Culture and Peace: why Can’t We All Get Along?

by | May 11, 2024 | 0 comments

Culture and Peace: Why Can’t We All Get Along?

By Fernando Lanzer


Every world leader and every beauty pageant contestant will say that they want “World Peace;” so, why is it that humans engaged in wars throughout history and continue to do so in the 21st Century, an era that has been heralded as “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”, a time of harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding? From a cultural values perspective, the explanation lies in analyzing which cultures foster confrontation, the acceptance of conflict, and the promotion of performance to the detriment of caring and quality of life. It is plain to see that some cultural values are drivers of peace, while other values push in the opposite direction. The different World Views that Sigmund Freud called Weltanschauung and Huib Wursten identified as the Seven Worldviews of national cultures can help us understand the influence of cultural values in getting some countries involved in wars more frequently than others. 

Key words: Culture; War; Peace; Worldviews.


Yuval Noah Harari tells us that people go to war because of the stories they believe in (1). Stories are an expression of culture and of its core values. So, which kinds of cultures are most likely to engage in war? What are the core stories, or narratives, that underlie the Seven Worldviews of national identified by Huib Wursten (2) and how do they relate to war and peace?

The Contest Culture Conundrum

The Contest culture’s primary worldview is that life is a never-ending series of competitions, from which winners and losers will emerge. The competitions are framed as a constant clash between two opposing forces. From this clash something positive results.

Therefore, confrontation is encouraged as a way to face and manage conflict. The consequence is that Contest cultures can easily escalate disagreements to the point of seeking solutions by force and/or military interventions. This is often expressed in films that show diplomats as weak, while the heroes are portrayed as people who fight and beat the enemies. Diplomats are shown as naïve individuals who get in the way of the real solution, which is for the heroes to step in and fight their way to victory.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union in 2012, for six decades of work in advancing peace in Europe.

The New York Times was not impressed. They called the award “a gift” rather than a deserved prize, and criticized the EU for “inept management of the Euro zone crisis.” In American TV, the Nobel Peace prize has been humorously referred to as “not a real Nobel Prize,” when compared to achievements in science. 

The American press had also not been impressed when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama earlier, in 2009. Apparently pundits felt that he had not really done anything significant to deserve it. Contest cultures (US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) have a bias for action; they value seeing people doing something concrete and specific, providing a tangible result, in order to deserve praise.

In this sense, we can already see Contest culture values at odds with the concept of peace. To Contest culture populations, going to war is a clear action; fighting is an action, whether between individuals or between nations. But what is peace? Is it defined by a non-action, such as not going to war, or not fighting? The act of not doing something does not sit well in cultures that seek to promote and reward action.

Contest culture values such as standing up for your values and confronting those with opposing views can be quite easily endorsed almost universally; but there can always be too much of a good thing. Confrontation can escalate; and if that continues, it can lead to war. 

Looking at the world as a constant clash between two opposing forces can also lead to oversimplification of geopolitics. The American president George W. Bush gave other countries an ultimatum when the US decided to invade Iraq in early 2003: “you are either with us, or against us!” By doing so, he immediately sabotaged any attempt to de-escalate the situation and shut the door on diplomacy. He also failed to acknowledge the complexity of international relations in the 21st Century, when economies are much more interdependent than ever before. As Bush made that statement, other Contest cultures immediately sided with that stance: the UK, Canada and Australia formed what was called “a coalition of the willing” to declare war against Iraq, defying the United Nations and many European nations who were hesitating about engaging in military action. The French were labeled as traitors and there were calls in America to boycott France, its culture and products, culminating with stopping all reference to “French fries” and starting to call them “freedom fries.” These manifestations of American popular culture are the visible part of the culture iceberg. The invisible portion of that iceberg consists of values advocating the use of force to make a point.

When your worldview contains a filter that sees potential confrontations anywhere and everywhere, mass paranoia is not that far away. As Reznal Odnanrev (4) has mentioned in a presentation made at the Global Forum on Action Learning (Shanghai, 2007), “America needs an enemy; and it they cannot find one, they might invent one!”

It’s plain to see that Contest culture values can easily lead to war. When confrontation and competition are the core concepts driving behavior, diplomacy and de-escalation are not a priority. The challenge for Contest cultures is actually to stay out of trouble; avoiding conflict is something that goes against their core values.

Of course, culture is not the only factor driving war and peace; there are economic considerations as well. But when a specific type of worldview fosters confrontation and conflict, it determines in which ways different nations pursue their economic interests.

It’s the economy, stupid!

A popular view is that wars happen due to the pursuit of economic interests. According to this perspective, wars will always be about territory and the resources available there. To this point, Mahatma Gandhi has remarked out that “there are enough resources for everyone’s need; but not enough for everyone’s greed.” So, the problem with greater weight is values, rather than the resources themselves.

Another view is that nations fight each other not only for resources, but also for markets. This notion is embedded in the concept of “nation-building,” which also supported the US invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to gaining access to natural resources in these countries, building them up as nations would mean opening markets that could become heavy buyers of products and services provided by other lands.

Yet there is still another market: when the market is war itself. Fighters need arms. In any war, arms manufacturers become the first winners, regardless of the outcome. Plus, the outbreak of war immediately spreads fear across the world and increases the demand for arms in countries who fear that they might be attacked.

Arms manufacturers are market makers. They foster conflict anywhere, in order to generate demand.

When Donald Trump threatens to lead the United States to leave NATO and “let Europe defend itself on its own,” he is basically creating demand for arms in Europe. When he insists that European countries should spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, he is also creating demand for arms. And he is being supported in his actions by Contest culture values.

These war-endorsing values are not only the confrontation-friendly attitude. They include, in addition, the glorification of war through cultural expressions such as films and TV, where tales abound showcasing war heroes and their heroic feats.

High scores in Performance Orientation (or Masculinity) also tend to stoke the fires of war rather than the calm of peace. All Contest cultures have high scores in this dimension.

The Fifth Dimension

The Seven Worldviews created by Wursten consider the first four value dimensions identified by Hofstede: Power Distance (PDI), Individualism (IDV), Performance Orientation (PER, or MAS in Hofstede’s original label), and Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI). We can also consider the fifth dimension, Relativism (REL, or LTO in Hofstede’s original nomenclature), identified by Michael Harris Bond (5), as an additional influencing factor.

All Contest cultures score low on the Fifth Dimension; this means they value discipline, rather than flexibility; they favor a short-term perspective instead of a long-term perspective; and that they are normative, rather than relativistic. 

The link to war is that normative cultures take social standards and values very seriously, to the point of developing social movements such as Political Correctness and Cancel Culture. This leads to a cultural attitude of less tolerance towards social norms that are different from yours. In Contest Cultures, since they are egalitarian and individualistic, there tends to be less tolerance towards countries that have hierarchical (perceived as authoritarian), and collectivist cultures. This translates into “we should make that country democratic, whether they like it or not!” Sadly, this is used as a righteous way of justifying war, in order to “defend freedom and our (American) way of life.” This has been used to support every American and British military engagement in the past 200 years.

We need to talk about China

Looking at other cultural worldviews, we can see different approaches to war and peace.

It is interesting to see that China (a Traditional Family type of culture), labeled by American Governments as “the enemy” (taking turns with Russia, North Korea, and even Europe during the Trump Administration), adopts an approach consistent with the Traditional Family type of worldview. It is an approach summarized in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” (3), which in summary includes intimidating opponents while avoiding an open conflict.

The Chinese worldview also includes the highest-scoring Long-Term Orientation on the planet. While Contest cultures tend to value thinking in quarters, Family cultures tend to think in decades. A popular view in the Chinese culture is that China will eventually dominate the world; not by waging war on other countries, but simply by its sheer size and the perceived superiority of its culture values. And when the Chinese say “eventually,” they mean decades. The culture encourages them to be patient and to expect that dominance might come in a century, rather than in the next three years.

This is not to say that the Chinese do not invest in arms; of course they do. But the values behind it are of intimidating potential enemies, without having to actually engage in an open conflict.

It is important to note that the US, UK and Australia have adopted a major shift in foreign policy when addressing their political and economic relationship with the Chinese during the Biden Administration.

While the period from 2010 to 2020 was characterized by an attempt to compete with China in commercial and non-confrontational terms, it seems that in this decade these countries reassessed their position and shifted to a more confrontational stance, more coherent with Contest values. 

Perhaps they realized that they would lose the competition with China in the long run, unless they moved to a more confronting discourse. It is quite visible that the statements made by pundits in the media and the ones made by political leaders have shifted to criticizing the Chinese at every opportunity and describing their efforts as ineffective and misguided.

The Chinese, in turn, have maintained their policies focused on the long-term perspective they have always had, trusting that they can emerge victorious without needing to engage in an actual war. They are likely to maintain that stance in the coming years, since they are the highest-scoring culture in the Fifth Dimension.

In Brazil, a Social Pyramid Culture (hierarchical and collectivistic), there is a saying that goes: “quando um não quer, dois não brigam.” A rough translation is that “when one of them doesn’t want it, two people won’t fight.” President Lula used this expression recently in reference to the war in Ukraine, trying to say that the war continues because both sides want it to continue, instead of seeking some kind of truce or peace agreement.

The challenge for Contest Cultures is typically to step away from the natural confrontation stance, or a “win-lose” attitude, in order to negotiate a compromise for peace.

More Europe, or less Europe?

Angela Merkel reiterated that question several times at the end of her mandate, and the debate continues. The challenge for Europe, from a cultural perspective, will be to manage its own diversity while seeking greater unity in terms of dealing with war and peace. It has managed well to avoid a major open conflict within the European Union, but it will need to do better regarding coping with conflicts beyond its borders, notably concerning Russia.

The realpolitik with Russia seemed to be working well, until American activism upset the delicate balance in the Europe-Russia pas de deux and the conflict in Ukraine broke out. This was a major setback for European interests while it played well into American economic interests.

Will the same happen with regards to China? Wil Europe’s realpolitik with China slip into conflict as well?

It will depend on how the different cultures within Europe deal with the choices between war and peace.

Network cultures (the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries) are characterized by very low scores in Performance Orientation, low Power Distance and high Individualism. Their worldview can be summarized by the notion of several forces (rather than two) pulling simultaneously in different directions. In order to compensate for this dispersive tendency, individuals much seek some form of consensus in order to cooperate with each other and live together in communities.

These cultures tend to avoid addressing conflict by force and avoid military action. Their natural tendency is to seek conflict resolution through consensus, with some degree of compromise, rather than by one side trying to overcome the other. Herein lies the big difference between Network cultures and Contest cultures: while both accept conflict, rather than avoiding it, the first tackle conflicts by seeking consensus, while the latter seek winning against an opponent. It’s no coincidence that Network cultures have tried to remain neutral in regional conflicts. They also enhance mediation and diplomacy as a way to resolve international confrontation without resorting to military escalation.

Solar System cultures (such as France, Poland, Spain and Italy) have yet a different way of handling conflicts, engaging in wars and trying to maintain peace. These cultures have the characteristic of a continuing tension between hierarchy (high PDI) and Individualism (high IDV). On one hand, high PDI leads people to seek a higher position in the perceived social hierarchy, dominating others while respecting those that are perceived to hold such a high position that it is difficult to be challenged. 

This stance has historically led such cultures to occasionally engage in conflicts and war. Conflicts are not avoided; rather, they are faced and tackled. The way to tackle them is different from what we see in Contest and in Network cultures; it is not as directly confrontational, nor as directly consensus-seeking. Instead, Solar System cultures tend to seek resolution through a complex series of power plays and diplomacy, which can also get out of control and escalate, though not as quickly and directly as in Contest cultures.

The results are that these cultures can breed skilled diplomats that seek to avoid armed conflict while “saving face” for political leaders and the public opinion of the nations involved. However, escalation and open armed conflicts may happen more easily than it does when Network cultures are involved.

Well-oiled Machine cultures (basically Germanic cultures) show yet a fifth different way of handling conflicts, war and peace. Their basic worldview is that life needs to be planned, organized and structured, with an emphasis on individual responsibility and discipline. 

High scores in Performance Orientation (MAS) can lead to open conflict, but higher scores in Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), compared to Contest cultures, which all score lower in this dimension, act towards avoiding open conflict and the uncertainty it involves, unless the risks can be mitigated. Order, stability and the avoidance of uncertainty still prevail, pushing for peace, while high Individualism (IDV) and Performance Orientation (MAS) push towards open conflict and war. 

The way Europe will be able to manage all of these different Worldviews will define whether we will see other wars in the continent in the 21st Century, or whether we will experience a lasting peace. 

Europe is not likely to break up the European Union and split back into totally independent nation states. The challenge lies in maintaining cultural diversity, and managing it, while being able to increase cooperation and interdependence to ensure peace not only within the European Economic Community, but also in relation to other global players like the United States, Russia and China.

What if they gave a war and nobody came?

This was the title of a comedy film, with dramatic layers and a pacifist message, directed (6) in 1970 by Hy Averback. It highlighted a shift away from glorifying war in Hollywood productions, towards promoting peace and denouncing the absurdity of war.

What was the Nobel Prize Committee trying to tell the world when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to an American President and to the European Union? That diplomacy is important and should be praised. That peace in the world involves acting for peace in the US (the President of the most powerful military force in the world) and in Europe (then the largest economic bloc in the world). That such initiatives should be cherished rather than taken for granted.

So why were many American pundits so irritated by these awards?

Because they hate compromise. They dislike the notion of conceding, rather than overpowering another. And both prizes were in praise of diplomacy and the art of reaching compromise and conceding something, rather than overpowering your opponents by force.

As the song goes: “war is stupid, and people are stupid, and love has no value in some strange quarters” (7).

So, why do we still have so many wars and conflicts going on in the world? Why can’t we all get along and maintain world peace?

The forces pushing for war have to do with economic interests and with culture values. The economic interests include the arms industry all over the world, perhaps the most powerful of the interests involved. To overcome these forces and ensure peace, we will need to increase the awareness of cultural values and foster those culture values that push towards peace and away from war.

The idea of peace needs to be promoted with more flair. “Give peace a chance”, said John Lennon. Do you have to be a rock star to get some attention? We should all be wiser than that. Yes, war is stupid. We should not need Boy George to remind us of that. We should understand this idea and defend it against proponents of war. Especially when the proponents of war look handsome and confident. That is when the idea of war becomes most dangerous and we need to stand against it.


  1. Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Harper, New York, 2015
  2. Wursten, Huib – The 7Mental Images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized World. AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347, 2019
  3. Odnanrev, Reznal – Concepts of Culture – White paper presented at the 14th Global Forum on Executive Development, Shanghai, 2007
  4. Tzu, Sun – The Art of War – Filiquarian; First Thus edition, 2007.
  5. Bond, Michael Harris – The Social Psychology of the Chinese People – Oxford University Press, 1986
  6. Averback, Hy – Suppose they gave a war, and nobody came? – MGM, 1970.
  7. Culture Club – The War Song – Virgin Music, 1984


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