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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

January 2003

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The author addresses anew a subject that has long interested him —the impact of cultural factors on diplomacy. See his earlier article in this area in an issue of American Diplomacy of five years ago. A member of the governing board of this journal, Dr. Melbourne brings thirty-five years of diplomatic experience to bear in his analysis. —Ed.

National Cultures and Foreign Affairs: Personal Observations on Their Importance

Initially during my career in the Foreign Service, I was surprised to note what, for us, are odd reactions by nationals of other cultures. A Japanese chief steward of a foreigners' club suffered the loss of his toddler son by drowning in the club pool.. His response to condolences from club members was to laugh nervously. This reaction, strange to a foreigner, was explained as defensive towards a person not directly affected by the family tragedy. The steward simply could not reveal his true feelings. I learned as I gained experience abroad.

A native culture can be such a determining factor in international relations that some in our Foreign Service think it outweighs other elements, such as the political and economic, in importance. We tend to lose sight of this in our Western zeal for our concepts of international law, of ethics and other basic conduct.

Since Japan was my first experience of an exotic culture, it naturally struck me forcibly with its differences from American attitudes. A Japanese language officer of our Service, a close friend through a mutual 1941-42 house-arrest period, in his retirement engaged in various Japanese-American activities. At a private lunch in recent years I asked him whether the Japanese really had changed. He looked at me strangely and said, “They haven't changed at all.” Some years earlier, affirming this point, I saw a TV program conducted by an Englishman who knew his subject describe the training of promising junior Japanese executives. comparing it to the indoctrination wartime kamikaze pilots received. It was not a cultural transformation, but a cultural trans-location.

The Japanese military regime instilled in its soldiers the ignominy of personal surrender. Death was preferable to this disgrace, for their families considered them dead. Not alone among states in thinking their cultural behavior was understandable to others, the Japanese treated Allied prisoners callously, believing that their families deemed them already dead.

An inner toughness had what we would term a beneficial side when American acculturation was added to the Japanese in America’s Nisei second generation. Believing they had something to prove, the Nisei 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 in Italy.

Turning to the United States, culture and foreign policy had a striking effect in one episode. The United States was negotiating with Nasser in October 1956, when three good friends of America, Great Britain. France, and Israel, plotted to seize the Suez Canal and to defeat Egypt's Nasser—all this unknown to their close ally. The action took place one week before President Eisenhower's reelection. Supposedly the three powers knew American culture well. To avoid an American public impression of ineptness and naivete, Eisenhower was obliged to react harshly to the British, French, and Israeli plans and to demand their removal from the areas they had occupied. Lack of full understanding of American culture brought serious consequences. British prime minister, Anthony Eden, had to resign, with his political career at an end.

The Cuban missile crisis was brought on by Soviet leader Khrushchev’s and his advisers’ misreading of American politics and the power position of its president as being comparable to his own. Kruschchev thought Kennedy so lacking in resolution that he would not oppose the former's Cuban strategic moves. In the American file of that crisis there is only one record of the importance of American opinion as the dominant factor for the President's actions. His brother cites the Presidents private comment that, if he did not take forceful action, he would be impeached.

To return to Japan, in July 1941, the United States put an embargo on scrap metal and oil to Japan. We who were stationed in Japan recognized as a factor, which Washington from its domestic perspective apparently did not, that this decision was absolutely crucial to our relations. We knew the commodities were vital to the Japanese war machine; our resident treasury attaché calculated that Japan had reserves of six months. In the fifth month, Japan struck at Pearl Harbor.

In our Kobe consulate during this prewar period, at the end of the prewar normal five-and-a-half day work week, we regularly asked ourselves, half lightly and half seriously, whether we would be there Monday morning. We knew from basic Japanese psychology that if war came, it would be by Japanese surprise on a weekend to take advantage, as in ju jitsu, of an opponent's maximum vulnerability. We knew it would come in that fashion, but of course not when or where. War came in December 1941—a shock, but not a surprise.

Legend was used in Japan, then dominated by the military, to buttress public support for the monarchy and for military policies. The Sun Goddess was supposedly the founder of Japan’s only dynasty. Omitted from this legend was the reality of the widespread practice of adoption among Japanese families, a logical explanation as far as foreigners were concerned for the supposed single dynasty. In prewar years Prince Saionji, a top senior advisor, and Prince Konoye, a prime minister, were from Houses that had used the adoption practice for long periods of time.

A family anomaly in Japan that I encountered, over which there was a veil of silence, came to light when I began inquiring about the curious absence of twins. Perhaps with more social openness now than in the past, and media willingness to discuss it, that absence may be changing. The explanation for my time was given by a knowledgeable Japanese woman. It seems that having twins was culturally discredited, for it gave a hint of the usual multiple animal litters. Hence there simply were no twins acknowledged in society.

Also in my time nothing was published concerning that curious Japanese minority, then called the Eta, who were comparable to the Untouchables of the Hindu caste in India. Racially they were unrecognizable from the average Japanese, yet no respectable Japanese family would countenance marriage with an Eta. Japanese prewar accusations of Western racial prejudice thus appeared hollow.

In Chinese history a series of natural disasters inevitably brought the downfall of an existing dynasty, as ordained. And Japan essentially acquired its basic culture from China. Writers have remarked upon the remarkable Japanese acceptance of their World War II surrender as simply brought about by the words of the emperor. I would offer a supplementary explanation: The people also dismissed their nuclear-shattered military dynasty, to be replaced by another as yet unknown, as the mandate of heaven.

The Chinese are known as masters in conveying their clear views through indirection. The most graphic example of this I experienced while under detention in Japan during the early stages of the war. After some six months, the five of us from the consulate began to crave a fulfilling meal and a way to escape the frugal diet that was provided, given the strict rationing and inflated black market prices. The treasury attaché, one of our group and the most familiar with Kobe, this largest U. S.-Japanese trading port, hit upon the idea of trying to persuade the Japanese military police to let us have a meal at a restaurant he knew, run by expatriate Chinese. The military police reluctantly agreed, on condition that the meal was served in our house. The Chinese, after suitable open hesitation, finally consented to cater a lunch.

With no great expectations, we gathered for this treat. Being completely and politely professional, the Chinese turned to without a sign that it was unusual; despite food procurement difficulties, they gave us a superb multi-course feast that lasted into mid-afternoon. It was the best Chinese meal I ever had, spoiling me for all time. Without a word about politics, they managed by indirection to make it obvious at that stage of the war that all Chinese were patriots.

When the Cold War was in its infancy, in Bucharest, Rumania, I received Washington’s instructions to tell Rumanian political elements that the United States would not recognize the Soviet-imposed local government, given that it was contrary to the Yalta Agreement. Although welcoming the action, we saw a serious problem in that the Soviets, our wartime ally, were to be totally ignored locally, despite their regionally dominant military position and their known extreme national sensitivity to such slights. We took the initiative. I informed the acting head of the Soviet political mission of our government's public attitude so that, while there were later complaints, the Soviets could not deny they were officially informed of our policy interest in Rumanian political elements.

A wise colleague, in looking at a Eurasian map, once commented, perhaps stretching the analogy, that the polygraph test was of little use on anyone born east of Vienna. Truth, Americans find, is a highly relative term in many areas of the world where traditions of authoritarianism and accompanying personal suppleness are the norm. Explanations of motives usually take convoluted paths compounded from suspicions and beliefs in the weakness of human nature.

In the Mideast, as another example, a lie often is not consciously indulged in, but rather derives from complex rationalizations that stretch credibility. Since the area leaders know these traits of their peoples, they try various ways to outwit them. On the termination 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, our General Schwarzkopf had proclaimed the war's end with an Allied victory. Saddam Hussein, further to convince his people and to gain a brief respite to purge any reluctant followers, established a cordon of troops south of Baghdad to prevent fleeing Iraqi troops from entering the key city and giving credence to the Allied claim of success. The fact that Saddam Hussein still led the state, with his followers taking orders from the key power center, Baghdad, gave countenance to his claim to have won the war.

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

Most Americans are no more immune than other nationalities to the cultural psyche of other worlds through long exposure. An American friend in Sofia, Bulgaria, met an unsavory politician on the street. The man greeted him effusively and remarked what a really fine day it was. Passing on, my friend first wondered what made that S.O.B. think it was such a fine day? What was really behind the observation. Then he realized, as he told me, he had been in the Balkans too long!

In many regions there is an exceptional love of words, so an orator often is admired for the expression rather than the content of his message. This encourages bombast and emotional hyperbole which can create admiration, even from political opponents, and can have an effect in foreign affairs through misunderstandings. In Iran, Prime Minister Mossadeq owed his eminence partly to his spell binding oratory. After a parliamentary session where he spoke, I met a political opponent of his 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 Mideast and nearby regions, provocative, challenging words are irresistible. This characteristic feeds the durable country feuds, such a feature of the area, and are a guarantee that they will last.

Among the political issues that have haunted the Mideast, a dominant problem over several years was the British oil embargo of Iran when Mossadeq's government nationalized the country's oil resources, including British interests; this when Iran was the world's leading oil exporter. Our ambassador was authorized to negotiate with Mossadeq over the impasse. The latter kept a small black notebook in which he recorded decisions agreed to in the talks. An issue arose which the ambassador said had been agreed to earlier, but which Mossadeq denied. At the ambassador's suggestion, Mossadeq consulted a little black book in which, after a search, he blandly informed the ambassador he could find no record of the latter's recollection. Without saying so, both knew he was consulting a different black book. Domestic pressures forced Mossadeq to deny the obvious. A frustrated New York Times correspondent, after a lengthy Mossadeq interview, declared to me, “Intellectually, he is the most dishonest man I have ever met!” Even if so, it didn’t matter to his countrymen.

Bodily gestures and expressions have unexpected meanings in various parts of the world. A diplomat in negotiations with a Mideasterner, for example, may be surprised. The latter, in response to a query whether he agrees on a point, may make what seems to be an unmistakably affirmative head nod, accompanied by a soft tick of the tongue. The unknowing American cannot congratulate himself, for the gesture actually is a clear negative.

In Italy, so pervasive is the influence of social ranking of its aristocracy that families will even seek that status to the detriment of their children. A military wife I knew from a previous assignment visited Rome with her husband. She had gone to a European boarding school with a bright young girl whose parents later propelled her into marriage with a member of the nation’s high aristocracy. My friend had tea with her old friend, met the husband, and realized, to her horror, that the man was mentally defective. The poor girl was a most unhappy prisoner of old Roman aristocratic tradition.

Diplomatic protocol, involving seemingly superfluous niceties, can have substantive cultural effects. A basic premise is the equality of all nation states. In the United Nations there are nearly 200 of them, many of them major nations of long standing, but including some at best quasi-states, or as one newsman called them, “tribes with flags.” All jealously assert their national days. Because July 4 at one of my posts abroad came on a weekend one year, our national day reception was changed by the ambassador to a different day, one that coincided with the national reception of a small but culturally sensitive Latin country. Before the diplomatic grapevine could circulate this latest example of Yankee arrogance, however, the ambassador apologized to the affected country’s emissary. Dispatched by the ambassador, my wife and I, as our embassy's representatives, spent a late and most lively Latin evening at the other reception as a form of symbolic national penance. Cultural—and political—sensitivities were observed.


Dr. 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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