As reported by Religion News Service and other media, on February 19, 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada appointed Andrew Bennett to be Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Bennett, a Catholic with a doctorate in political science from Edinburgh and dean of a small college in Ottawa, is to head a new Office on Religious Freedom within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was quickly pointed out that Bennett’s agency was given a budget of 5 million Canadian dollars, while the Ministry of which it is to be part has a budget of 2.5 billion. This raises the obvious question of what can be accomplished with the agency’s budget; theoretically the Ambassador will be able to use the many Canadian diplomats scattered throughout the world, but he himself will only have a very small staff and one can assume that the Ministry will not be generous in making its diplomats available. The reception of the news in the Canadian press was quite friendly, but also skeptical.
The appointment was made with some fanfare. Harper had promised this appointment in his last election campaign. The delay did not suggest a sense of great urgency in the matter and was interpreted by some as a gesture toward a conservative Christian base of the Tory party (a portion of the electorate much less influential than its counterpart in the United States). Harper was quite eloquent on the occasion. Speaking to those persecuted for their religion anywhere in the world, he said: “Canada will not forget you. We will use our freedom to plead for yours”. The venue of the appointment was chosen appropriately—an Ahmadiyya mosque near Toronto. The Ahmadis derive from a Muslim reform movement in British India founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (hence the name). The heaviest concentration of Ahmadis is in what is now Pakistan. There as elsewhere in the Muslim world they have been regarded as heretics, and persecuted both by state actions and by violent mobs.
Whatever political motives there may have been involved in this appointment, there is no reason to question the sincerity of Canadians’ belief in religious freedom, though there have been some instances of conservative Christians being prosecuted for their publicly stated views on homosexuality (sexual orientation being legally protected against discrimination). But there have been similar instances in the United States and in Europe. Canada’s record on human rights and liberties is as clean as that of any other Western democracy.
I have always liked Canada. It has always impressed me as the more reasonable, sober country in North America. (Classical Canadian joke: How does one get a group of Canadians to come out of a swimming pool? One goes to the edge of the pool and says, “Will everyone please come out of the swimming pool?”) In the matter of government policy with regard to religious freedom, the comparison with Big Brother south of the border is inevitable. Compared with the enormous policy apparatus set up by the U.S. Congress in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Andrew Bennett has been allocated a little canoe to paddle through the turbulent waters of religious intolerance. Reasonably, soberly Canadian indeed!
The International Religious Freedom Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. It set up no fewer than three modalities to ensure that religious freedom is an important topic for US foreign policy: The Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State—it has the task of preparing an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country on earth, in addition to the annual report on human rights, previously mandated by Congress; the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a tax-funded organization of distinguished citizens from various faiths, independent of any government agency—it investigates cases of egregious violations of religious freedom in “countries of particular concern” and then makes recommendations to the President on a range of possible US actions; and finally an Ambassador for Religious Freedom, attached to the National Security Council in the White House. It is difficult to imagine a more massive effort to ensure that religious freedom is not forgotten in the halls of power in Washington.
How effective this effort has been in stimulating U.S. actions, or in actually influencing events in foreign countries, is obviously a different matter. I must say that I don’t know. From occasionally reading the reports from these agencies, I get the impression that they try very hard to be objective, both in reporting the misdeeds of enemies (such as Iran) and of alleged friends (say, Saudi Arabia). From occasional conversations with foreign service officers, I also gather that a good deal of research goes into the making of the mandated reports. However, I would like to make some observations about this kind of activity in big as against small powers, and in the routine business of diplomacy in general.
Advocacy of religious freedom in the foreign policy of a state is an attempt to exercise “soft power”. I am aware of the controversy in the field of international relations around the term “soft power”, as it was first coined by Joseph Nye, a distinguished Harvard professor. I don’t want to delve into these interesting debates, which are rather outside my own competence. However, I will make some observations, as a sociologist not altogether innocent of the realities of international politics. It seems to me that the term “soft power” is somewhat misleading. I follow Max Weber in defining “power” as the ability to make someone do something that they would prefer not to do. In this understanding I exercise “power” no matter whether I am threatening to send in the Marines or to block a grant from the International Monetary Fund. These exercises must be distinguished from “influence”, or persuading without any threats. “Soft power” would seem to cover both cases where my threats are non-military and cases where there are no threats at all. It can be real power, “soft” only by abstaining from physical force in favor of economic or other non-violent means of coercion. I doubt whether real efficacy in changing the behavior of other states can be divorced from real power—if you will, hard power. Governments don’t respond well to sermons. If that is so, there is a vast difference in the ability to change the behavior of others on the part of big states (like the United States) and small ones (like Canada). This may well change in the not too distant future, but thus far no nation is more powerful than the United States, which (quite apart from its economic muscle) has the capacity to project its military power around the globe. What other military has actually imposed a grid of “commands” over most of the planet? It follows that, if the U.S. President or the U.S. Congress should decide to take action against a “country of particular concern”, this will carry much more weight than an action by the Canadian government. (Unless, that is, the latter rides piggyback on the former. As the mouse said to the elephant, after it crossed the river on the elephant’s back: “Boy, did we make that bridge shake!”) If the US President says that he might unleash his drones unless a particular atrocity ceases, this has a greater chance to change a tyrant’s behavior than an assurance by the Canadian Prime Minister that Canada will not forget.
However, there is a more general problem with diplomats being charged with the task of making foreign tyrants change their ways. Diplomats have the job of representing the interests of their governments. In carrying out this job, they must often engage in polite conversation over tea with more or less appalling dictators. I can imagine the Secretary of State talking with Chinese leaders, trying with whatever arguments to dissuade them from hacking the computers of American companies, from encouraging North Korea to develop missiles that could carry atomic warheads to California, or from starting a war with Japan over some uninhabited islands in the China Sea. At which point in this conversation, could he slip in, “Oh, and I am supposed to ask you to stop beating up on Tibetan monks.” I imagine that his Chinese interlocutors would smile politely, and offer him more tea. (Unless, less politely, they repeated what a Chinese commentator wrote recently: “You don’t want to upset the guy who holds the mortgage on your house.”)
There can be no doubt that many people in Western democracies strongly believe in human rights and liberties. In a democracy it is both right and inevitable that citizens will seek to make their values effective in the actions of their governments. Thus I would not want for a moment to denigrate the aforementioned initiatives on religious freedom in Canada and the United States (there are similar efforts in the European Union). I am inclined to believe that they sometimes have the desired effect—if there are no more urgent national interests involved, and if the foreign government addressed has reasons other than moral insight to do what you want it to do. I would only urge you not to expect too much from the aforementioned initiatives, and to take to heart the following general propositions about political reality: Interests are generally stronger motivators than moral principle. If you want to achieve what you desire for moral reasons, it is much more promising if you can appeal to interests rather than moral principles. Soft power can be real, but it is likely to be much more effective if backed up by hard power. The calculus between morality and raison d’etat is different for a large state and a small one—the former has more real power at its disposal (and thus, sometimes, a greater responsibility to use it), the latter (precisely because of its relative powerlessness) has more freedom to proclaim its principles. Perhaps, morally speaking, large and small states may have different missions.