American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 1999

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The author is Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay, adapted from a special issue of Orbis (Spring 1998) on the topic "Faith and Statecraft," appeared in the Foreign Policy Research Institute WIRE of March 1998. Eight other articles on the subject "Faith and Statecraft" appeared in the same special issue of Orbis.*




by Walter A. McDougall


or does anything about it. I refer to the upsurge in awareness

of religion’s impact on international politics, a phenomenon almost

as startling as the crackup of the Soviet empire which faith-based

movements did so much to promote. In Afghanistan, ragtag muja-

heddin defied the Red Army and shouted “Allah O Akbar” as their

U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles knocked Soviet aircraft out of the

sky. In Poland, Lech Walesa placed the Solidarity labor movement

under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, and Pope John Paul II

funneled clandestine support to the Polish resistance.

In East Germany, Lutheran churches sheltered dissidents and partly inspired the massive nonviolent demonstrations that brought down the Berlin Wall.And as Librarian of Congress James Billington has recounted in Orbis, Orthodox clergy and grandmothers stood guard around Boris Yeltsin and the patriots holed up in Moscow’s White House, prayerfully imploring the soldiers in tanks to obey a higher law than that of the Communist coup-makers. The witness of religious leaders such as Desmond Tutu and repentant clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church helped to bring down apartheid in South Africa, and today the pope’s witness challenges Castro’s regime in Cuba.

On the unhappy side of the ledger, Islamic fundamentalists played the decisive role in the installation of an anti-American theocratic republic in Iran and continue to stoke the terrorism that frustrates the Arab-Israeli peace process. And since the end of the Cold War religious zeal seems to express itself less often in peaceful struggles against tyrannical regimes than in violent assaults against innocent peoples, most tragically in Bosnia and Algeria.

Yet, while foreign policy analysts grant that faith-based political action seems more influential in world affairs today than at any time since the Enlightenment, the University of Pennsylvania library catalog lists a mere seven titles published under the rubric “Religion and International Affairs” in the past decade.

Why So Little Is Known
It is not difficult to imagine some of the reasons for the scarcity of literature on religion and international relations.

     First, very few scholars, much less pundits, theologians, or diplomats, display expertise in both fields. Some have a profound understanding of one or more religious traditions, perhaps also a personal faith, but lack knowledge or experience of the rough and tumble of politics. Others are wise in the ways of statecraft either from analysis or practice, but confess to being out of their depth in spiritual matters.

     Secondly, a profound disconnect would seem to hamper analysis of the phenomenon for the simple reason that international relations are immanent—an arena of power and conflict over discernible material stakes—whereas religious motivations are transcendent and their impact unpredictable, if not immeasurable. Hence, religion is an unwelcome intruder that confounds rational models of world politics based on balance of power, economic self-interest, or comparative sociology. Conversely, if one accepts on faith a prophetic vision in which divine Providence, the Mandate of Heaven, or the eternal play of yin and yang is the engine that drives history forward, then the rise and fall of empires, indeed all creaturely struggles for dominion and wealth, are but ephemeral monuments to human vanity hardly in need of explaining at all. How does one make sense of occasions when some people act in this world according to precepts “not of this world”—when, in effect, time and eternity intersect?

     A third reason why our otherwise sophisticated civilization has so loose a grip on this subject is that we in the West have misread, or more often nowadays forgotten, our own history. The standard textbook account teaches that religion was central to the international relations of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when the princes, chastised by the bloody wars of the Reformation, resolved to purge their conflicts of religious passions. The 1555 formula of cuius regio eius religio (whoever’s domain, his religion prevails) was reaffirmed, and henceforth European states practiced diplomacy according to the secular principle of raison d’état (reason of state, or national interest). Political scientists today take this Westphalian system for granted, trace its spread around the world through the agencies of imperialism and decolonization, and wonder if global economics, communications, and concerns such as the environment and weapons of mass destruction are bringing the curtain down on the secular nation-state system.

The textbook account, however, is too pat. To begin with, Europe’s so-called religious wars had at least as much to do with normal dynastic rivalry as they did with theology. The Catholic French fought as vigorously against the dominant Catholic Hapsburgs as did the Protestant princes. Spain and Venice answered the papacy’s call for a coalition to contain the Muslim Turks, culminating in the naval victory at Lepanto (1571), but the other Catholic rulers, fearing Spanish power, stayed home. The sixteenth-century “religious wars” in France were civil conflicts among rival claimants to the throne, and the ultimate victor, Henri de Bourbon, happily converted to Catholicism (“Paris is well worth a mass”) to placate the majority of his subjects. The English Civil War—Cromwell’s Presbyterian crusade notwithstanding—began and ended as a political quarrel between crown and parliament. Even the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48) was as much a dispute over how much autonomy the princes of the Holy Roman Empire would enjoy than it was a fight for Germany’s soul. To be sure, all sides in these conflicts stoked religious fervor to rally support, often with savage results. But none was a crusade in the medieval sense.

Nor did religion cease to influence statecraft after Westphalia. Louis XIV, in a fit of folly, revoked the tolerant Edict of Nantes and drove the Protestant Huguenots out of France, thereby enriching those states such as Prussia that welcomed the talented, hard-working Calvinists. France’s refusal to permit Huguenots to emigrate to her colonies likewise weakened Quebec and contributed to the British conquest of North America. To be sure, sectarian rivalry played little role in eighteenth-century European diplomacy, but the Romantic reaction against the excesses of Reason in the French Revolution restored religious conviction to a prominent place in world affairs. From Alexander I to Nicholas II, Russian tsars repeatedly took fateful initiatives in part because they styled themselves champions of Orthodoxy. Napoleon III, even as he fought for the cause of Italian unification, occupied Rome to protect the papacy from the anticlerical Italian nationalists. Bismarck claimed to have undergone an adult conversion (albeit he was said to believe in a God who never disagreed with him), and Gladstone was notorious for subjecting his foreign policy to the test of Christian morality. Gladstone, in fact, was the principal role model for T. Woodrow Wilson.

Americans have been especially prone to justify their behavior abroad in Protestant Christian terms, however much they may disagree about what constitutes right and wrong. The fact that most American churches were on board for the Spanish American War and acquisition of colonies goes far to explain the United States’ abrupt shift into self-confident overseas expansion in 1898. When the Truman administration had to justify nuclear armaments and rally Americans to wage the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Sheen provided the moral theology to reassure the nation. Truman and Eisenhower themselves, not to mention John Foster Dulles, unabashedly defined the Cold War as a spiritual contest and invoked God’s blessing on their defense of civilization.

In sum, the interplay of religion and politics has been and remains more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests. In some cases, apparent religious conflicts—from early modern times to the Northern Irish and Bosnian strife today—can be interpreted as familiar turf battles in which religious prejudice has played the role of a “force multiplier,” inspiring greater zeal and sacrifice from the masses. By the same token, the origins and outcomes of apparent political conflicts—from the Crimean and Russo-Japanese wars to the recent war in Afghanistan—were powerfully influenced by religion. It was Napoleon, after all, who recognized that “In war, the moral is to the material as three is to one.”

Finally, our notions of history are skewed by the tendency of Western intellectuals to think in dialectical terms. Thus, we set realism and idealism, or secularism and religion, against one another as if they were mutually exclusive. In fact, the most profound students of Christian moral theology from Thomas Aquinas to Niebuhr argued that whatever is “unrealistic” (hence contrary to natural law) cannot by definition be moral! Applied to statecraft, this means that to expect utopian results from diplomacy and war is inevitably to invite immoral consequences—whether the crusade in question is one of self-righteous knights or innocent children led like lambs to the slaughter. Courage borne of religious faith may expand the bounds of the possible, but politics, as Bismarck said, remains the art of the possible. A truly moral approach to statecraft, therefore, takes human nature as it is, respects limits, and acknowledges the contingency of all human creations. It is one that pursues and upholds international order, seeks peace but prepares in extremis to fight, practices proportionality of force, receives defeated enemies back into the fold, and is honest and realistic about one’s own ends and means. For there is no virtue in stupidity or dishonesty, however lofty one’s motives. As Winston Churchill observed, “The high belief in the perfection of man is appropriate in a man of the cloth but not in a prime minister.”

This line of thought suggests that the sort of reasonable, restrained balance of power system founded in Westphalia, promoted by philosophers such as Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and Immanuel Kant, and nurtured by such hard-headed diplomats as Talleyrand, Metternich, and Palmerston, was not the antithesis of a “Christian” politics, but rather the best possible expression of it, especially by contrast to the “religious” wars that preceded it and the even more vicious era of nationalist and ideological wars that followed. Anglican historian Herbert Butterfield made the point presciently in 1954 when he wrote, “It is better to say that you are fighting for Persian oil than to talk of a ‘war of righteousness’ when you really mean that you believe you have a right to the oil; for you would be conducting an altogether unjust war if for a single moment you believed anything less than this.”1

* The other Orbis articles on Faith and Statecraft are: James Kurth, ”The Protestant Deformation and U. S. foreign Policy”; Harvey Sicherman, ”Judaism and the World”; Emmanuel Sivan, ”The Holy War Tradition in Islam”; John Langan, S. J., ”The Catholic vision of World Affairs”; Arthur Waldron, ”Religious Revivals in China”; Michael Ardu, ”The Burden of Eastern Orthodoxy”; G. Cameron Hurst III, ”The Enigmatic Japanese Spirit”; and Edward Lynch, ”Reform and Religion in Latin America.”

1. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity, Diplomacy, and War (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1954), p. 96.



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