "clash of civilizations" will dominate international relations. The Limits of Culture explores the effect of culture on foreign policy, focusing on countries in the geopolitically important Caspian region and paying particular attention to those states that have identified themselves as Islamic republics—Iran, Taliban Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The contributors to The Limits of Culture find that, contrary to the currently popular view, culture is rarely more important than other factors in shaping the foreign policies of countries in the Caspian region. They find that ruling regimes do not necessarily act according to their own rhetoric. Iran, for example, can conduct policies that contradict the official state ideology without suffering domestic retribution. Also, countries frequently align with one another when they do not share religious beliefs or cultural heritage. For example, Christian Armenia cooperates on trade and security with non-Christian Iran. Cultural identities, the contributors find, are flexible enough to enable states to pursue a wide range of policies that are consistent with their material interests. As the essays in The Limits of Culture make clear, the emerging foreign policies of the Caspian states present a significant challenge to the culturalist argument.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262195294 352 pp. | 6.125 in x 9.25 in


$27.00 X ISBN: 9780262693219 352 pp. | 6.125 in x 9.25 in


Brenda Shaffer

Brenda Shaffer is Research Director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University. She is the author of Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity (MIT Press, 2002).


  • Most scholars and policymakers think that if you understand a state's culture, you know all you need to know about how it will comport itself in its relations with other states. But the contributors to The Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy collectively offer a variety of persuasive reasons for thinking that there is much more to the foreign policy of states in the Caspian region than their Islamic cultures. The Limits of Culture points us in the direction of a much more realistic assessment of why Caspian region states act the way they do. This is a timely and important book that will be of interest to both scholars and policymakers.

    Michael C. Desch

    Professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

  • This provocative collection of essays strikes a blow at the heart of conventional wisdom about the critical role of culture in shaping foreign policy decisions. It dispels the currently fashionable idea that self-declared Islamic republics and other states in the Muslim world are motivated by religious considerations instead of acting first and foremost as states. This is an invaluable book for anyone trying to understand developments across the band of countries extending from the Middle East to the Caspian region and South Asia.

    Fiona Hill

    Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

  • Across the stretch of territory that used to be called the Near East, from the eastern Mediterranean to the Central Asian steppe, facile culturalist explanations for political behavior are once again in vogue. In this welcome volume, the authors carefully examine these claims, charting precisely how cultural features, from the religious orientations of a population to the official ideologies of a state, might influence the making of foreign policy. Blood, belief, and belonging can be important at times, but this volume helps us understand the specific conditions under which culture does—and, perhaps more important, doesn't—matter.

    Charles King

    Chair of the Faculty and Ion Ratiu Associate Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University