Geopolitics and Culture: What Is Driving the Power Games?

by | Nov 25, 2023 | 0 comments

Geopolitics and Culture: What is Driving the Power Games?

Author: Fernando Lanzer


Geopolitics are all about nations trying to impose their world views and values upon others, in the firm belief that this will ensure their own survival in the short term and sustainability in the long term. In order to understand the playing field, we must come to know what the underlying values of the relevant global players are, how they affect the way the power games are played and how that all this affects us, the pawns in the planetary chess game. This paper will propose a values framework that might shed some light on what is driving the relevant players’ behavior and what can be expected to happen in the near future.

Key Words: Culture Mental Images; politics; Contest Cultures; China; Network Cultures.


Yuval Noah Harari (1) tells us that what differentiates humans from other species of animals is that our brains give us the ability to tell complex stories that people believe in, leading them to collaborate in large numbers. In other words: human groups (teams, tribes, organizations, nations, etc.) form different cultures around core values that shape the behaviors of group members (2).

These core values, identified through research as value dimensions by Hofstede (3) are combined to form what Wursten (4) has described as Mental Images, or different styles of culture, as I have said (5).

Such culture styles can be used as a reference when trying to understand geopolitics. Most political and economic analysts will wax lyrically about how the economic interests of nations drive international relations and politics. Some will describe ideological conflicts between nations, in terms of religion (Catholics versus Protestants; Muslims versus Christians, etc.), economic regime (Capitalist versus Socialist) or political regimes (Monarchists versus Republicans). Few consider the core values of culture as a key part of the equation; even fewer have used Wursten’s Mental Images as a reference for their analysis.

This paper contends that if what differentiates humans is their ability to tell stories describing their values, then it is only logical that any analysis about geopolitics should regard culture as not only an important factor, but actually as THE most important factor for understanding any nation’s international actions.

In fact, the cultural worldview of a nation affects their foreign policy and how the press of that nation reports on international relations. Failure to understand this has led to the resurgence of wars and to the rise of far-right political movements in many countries.

There are always economic interests behind geopolitics; but these interests are translated into leadership behaviors according to the different culture values guiding respective political leaders. Different cultures breed different international stances. Contest cultures tend to confront and move to armed conflict; Network cultures tend to seek international consensus; Solar System cultures strive for diplomacy and power games while avoiding open conflict; and so on.

Contest cultures as playmakers

The past two hundred years of global history have been dominated by the actions of the British Empire as a dominant force, followed by one of its former colonies, the United States of America, a modern Empire in its own right. Both have been described by Wursten as Contest Cultures and form the core of what I have referred to as the British-American Cultural Commonwealth that includes Australia and Canada (all Contest Cultures).

Contest Cultures, by definition, have as their core worldview the notion that life is an eternal competition with winners and losers, where typically two opposing forces clash, hopefully to create a positive outcome. Confrontations are the default manner of addressing issues, whether they regard characters in romantic comedies, dramas or thrillers on TV; or whether they refer to international relations and geopolitics.

This worldview forms a cultural lens through which international relations are perceived. It has underpinned foreign policy in the UK and in the US for centuries; it sits at the core of the American “Monroe Doctrine” (“as long as America’s contenders for world dominance are busy fighting with each other, they will not pose a threat to America itself”).

It also fosters a “are you with us or against us” mindset, in which political non-alignment has no place. Nations are basically divided into categories: allies and enemies. The consequence is a tendency to confront, divide and go to war. Diplomacy is not a first resort; it may not be the last resort, but it tends to be pushed aside while confrontation remains at the forefront.

Sadly, this constant confrontation mentality favors war, not peace; it creates tensions that might be avoided; it invents enemies when nations are simply trying to avoid involvement in conflict. It goes beyond accepting conflict; it entails seeking conflict as the preferred way to handle international relations. It benefits the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned the world about in his closing address as he handed over the American presidency to the young president-elect John F. Kennedy. (6)

It is no wonder that America has the highest military budget in the world and that it is the country that has more often gone to war in the past 100 years; its cultural outlook sees conflict everywhere, and its core values foster confronting such perceived conflicts, whether real or imagined.

The American Press (and also the British) reverberates and amplifies this outlook. In the global Age of Misinformation, happenings around the world tend to be described by Anglo-American media as the eternal competition/confrontation conundrum fostered by their core values. Facts are secondary; the priority is to confirm the cultural values in which the media is embedded.

This phenomenon, of course, is not restricted to Contest Cultures. All cultures tend to describe reality as a confirmation of their core values; and the media plays a key role in mirroring and amplifying culture values in every culture.

The challenge for other cultures is to deal with a Contest cultures that are economically and militarily dominant. How do you deal with a guy who is sitting on a pile of nuclear weapons and looking for a fight?

Ukraine, Gaza, and other playgrounds

The Contest culture mentality makes it more difficult to negotiate, compromise, or seek consensus. The wars currently raging in Ukraine and Gaza are prime examples, since they are actually proxy wars with significant involvement of the United States. The American Purpose magazine has just headlined an article by Robert Satloff and Dennis Ross on December 1, 2023, titled “Ending the War”, arguing that “Hamas’ surrender would break the binary choice between conflict and ceasefire.”(7) This illustrates two aspects of Contest Culture mentality: (a) the world is perceived as made of binary choices, with no room for nuances or more than two options; and (b) in a conflict there must always be a winner and a loser. Therefore, the way to end the war in Gaza is through the surrender of Hamas. Hardly a point of view to be supported by diplomats. This is equivalent to saying “sure, I can stop fighting… as soon as I beat the other guy, or as soon as the other guy admits defeat!”

The war in Ukraine offers many similar examples, and also illustrates still another aspect of Contest Culture mentality: the valuing of performance over caring. Both in Ukraine and in Gaza there have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians killed, hurt or displaced as a consequence of war. These victims have been consistently referred to as “collateral damage” by Contest Culture spokespersons and by its media.

When Ukraine started a counter-offensive against Russian positions during the Summer of 2023, there were some significant dissenting opinions between Ukrainian military commanders and the Americans who were technically merely “advising” them. Basically, the Americans insisted that the counter-offensive should aim at re-claiming Crimea (taken by the Russians in 2014), even though this would have greater casualties among the Ukrainian forces as a consequence. To the American strategists such casualties should again be regarded as collateral damage in the pursuit of a military victory. The Ukrainians (a Social Pyramid Culture that values caring for others and quality of life, more than it values performance) rejected the idea and opted instead for pushing towards the Eastern front.

True to the Monroe Doctrine, the American leaders can see Europe entangled in a war between Russia and Ukraine. They stoke the war, including the use of propaganda broadcast by Anglo-American media such as CNN, BBC and The Economist (plus practically every lesser-known outlet in the US/UK) while remaining out of it. They encourage confrontation and conflict, while saving their own resources. And they sell more energy to Europe, while Russian suppliers are sanctioned.

Before the war in Ukraine, the European Union (led by Well-oiled Machine Culture Germany and Solar System Culture France) was seeking a pragmatic policy with Russia, strengthening commercial ties and gradually consolidating a peaceful coexistence. This was perceived by Contest Culture America as a potential threat in the medium to long term; the idea of constantly confronting an enemy has been at the heart of the American mindset for centuries. When there is not a clear enemy, this mindset calls for creating one: the Soviet Union, Russia, North Korea, or China. During the Trump administration, even Europe was quoted a few times as an enemy. After all, “if you are not with us, you are against us!”

In the Biden administration the Contest mindset continues, of course. Political parties do not act in a way that would be inconsistent with core culture values. So, the enemy of the month is sometimes Russia, sometimes China… and it could be Europe again if the European Union does not align fully with American postures.

Some nations have tried to declare themselves “non-aligned” when the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was in full scale. India and Brazil were examples and continue to be as we move into 2024. This posture attempts to negate the “with us or against us” stance. However, it is basically not accepted by the US and by the UK, because it does not fit into the Contest Culture mindset (8). Lula and Modi have been criticized by media at home and abroad whenever they position themselves as non-aligned to America. This is perceived by US/UK pundits as being “against” America, because they tend not to perceive anything beyond “with us or against us.”

This is not just a foreign policy issue for governments or an editorial policy issue for media; it runs deeper, because it is a culture issue.

The other kids on the block

Culture affects all nations’ geopolitics attitudes and actions, not just Contest Cultures. Though in 2024 Contest Cultures will continue being the main forces in geopolitics, the ways in which different nations and regional blocs position themselves, and respond to situations, are strongly influenced by their culture types.

Social Pyramid Cultures, for instance, tend to take their high Power Distance values and project them to international relations. They perceive hierarchies among nations and typically consider Western European nations and the United States as sitting at the top of this international social structure. They see themselves as sitting in positions that are inferior to some countries and superior to others. They do not see the international playing field as being leveled, but rather as consisting of a hierarchy in which all nations are striving to climb higher than their present position.

The rather undesirable consequence of this is that these cultures tend to imitate those habits and behaviors of the perceived higher cultures, and to shun those belonging to cultures perceived as inferior. These perceived “superior-subordinate” relationships can often stifle international negotiations about trade, security and economic development, since diplomats unconsciously adopt hierarchical attitudes, rather than negotiating from a position of equality. And they do try to “climb the ladder” of international hierarchy by rising above certain countries as they attempt to get closer to the (perceived) top.

China is the most typical Traditional Family Culture, plus it has the world’s highest score in the so-called Fifth Dimension, Long-Term Orientation, which includes Relativism and Flexibility among its characteristics. China’s foreign policy stances have everything to do with its culture, which is quite often misunderstood by Western analysts and underestimated as a determining factor. The Economist, for instance, has created a weekly blog named “The Drum Tower”, which positions itself as describing “What the world makes of China—and what China makes of the world”. However, the authors fail to realize that they are describing China through a (very culturally biased) British lens; and through that lens they have the pretention to describe how China sees the world. Their attempts are embarrassingly inaccurate, due to an impressive ignorance of the core values underpinning Chinese culture.

China’s positions in geopolitics are totally linked to its long-term orientation, which drives thinking in decades rather than in quarters, plus their emphasis on flexibility and relativism. In practical terms, for instance, this means that the Chinese government believes that Taiwan will be eventually become part of the Chinese nation… and it will happen without the need for military action. To them, it is simply a matter of time; and of exerting influence through many other means, expecting outcomes in perhaps a generation or two, rather than in a year or two. Contest Culture leaders and the media in places like the US, UK and Australia talk about the China-Taiwan issue in terms of months and a few years; meanwhile, the Chinese consider it something to be resolved in decades. The mismatch of expectations is striking.

Similarly, Contest Culture analysts describe China’s New Silk Road project as the construction of an intercontinental road that is taking too long to be completed. To the Chinese government this is much more than a road; it is a pathway to exert political, economic and cultural influence over time. They expect outcomes in half a century, not half a decade; and they have no problem in waiting patiently for these outcomes.

As Professor Yuen Yen Ang said in her brilliant “How the West (and Beijing) got China wrong” lecture at Camden in 2019: “What everyone needs to understand is that China’s strength lies not in brute power, but in its flexibility” (9). The long-term perspective allows China’s governments to be flexible while pursuing goals that may lie 20 years or more in the future.

This is why China is willing to be patient as it acts in geopolitics: it is not concerned with winning issues in the short term. China plays the (very) long game and can adapt its strategy on the way.

Network Cultures, on the other hand are constantly seeking consensus also in international relations, while also valuing quality of life and caring for others instead of performance. They tend to have a more equality-based approach in trade and diplomacy, which often turns out to be more effective in brokering deals and agreements. These values might put such cultures in a better position to facilitate complex international agreements (on issues such as climate change) when compared to Contest cultures, for instance.

What the future holds

In a world where physical power and military might were essential to dominate the world scene, it was only natural that Contest cultures would prevail. But as we go further into the 21st Century, there is a possibility that other values (and skills deriving from them) could gain more prominence and benefit Network cultures as facilitators of increasingly complex international relationships.

Solar System cultures, notably France, will continue to play important roles in diplomacy linked to this type of culture’s skill in handling both hierarchy and individual freedoms. They could form interesting alliances with Network cultures in the drive towards better quality of life and peaceful coexistence in a complex globalized world.

China, on the other hand, continues to play the long game. It can wait for Contest cultures to exhaust themselves in immediate conflicts with Russia or with other players in the Middle East and elsewhere. It can keep gradually increasing its influence in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America (not to mention Asia itself). China’s culture values include the belief that it will eventually prevail, without having to actually engage in military action. Perhaps our grandchildren will see a different world order in terms of geopolitics. That is what China is aiming for.


  1. Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Harper, New York, 2015.
  2. Hofstede, Geert – Culture’s Consequences – Sage Publications, 2003.
  3. Hofstede, Geert – op. cit.
  4. Wursten, Huib –(2019). The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and Managing in a Globalized World. ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347
  5. Lanzer, Fernando – Organizational Culture and Climate: understanding, maintaining and changing – KDP Publishing, 2018.
  6. Eisenhower, Dwight E. – Final Address – National Archives, U.S. Government.
  7. Satloff, Robert, et al. – Ending the war – American Purpose, December 1, 2023
  8. How to survive a superpower split – The Economist, April 11, 2023.
  9. Ang, Yuen Yuen –



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