Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations

Foreword by Douglas Johnston

At the outset of the new millennium, few would have predicted the dramatic change that lay ahead for the United States. In the blink of an eye, the sleeping giant was rudely awakened, and any opportunity for further hibernation was foreclosed for some time to come. The signs of change are far-reaching: small town newspapers often resemble regional surveys of the Middle East, militant Islam and evacuation routes are subjects for discussion at town hall meetings, and working class families debate the nuances of American foreign policy over dinner.

As the United States (and the West more generally) seeks to deal with this new world in which religion has become a major force on the international stage, it finds itself operating at a distinct disadvantage. While the specter of weapons of mass destruction married to religious extremism has rightfully become the overriding concern of most defense planners, policymakers and diplomats alike labor under tight constraints that are designed to keep matters of church and state separate and apart. If we as a nation are to navigate this new labyrinth with any degree of competence, we will need to reexamine these constraints and make the necessary concessionary adjustments. We also need to empower and bring to bear more effectively those assets we currently have at our disposal that are relevant to this new reality.

Before any of the above can happen, however, national security and foreign policy practitioners will have to begin treating religion as a serious variable in the conduct of international relations. Our past disregard for religious considerations has left the United States ill-equipped to deal with religious differences in hostile settings (such as we are now confronting in Iraq) or with demagogues who manipulate religion for their own purposes, as did Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. By way of contrast, the French, when bogged down militarily in the Algerian war for independence, typically sent their military chaplains to negotiate with the Muslim insurgents. Even those who gave birth to modern day secularism understand the need to deal with religious imperatives.

To help address these blind spots, this book provides a much-needed call to arms. It also makes a persuasive case for why religious freedom – as one of the above imperatives – should be treated as a defining element of national security. Unless other states, especially in the developing world, give full reign to religious expression, they risk falling victim to political unrest and instability. Further, the book argues convincingly that religious freedom actively enhances a nation’s security by offering inclusion in political life to elements that might otherwise be excluded. Finally, chief among the other telling points that this book raises, is the attention it calls to the often-overlooked potential of engaging religious leaders in efforts to abate conflict.

As for the earlier-mentioned concessionary adjustments, one candidate possibility is the creation of a new religion attaché position within the U.S. Foreign Service that could be assigned to diplomatic missions in those countries where religion has particular salience. In addition to reporting on relevant religious movements, these attachés could help U.S. Missions deal more effectively with complex religious issues that typically get short shrift because of other seemingly more pressing business. Preliminary analysis suggests that a cadre of 30 such attachés at a cost of ten million dollars a year could cover the globe and greatly enhance our ability to anticipate and deal with the impact of religious developments on the conduct of international relations.

Among the assets we already have at our disposal that could be brought to bear in more helpful ways are the chaplains of our military services. Historically, the role of military chaplains has been one of addressing the spiritual needs of the men and women of the command to which they are attached. With additional training and expanded rules of engagement, however, they could significantly enhance their command’s ability to deal with the religious dimension of military operations.

Through greater and more effective interaction with local religious communities and non-governmental organizations, chaplains could develop an improved understanding of the religious and cultural nuances at play and help identify incipient threats to stability posed by religious frictions or ethnoreligious demagogues. At times, they might also be able to provide a reconciling influence in addressing misunderstandings or difficulties that may arise between the commands and local communities. Finally, they could provide informed and politically sensitive advice to their commanders on the religious and cultural implications of operational decisions that are about to be taken or that should be taken. In other words, in addition to their ongoing function of addressing human casualties after conflict has erupted, chaplains could and should be viewed as important tools for preventing its eruption in the first instance.

As the events of September 11, 2001 suggest, the stakes are enormous and the need for action is urgent. No longer can we afford to underestimate religious concerns in the practice of international politics. No longer can we afford the luxury of uninformed foreign policy choices.



Foreword to Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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