Faith and International Affairs is a professional journal published by the Institute for Global Engagement (Arlington, Virginia), edited by Dennis Hoover. The Institute, under the leadership of Robert Seiple, has a broadly Evangelical outlook, though the journal does not reflect this. Its Summer 2016 issue is almost entirely devoted to religious freedom and U.S. foreign policy. Each article is full of objective information, but the authors were asked to include “recommendations for the next President.” I have been stimulated to think again about this topic. (I was closest to the international debate over human rights in the early 1980s, when I was the U.S. representative on a surreally absurd United Nations Committee on the Right to Development, which met in Geneva every few months. My particular nemesis was the representative of the USSR, who because of alphabetical order always sat next to me. He had an unpleasant body odor and always turned to face me during his frequent anti-American diatribes.)
Is religious freedom an important U.S. national interest? One would think so if one looks at its place in official Washington. By congressional fiat the U.S. government is obligated to promote religious freedom throughout the world. For this two agencies have been set up. Within the State Department there is the Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (the present incumbent is David Saperstein, a prominent Reform rabbi—possibly by coincidence he gave the invocation at one of President Obama’s Inaugurations). A major task of this agency is to prepare an annual report on the condition of religious freedom in every country in the world—in addition to another State Department annual report more broadly on human rights. There is yet another agency, outside the government but fully supported by tax funds—the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. It issues in-depth reports on “countries of concern,” where religious freedom is insecure or under direct assault. There is disagreement on the effect of these documents on the U.S. government or outside it.
There is a way of looking at international relations as a huge ivory chessboard. Each player is a nation-state, pursuing its rational interests (especially the economic and political ones). The perspective is seductive. It seems to make events understandable (the famous “root causes”) and therefore amenable to rational planning. It often turns out that the chess board is not made of ivory but of cardboard, that the nation-state whose rational interests are supposed to be served is about to disappear from empirical reality, and that wildly irrational motives inspire the players’ moves. Imagine a diplomat of Italian ethnicity in the service of Yugoslavia in the 1970s, sitting at an international conference on the law of the seas, perhaps meeting in the important Yugoslav seaport of Rijeka (a.k.a. Fiume). And further imagine that this diplomat, a passionate Italian nationalist, has in his pocket a letter offering his services to the Italian state.
When it comes to issues like human rights or religious freedom, diplomats have a particular problem: They are obliged to have polite conversations with often-murderous despots. Now imagine a U.S. envoy, politely sipping tea and discussing import tariffs. Can he inject a comment like “By the way you should really stop your troops machine-gunning those people in the southern province”? Even if there is the additional comment, explicitly in words or by non-verbal gesture: “I’m sorry to bring this up, but you must understand the pressures I’m under from these busybodies back home”? Lower echelons in the Foreign Service resent the time they must spend on these reports, instead of the dramatic negotiations they dreamed about when they chose this line of work. It must be historically unique that the foreign ministry of a sovereign state annually reviews the moral performance of every other sovereign state. Citizens of other countries are not always amused by the preachments built into U.S. foreign policy. The entries on human rights in the annual State Department report are sometimes very short. Something like: Switzerland is a democracy where the rule of law prevails. There are no reports of genocide, extra-judicial killings…and then down the list to less-terrible atrocities. I once heard a Swiss citizen say about this: “Who the hell are you to give me a passing grade!”
The attention given to religious freedom in Washington should not surprise. By any reasonable measure the United States is the most religious Western country. It is also a democracy. All these “godders” vote. Of course their beliefs and values influence their votes. As I reflect about this topic, I must distinguish my personal values from my insights as a social scientist. Personally, I strongly believe in religious freedom as a basic human right, perhaps the basic right from which all others derive. This was eloquently stated in the declaration on religious freedom by the Second Vatican Council, which deemed it based on the dignity of man. It is the dignity of this peculiar species on a planet of a rather small sun in the galaxy—this mutant of the big apes who climbed down from the trees, stood up on its hind legs, and wondered what it all means. Wonder derives from my crucial perception of the human condition. The insights of social science come not from wonder, but from curiosity.
I have learned over the years that it is more promising to appeal to interests rather than values. Thus it makes sense to argue for religious freedom by persuading people that it is in their interest. If you will, it is a Machiavellian argument.
A few years ago I gave a lecture at Renmin University in Beijing (which used to be attended by upwardly moving Communist cadres, perhaps still is). I proposed that denying religious freedom to a large portion of your population that adheres to a particular faith undermines social stability. This stability is very much in your interest. “You” being the elite of China. I did not develop the corollary that you might safely repress a small religious group, such as Falun Gong, which has been persecuted as an “evil cult.” (I didn’t want to encourage them!) I’m sure that some in my audience were doing mental arithmetic—lots of Tibetan Buddhists, lots of Muslims in the northwest, and all over the place rapidly growing Christianity (now estimated at over 100 million believers, more than Communist party members!) Many of the wannabe apparatchiks in my audience were nodding and taking notes. I’m not sure that they still would today, as the government of President Xi Jinping moves in a more repressive direction.
Back to the current issue of Faith and International Affairs: It is a collection of very instructive case studies. Overall there is a wide agreement on three things: One, that no single strategy will fit all cases. Two, that institutionalizing religious freedom in societies where it never has been is going to be a long, gradual process. And three, that in many cases it is plausible to appeal to the vested interests of elites—such as Sunni regimes threatened by ISIS, the new post-Communist elite in Russia, and the new (still relatively moderate) Islamist elite in Turkey. Of course the editors asked the several authors to make “recommendations for the next President.” Most of the recommendations are very sensible, but they presuppose a degree of strong presidential leadership that seems rather unlikely at this point. Still, I’ll say inshallah!