Tag Archives: Religion and Foreign Policy

Religion in the National Intelligence Council Report

One often hears that America’s foreign policy elites don’t understand religion. Mostly secular themselves, they dismiss religion as a factor in world events; at most, they believe, religion operates as a pretext for other, deeper motivations, like politics and economics. This attitude can blind policymakers to reality. Even after 9/11, some foreign policy experts continue to minimize the religious roots of Islamism.

Some of this attitude is on display in the most recent National Intelligence Council Report, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, released earlier this month. The report, prepared every four years for the incoming administration, is meant to highlight medium and long-term trends in world affairs. Global Trends 2030 has received a lot of attention, primarily for its prediction of a decline in American power and a shift to a multipolar world. The report is also noteworthy, though, for the way it downplays religion’s role in shaping events.

It’s not that Global Trends 2030 completely ignores religion. The report discusses political Islam — we’re now paying attention to that phenomenon, at least — though some of the analysis might strike readers as optimistic, for example, the assertion that the protesters of the Arab Spring “acted in the name of democratic values, not in the name of religion.” (Apparently the report was prepared before recent events in Egypt). The problem is that the report minimizes religion. In 140 pages, Continue reading

Hate Speech and Foreign Relations

At Opinio Juris, my friend and former colleague Peter Spiro has an interesting post on recent events in Egypt and Libya. Peter argues that there is a foreign relations rationale for banning hate speech. In a world where obscure YouTube videos like “The Innocence of Muslims” can result in the murder of one of our ambassadors, he says, the US should consider banning such material. He notes that European countries have stricter limits on religious hate speech than we and still manage to have functioning democracies.

As I say, it’s an interesting post. Actually, though, this doesn’t seem a workable solution for the US, legally or politically. First, I don’t think Peter means “hate speech,” which typically connotes speech likely to incite violence against minorities. A ban on “hate speech” wouldn’t have applied to “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was not likely to incite violence against anyone, except perhaps the film’s producers.  I think the category Peter is looking for is “offensive” speech, specifically, speech that would offend listeners’ religious sensibilities. It’s true that European countries are more comfortable than the US with Continue reading

Ax Murderers, Values, and International Law

At a NATO conference in Hungary in 2004, an Azeri officer, Ramil Safarov, murdered one of the other participants, an Armenian officer named Gurgen Margaryan. Actually, that doesn’t quite capture it. Safarov broke into Margaryan’s room, stabbed him while he was sleeping, then severed his neck with an ax. Safarov confessed to the crime; Hungary convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Two weeks ago, Hungary extradited Safarov to Azerbaijan, which promptly pardoned him, promoted him, restored his back pay for his years in the Hungarian prison, and generally gave him a hero’s welcome.

The extradition and pardon have caused a storm of protest — from Armenia, of course, but also from the UN, NATO, the US, Russia, and several church bodies within and outside Hungary. Hungary’s  Lutheran and Reformed Churches wrote to condemn “the unacceptable amnesty” given Safarov. The Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference was more circumspect, writing only to express solidarity with Armenians and condemn ethnic violence, but the point was clear. The World Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches in the US, also condemned the actions of Hungary and Azerbaijan. On Friday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, through a spokesman, strongly criticized the pardon, stating that “ethnically motivated hate crimes of this gravity should be deplored and properly punished.”

How can one begin to make sense of this incredible episode? It’s important to focus on three things. First, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked for twenty years in one of the Caucasus’s “frozen conflicts,” a dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabagh. Indeed, Azerbaijan alleges that Safarov was incited by Margaryan’s insults to the Azeri flag — at his trial, Safarov did not mention any such insults, and of course they could not have justified this brutal murder even if they had occurred — and by injuries Safarov’s family suffered in Continue reading

Alawites, Alevis, and Secularism in the Middle East

I’ve written before on CLR Forum about the plight of the Middle East’s Christians. As religious minorities, Christians favor state secularism; the revolutions of the Arab Spring, which have tended to bring Islamist parties to power, offer Christians as much to fear as to praise. But Christians are not the only religious minorities in the Middle East. As this very interesting essay by Baylor historian Philip Jenkins explains, Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey — two different groups, despite the similar-sounding names — number in the tens of millions. Both groups consider themselves Muslim, but some of their beliefs and practices differ dramatically from both Sunni and Shia Islam. For example, Alawites and Alevis drink wine and celebrate some Christian and Zoroastrian holidays; they do not veil women. Most Muslims, and certainly most Islamists, dismiss them as heretical.

Like Christians, Alawites and Alevis have tended to support secular parties: the Ba’ath Party in Syria and Kemalist parties in Turkey. Jenkins explains:

[B]oth movements . . . represented powerful bastions against religious extremism in the region, as they had everything to lose from any enforcement of strict Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. Both sects were powerfully invested in secularism, which in a Middle Eastern context usually meant Continue reading

Conversations: Andrew Preston

Last week, we reviewed Cambridge historian Andrew Preston’s very worthwhile new book on religion in American foreign policy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith. In the book, Preston (left) addresses religion’s complex, but constant, role in American diplomacy from colonial times to the present. This week, Preston kindly agrees to answer some questions from CLR Forum. He discusses historians’ tendency to ignore the influence of religion, the place of “Christian republicanism”  and anti-Catholicism in American foreign policy, and the ways in which today’s secular human-rights campaigners echo the universalist notions of nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. He also discusses the impact of post-War secularization, tensions between the religious right and religious left, and the place of religion in President Obama’s foreign policy.

CLR Forum: Andrew, you note that, although religion has greatly influenced the formation and execution of American foreign policy, most diplomatic histories neglect its role. Why do you think that is? Does the neglect reflect a realist approach that denies the importance of ideology in foreign relations generally or a failure of diplomatic historians to come to terms with religion in particular? 

Preston: It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but I think the general neglect of religion reflects both the prevailing dominance of the realist approach and the fact that religion is still poorly understood, and even seen as strange and alien, by most academic historians of international relations and foreign policy. This is despite the cultural turn’s phenomenal impact on diplomatic history, which now avidly incorporates non-traditional categories of historical analysis such as race, gender, and post-modernism.

CLR Forum: An important theme in Sword of the Spirit is the impact on American foreign policy of what you call “Christian republicanism,” a unique “blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” According to this worldview, Christianity is compatible with political freedom; indeed, Christianity is the source of political freedom. How did this ideology develop, and how is it distinctively American?

Preston: I’m not sure it’s distinctively American, though its endurance in American political thought for several centuries is unique. But the ideology of Christian republicanism developed out of the English and Scottish Reformations, when Protestant reformers argued that anyone who put Continue reading

Preston, “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith”

From Knopf, an  interesting new book by Cambridge historian Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012). Preston addresses a topic historians often neglect: the role of religion in American foreign policy. Americans are, by and large, a religious people, and this has influenced the way their government has acted on the world stage for centuries. Religion’s influence has been complex, inspiring progressive internationalists like Franklin Roosevelt (Prestons’s discussion of FDR’s religiosity was for me the most unexpected and intriguing part of the book) and conservative nationalists like George W. Bush. Nonetheless, Preston identifies a unifying theme, “Christian republicanism,” which he defines as “a blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” This worldview prizes religious liberty as the foundation of democracy and views it as the most important of human rights. Indeed, Preston shows how the protection of religious liberty abroad has been a constant theme in American diplomacy. In the nineteenth century, the State Department advocated for missionaries, including Mormons, with foreign governments, even though the Department often found the missionaries a nuisance. In the twentieth century, Henry Kissinger’s attempts to get Congress to grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status failed largely because Kissinger underestimated American sympathy for the plight of Soviet Jews. CLR Forum readers will be interested in the shifting perceptions of Catholicism. Although for much of American history, the Catholic Church was seen as adverse to Christian republicanism – McKinley famously justified the annexation of the Catholic Philippines in order to “Christianize” the Filipinos – that view changed during the Cold War, perhaps as a result of a common enemy America and the Church had in Communism. Preston closes his book with a prediction: although religion “may not always determine the direction” of American foreign policy, it “will be an ever-present factor.” That seems a good bet.

Kimmage Reviews Preston’s “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith”

Here is an interesting and generally very favorable review by Michael Kimmage (History, CUA) of Andrew Preston recent book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf 2012), which was noted by our guest, Anna Su, here.  Perhaps Anna will have some thoughts about the review.  A bit from Kimmage:

Preston’s new book on religion and foreign policy . . . is about America and Americans. In over six hundred pages, Preston charts the scope and the centrality of religion in American politics, from the seventeenth century to the present. This book merges American history with the history of Christianity, and in doing so it qualifies the story of Christian empire. Unlike the Christian empires of the past, America has never had an established church. Nor did the American Revolution result in empire. The animating spirit behind much of Preston’s narrative is Christian republicanism, and no Christian republic has ever had the territory or the influence or the power that the United States would come to possess.           

Preston’s argument is worth outlining in detail. It has the shape of a double helix. One strand entails the melding of Christian sentiment with state power, through diplomatic maneuvers and the waging of war. This is the sword of the spirit, cherished by the Puritans and by George W. Bush alike. The other strand inverts the ideal of the church militant, appealing instead to a Christian hunger for international peace, for the beating of swords into ploughshares, for a fraternity of nations liberated from war. This is the shield of faith. Preston weaves these metaphors, both taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, into a sweeping historical analysis.

US Commission on International Religious Freedom Issues Annual Report

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent agency within the federal government, today issued its annual report on religious freedom violations around the world. The International Religious Freedom Act authorizes the Commission to study violations of religious freedom around the world and name “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) — those countries that have practiced or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom, including systematic torture and other human rights violations. This year, the Commission named 16 CPCs: Burma, the Democratic People‘s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the People‘s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. The problems of Christians in the Middle East are extensively discussed, but so are violations directed at dissenting Muslim and other communities. This annual “naming and shaming” process has drawn criticism as another example of American overreaching, but the designation of CPCs does not always have an impact on American foreign policy. Although IFRA generally requires the President to take action in response to the designation of a country as a CPC, the statute also allows the President to waive this requirement if circumstances warrant, and Presidents often do so — an pattern the Commission criticizes in its report.

Hoover & Johnston: Faith & Foreign Policy

Dr. Dennis  R. Hoover is executive director of the Center on Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global EngagementDr. Douglas M. Johnston is founder and president of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy.  Together, Doctors Hoover and Johnston have edited a new collection, Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings (Baylor, 2012).  The articles and other shorter works in the volume reflect on the meeting of secularism, faith, religion, morality, and foreign policy.  The authors commence with foundational pieces:   New York Times Columnist David Brooks reflects on the nature of the secularist ethic  in foreign policy generally; Atlantic Correspondent Robert D. Kaplan explores secularism in antiquity; and Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) discusses St. Augustine’s political realism with accompanying excerpts from Augustine’s City of God (ca. sixth century C.E.).  Other notable chapters discuss religious ethics and armed conflict, religious peacemaking, religion and international terrorism, and religion and globalization (the table of contents—which highlights the remaining topics—may be accessed here).

Please find the abstract from Baylor Press after the jump. Continue reading