Foreign Policy and Cultural Engagement

Presentation by Dr. Douglas M. Johnston

Realpolitik as commonly understood and referred to by most foreign policy experts has been the term of art describing the practice of power politics based on a tough-minded, realistic view of the political, economic, and security factors that dominate any given situation. Typically, this concept has not included a sophisticated understanding of the larger religious and philosophic values that influence actors, nor has it offered its disciples access to the kind of spiritual engagement that can sometimes prove useful in the diplomatic search for solutions.

This purposeful exclusion of elements that clearly play a central role in some situations has left foreign policy practitioners with an inadequate frame of reference for dealing with problems of communal identity that manifest themselves in the form of ethnic conflict, tribal warfare, and religious hostilities. It is no small irony that this historical exclusion was never itself the product of rational analysis but rather a predictable outgrowth of dogmatic secularism. The question then becomes which of these two positions comes closest to the “real” meaning of realpolitik, dogmatic selflimitation or a rational willingness to see the world whole?

A profound need exists in the West to develop a capability for dealing with the heretofore excluded “irrational” factors of religion, ethnicity, and other cultural concerns. Just about anywhere one turns, one finds a religious dimension to the conflict, and the West is woefully ill-equipped to deal with it. Sadly, we have let our rigorous separation of church and state become a crutch for not taking the time to understand how religious factors shape the perceptions and political aspirations of others who do not similarly separate the two. Because of this inherent failure to communicate, Islam and Christianity, for example, tend to talk past one another at best, or alternatively, resort to conflict to settle their differences. The attacks of September 11 are one of several recent manifestations of where this can lead.

In the wake of those attacks, the United States has been pursuing a dual track strategy—a track of justice and retribution in Afghanistan and a track of pre-emption in Iraq. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this strategy, it is at least understandable when one considers the fact that the leading vital interest of every nation-state is protecting the security of its citizens. However, unless we complement that response with an effective strategy of cultural engagement, all we will do in the final analysis is expand the pool of future terrorists and drive ourselves toward a police state as we seek greater security in an increasingly insecure world. As Samuel Huntington has noted in his Clash of Civilizations, religion is the defining element of culture; and that is not good news for our Transatlantic Alliance.

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.

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, like Bin Laden and Slobodan Milosevic.

For much of the last decade, the Pentagon has been planning against the threat of what is called “asymmetric warfare.” That is precisely what Bin Laden used on 9-11 to rock the U.S. back on its heels. Despite such planning, though, there is not enough money in the U.S. Treasury to protect the country against the full spectrum of asymmetric threats. Even more than anticipating and reacting to such threats militarily, we should develop an asymmetric counter to them, one that involves an effective strategy of cultural engagement—one that doesn’t merely respond to the guns, but that gets to the ideas behind the guns.

A good place to begin would be to assess those assets we already have at our disposal that can be redirected in helpful ways. Then we could complement those with new capabilities specifically tailored to deal with the problem. Among the existing and potentially helpful assets are the chaplain corps 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 commands 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. Here, it is important to note that 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.

Yet another asset that can be brought to bear is the American Muslim community. If properly engaged, it could (1) serve as a bridge between the United States and Muslim countries overseas, (2) inform U.S. public diplomacy and foreign policy with a Muslim perspective, and (3) assume a leadership role in the further intellectual and spiritual development of Islam. The third objective is every bit as important as the other two and would seek to capitalize on the fact that the American Muslim community enjoys greater freedom of thought than other Muslim communities around the world and that it has extensive experience in bridging modernity and the contemporary practice of Islam on a daily basis.

Finally, a third and relatively untapped capability is that offered by the NGO community. In the case of my own Center, for example, we have been actively involved for the past 3 years in reforming the madrasas in Pakistan. Our goals there are twofold: (1) to expand the madrasa curriculums to include the physical and social sciences, with a particular emphasis on human rights and religious tolerance, and (2) to transform the pedagogy in a way that will produce critical thinking skills among the students. Our success to date has been especially noteworthy in light of the past failure of government attempts to institute reform. Not only have the madrasas exceeded the grasp of the Pakistani government, but they are also clearly beyond the reach of the United States. So governmental support for NGO efforts of this nature could constitute yet another form of cultural engagement.

In terms of what one might do in the way of developing new capabilities, one possibility would be to create a new position within the U.S. Foreign Service that deals specifically with religion, i.e. a religion attaché 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. 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.

As the events of Madrid, London, and September 11 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.



Transatlantic Dialogue on Religion, Values, and Politics
Brussels, October 13, 2006

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