*The most central obstacle in international relations between any two countries is that of perspective. From their own point of view each country believes it is operating permissibly. Of course those not associated with the country may believe the exact opposite: that the country is exhibiting unnecessary animosity in diplomatic relations.
The problem of self perspective can be aggravated or lessened based on a country’s philosophy. But it will never be completely eliminated.
The problem of self perspective creates situations in which countries engage in colonization and conclude that it is doing a favor to those they are dominating. The colonizing country often creates an intellectual justification as well, i.e.: the noblese oblige movement of the late 19th and early 20th century parallels an era of empire building among Western European nations and the United States.
Cultural relativism is a philosophical concept that acknowledges the tyranny of perspective in both one’s self and in one’s counterparts and lends validation to each point of view. Cultural relativism eliminates justification for colonies because however indigenous peoples are or are not utilizing their natural resources is valid.
Cultural relativism combats religiosity in that it demands that one nation acknowledges another nation’s belief system as legitimate. This is counter intuitive to most religions as they all claim to have the only correct dogma. Nevertheless cultural relativism is useful precisely because it is contrary to the all or nothing mentality that is so unproductive in foreign policy when dealing with a person or group of persons who have a history with no elements in common with your own.
Similarly cultural relativism also denies the superiority of democracy over a more closed political system as well as denying the superiority of capitalism over a more socialistic economic system. Operating with a foundation of cultural relativism enables a nation to look at the differences in other countries as valuable rather than seeing those differences as liabilities. Such an outlook makes the exploitation of other countries less likely which in turn leads to a diplomatic stance less antagonistic and more fruitful for all parties involved.
Cultural relativism does not ask that an individual or nation turn a blind eye to injustice simply because it is a longstanding practice. For instance there are culture groups that practice a form of “courtship” in which the male abducts the female with or without a mutual feeling of affection. The fact that many of the women and their families are unpleased with this practice is evidence that it should end. The basis of bride kidnapping in the history and culture of these peoples does not mandate that those who espouse cultural relativism should support the abduction of women.
Contrarily there are nations in the world which operate under a monarchical form of government. Those populations content with that form of government ought to be able to continue in it without democratic nations fomenting revolution simply because of a belief that democracy is a better form of government.
The tyranny of perspective clouds vision so that a person or nation cannot see past its own wants, needs, desires, systems, and visions for its future. Cultural relativism widens the field of vision to the incorporate the desires and practices of others. In this way it is the best basis for peaceful and productive foreign policy over the long term.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. You can reach him at [email protected]