Iriye argues that the traditional understanding of international relations as competition for power and wealth, and the consequent shunting aside of cultural issues as a matter for woolly-headed idealists, needs to be rethought. His history of cultural internationalism -- that is, the attempt to build cultural understanding, cooperation, and a sense of shared values across national borders through student exchanges, lectures, and the like -- shows that it has been a constant feature of twentieth-century international relations.
That culture is a real element of national power and needs to be understood as such by hard-headed realists is undeniable. What is harder to argue is that a genuine cultural universalism is possible outside the context of liberal political and economic institutions. The record that Iriye presents is not encouraging. Culture has been repeatedly appropriated as a weapon, by Germany and Japan in the 1930s, for instance, and in the Third World it often degenerated into a multiculturalism that emphasized particularism over universalism. To the extent that there has been genuine cultural convergence in recent decades, it would seem to be based more on economic globalization and the spread of democratic ideology than on the work of cultural internationalists per se.
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