Religion and Foreign Policy

Chapter by Douglas M. Johnston

I was recently taken aback when I realized that my all-too-brief existence on this planet encompassed more than a quarter of our republic’s existence.  This thought, while sobering in and of itself, caused me to marvel at how much has changed since the country’s birth and how breathtaking the pace of change has become of late.

At the same time, I puzzled over the all-but-total absence of progress in our ability to resolve differences with one another through peaceful means.  To the extent that advancing one’s interests while avoiding conflict can be considered a sine qua non of diplomatic exchange, this thus becomes an indictment of “traditional” diplomacy. This failure stands in stark contrast to our skyrocketing ability to inflict harm.  Indeed, as the global competition of armaments has yielded increasingly effective weaponry, the byproduct has been the most brutal century in human history.

Yes, we live in an age of turmoil, and much of it is religious-based – Kashmir, Algeria, East Timor, Ireland, Sudan; the list goes on. Whether religion is the root cause of a particular conflict or merely a mobilizing vehicle for nationalist or ethnic passions, it is central to much of the strife currently taking place around the globe.  Equally sobering, the level of discontent is likely to grow worse over time as (1) economic globalization produces profound confrontations with traditional values, often embedded in religions, (2) an increasing fraction of the world’ population is left behind by rapid technological change, (3) the economic gap continues to widen between the “haves and have nots”, and (4) secular governments in hard-pressed areas fail to meet the legitimate expectations of their populations.

As people turn increasingly to religion in such situations, western governments are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.  As evidenced by the West’s missteps in handling situations from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to the later intervention in Lebanon to the breakup of Yugoslavia and beyond, traditional diplomacy’s neglect of religious factors has rendered the West ineffective both in dealing with religious differences and in combating demagogues who adeptly manipulate religious labels to their own purposes.

U.S. diplomats are a product of the nation-state model of international relations, with its attendant emphasis on maximizing power and all-but-total neglect of religion and its dynamics.  This oversight is further complicated by an interpretation of religious freedom that effectively places religion outside the bounds of critical analysis.  Adding to the problem is the fact that religious institutions sometimes stray from their original purpose and become an integral part of the problem.  Rather that alleviating human suffering, they end up exacerbating it.  There is a desperate need for corrective influence to reassert the role that religion is supposed to play in encouraging people to care for their neighbors and in contributing to the betterment of humanity.

The divisive influence of religion has long been recognized.  Its more helpful aspects have not.  In the West, this is largely the result of over two hundred years of post-Enlightenment prejudice.  Hans Morgenthau’s nation-state model, which has served as the paradigm for international relations since the late 1940s, attaches virtually no significance to religion as a factor in the policymaker’s calculus.  Indeed, in the United States the rigorous constitutional separation of church and state so relegates religion to the realm of the personal that most Americans are uncomfortable discussing their religious convictions in any sort of professional context.

A seven year study sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, resulted in a book entitled Religion, The Missing Dimension  of Statecraft.  Published in August 1994, by Oxford University Press, this book examines the positive role that religious or spiritual factors can play in actually preventing or resolving conflict while advancing the larger goals of reconciliation and social well-being.  Already in its tenth printing and second foreign language translation, the book has been the subject of favorable reviews in numerous journals and periodicals including Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times of London.  More recently, it was selected by SAPIO (Japan’s equivalent of TIME Magazine) as one of the eight most important books to read in preparing for the 21st Century.

Beyond the endorsements and the reviews, well over 100 presentations on the subject matter of the book have been made to various groups around the world, including the U.S. Department of State, the London Diplomatic Academy, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Vatican, Oxford faculty, Harvard University, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.  Many of these were tough-minded audiences.  Without exception, the reaction has been positive.  In addition, a growing number of colleges and universities around the world are incorporating the book into their graduate or undergraduate curriculums, including, among many others, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Tufts, and the Complutensian University of Madrid.  The same holds true for seminaries as well. Equally important, it is now required reading at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute.

Major Findings

Among the major findings to evolve from the study, two particularly stand out:  (1) religious contributions to peacemaking have been under-appreciated, if not totally ignored, by foreign policy practitioners and (2) there are substantial under-utilized assets within religious communities which, with proper training, could be applied to peacemaking.

Politicians, policymakers, and diplomats often fail to recognize the role that religious peacemakers can play in building trust and facilitating understanding and reconciliation.  As a result, opportunities are lost in which the joint application of religious and political assets could lead to a peaceful resolution of differences rather than a resort to violence.

For example, U.S. foreign policy practitioners with their past fixation on economic determinism and/or ideological confrontation, have tended to miss the mark when dealing with situations in which the imperatives of religion blend inextricably with those of politics and economics.  This, in turn, has led to incorrect foreign policy choices in such places as Vietnam, Iran and Lebanon. Policymakers simply have not fully understood the religious dynamics that were taking place.

In an environment of increasing disorder, the world can no longer afford to overlook the significant contribution that religious and spiritual factors can bring to resolving conflict.  The theology of each of the major world religions contains some version of the Golden Rule and incorporates moral warrants for peacemaking.  Although the development and articulation of the latter have largely been inadequate, there is a pressing need to apply religious principles and instruments based on these warrants to the practical work of conflict resolution.

Within Christianity, there are only three major denominations in which all parishioners are imbued with a common commitment to peacemaking:  the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren.  In other denominations, there are pockets of such activity, but with a potential for much more.  By persuading more clergy and laity from within these communities to accept peacemaking as an integral part of their spiritual commitment and training them in the skills of conflict prevention and resolution, major untapped resources can be made available to address current and prospective conflicts that burden the geopolitical landscape.

A Need for New Tools

One of the reasons the concepts of the book have been so well received is because thoughtful observers are concluding that the time for unconventional approaches is at hand. They see official diplomacy coupled with religious peacemaking as offering a greater potential for dealing with today’s problems of communal conflict, particularly those involving ethnic and religious dimensions.

In a world of ethnic strife and high-technology weaponry, old concepts of security based on a balance of power no longer suffice.  Increasingly, security will be a function of the strength and durability of national, super-national, and sub-national relationships.  This suggests a need to move toward new mechanisms for international relations that, inter alia, extend beyond the state-centric focus of the power-politics model to recognize and reinforce the contributions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, in some instances, even those of individuals.  Particularly when dealing with communal conflicts, there is a need to go beyond the normal methods and channels of diplomacy to uncover and deal with the deeper sources of conflict, rebuild relationships, and make the necessary concessionary adjustments wherever possible.  In this context, reconciliation born of spiritual conviction can play a critical role in inspiring the parties in conflict to break the cycle of revenge that typically characterizes such disputes.

A Model for the Future

One example of how religion and diplomacy can reinforce one another to mutual advantage can be found in the successful collaboration between the lay Catholic Community of St. Egidio and official diplomats in resolving the brutal civil war in Mozambique that ended in 1994.  The final breakthrough to peace evolved from the Community’s recognition that it would have to do something to resolve the conflict if the humanitarian assistance it was providing was to have any useful effect.  Accordingly, they set out to win the trust of both sides, taking initiatives that governments would never consider:  escorting individual guerrillas to their first dental appointments; buying them their first spectacles.  In short, through winning trust on a personal level, they were able to persuade the two sides to come together to negotiate their differences.

It took ten rounds of talks before an agreement was reached to end the war.  During this process, it became apparent to these religious peacemakers that the overt backing of the international community would be required to monitor a cease-fire agreement or to guarantee fair multi-party elections.  Accordingly, they invited diplomats from Italy, the United States, Portugal, France, and the United Nations to attend the ninth round of talks as official observers.  In the tenth round, they officially passed the baton to these diplomats who, in turn, brought the resources of their respective nation-states (and the UN) to bear in overseeing the signing of the peace agreement, the monitoring of the cease-fire, and the holding of  fair elections.  Today, there is peace in Mozambique under a democratically elected government, with the economy on the rebound – – all because official diplomacy was able to build upon the trust developed by a religious third party.

A more current example of how a spiritually-based approach can work is the highly complex and difficult situation in Sudan, where the Islamic north and the Christian/Animist south have been engaged in hostilities for 16 years and where certain factions in the South have been simultaneously warring with one another for local dominance.  Capitalizing on relationships of trust already established through religious channels, I was invited to Khartoum to meet with government officials, opposition leaders and private sector executives in order to explore the possibilities for improved dialogue and understanding between Sudan and the United States.  Ordinarily, this would be the normal grist of the foreign policy establishment.  With the bombing of the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory, however, the relationship between our two countries is in a state of paralysis.  This stand-off comes at a time when the horrific losses of that conflict (second only to World War II in recent times) demand urgent action to halt the bloodshed and secure a lasting peace.

At the present time, certain circles within the United States are demonizing the North because of government-sponsored atrocities taking place in the South.  The aversion to these atrocities is understandable although tends to overlook similar atrocities committed by the South. Because the latter are deemed to be lesser in scale, they are of lesser concern.

My trip to Khartoum proved to be quite an eye-opener.  Before going I had the impression that Sudan was being used by the Speaker of its Parliament, Hasan al-Turabi, as the spearhead for the spread of militant Islam across North Africa and beyond.  After several days on the ground, including a two hour session with Dr. Turabi, I acquired a somewhat different impression.  While I think Turabi is, indeed, interested in the advance of Islam, he is developing and promoting a much more progressive model of Islam than is commonly recognized – one that will be much more appealing to prospective adherents than are its harder-line counterparts.  For example, about ten percent of the seats in Sudan’s Parliament are set aside for women.  They can hold more if they win the vote (which they often do), but they are guaranteed at least this minimum number, thus ensuring a credible presence in the councils of government.  No woman that I saw was wearing a veil, and there are more women then men in the universities (although this may relate in part to war-related attrition in the ranks of the males). Perhaps most surprising of all, there are women and Christians occupying high level ministerial posts in the government.  It is remarkable how quickly the stereotypes start to crumble when subjected to closer scrutiny.  The same holds true in the South as well, where three of the six Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) military commanders are Muslims.

Another factor complicating U.S./Sudanese relations are the economic sanctions we have had in place for the past six years against the Khartoum regime because of state-sponsored terrorism.  There was a time when Sudan permitted Muslims of any stripe to enter the country without a visa — a situation of which terrorists were quick to take advantage.  But the government clamped down on this several years ago.  They extradited Carlos the Jackal who is serving time in a French prison, and they disinvited bin Laden at our insistence.  Regarding bin Laden, they told us at the time that we may be buying a bigger problem for ourselves by forcing his departure.  While he was in Sudan, they could watch him; otherwise not. A year later, the U.S. embassies were blown up, allegedly at bin Laden’s instigation.  Further, in February of 1997, President Bashir sent a letter to President Clinton in which he invited the United States to send a team to Sudan to investigate first-hand the existence or non-existence of state-sponsored terrorism.  He later made a similar offer publicly, stating that Sudan was ready to cooperate with the United States to ensure that there was no activity that could be construed as supporting terrorism (carried initially in Al Hawadith, a Lebanese magazine, and later in Al Anbaa, the official Sudanese daily). In my own meeting with Dr. Mustafa Ismail, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, he expanded the offer to include setting up a permanent office in Khartoum from which our CIA and FBI could operate to investigate the charges.  The offer was declined.  Whatever the reasons for turning it down, we are missing a real opportunity.  Chief among the potential threats looming on the horizon is the potential marriage of religious-based extremism with weapons of mass destruction.  The best defense against such a possibility is to have our people on the ground in those areas where we have a concern.  Here one of the seven “terrorist” states in the world invites us to make such an examination, and we turn a deaf ear.

Although I was one of the first Americans to visit Khartoum in the wake of the Shifa episode, I was warmly received everywhere I went  – – and a significant part of my agenda was totally impromptu.  Out of my many meetings, including several hours with 30 opposition leaders, a three hour exchange with policymakers and scholars at their Center for Strategic Studies, and interviews with various television and print media, it became crystal clear that Sudan wants a meaningful dialogue with the United States.  In my view, engaging in such a dialogue would provide us with much greater leverage in our expressed desire to bring a halt to the conflict.

I also toured what remains of the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory with the plant manager.  Without commenting on whether or not the factory was a proper target, there are a number of impoverished northern Sudanese who are now having to go without pharmaceuticals.  With no loss of face, we could (and should, in my estimation) address the humanitarian consequences by quietly making pharmaceuticals available to the affected population through selected NGOs.  Not only would this help repair the damage to our relationship with Sudan, but we would stand much taller in the eyes of world opinion.

Another unfortunate consequence of the El Shifa bombing was the release of two suspects in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya who were apprehended and interrogated when caught on a plane to Khartoum from Nairobi with fake Pakistani passports.  Sudan’s intent to turn the two over to U.S. custody understandably evaporated in the wake of El Shifa.

Through opportunities provided by the previously mentioned relationships of trust, the Sudan government has been encouraged to seize the high ground in moving toward peace, including the imposition of a unilateral, comprehensive cease-fire as a pre-cursor to negotiating the terms of an internationally supervised referendum on self-determination for the South.  Such a cease-fire is currently in effect and, for the moment, appears to be holding.

Perhaps of even greater significance is the government’s agreement to host a meeting of prominent Sudanese and international religious leaders to take place in Khartoum under the joint sponsorship of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, the Sudan Center for Strategic Studies, and the Sudan Inter-Religious Council (a group of Christian and Muslim religious leaders who meet periodically to work out difficulties between their respective communities).  The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss issues of religious freedom in the Sudan, and to make related recommendations to the government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  Because Dr. Turabi and Foreign Minister Ismail (who formerly chaired the Inter-Religious Council) have agreed to participate in the meeting, any agreement reached on the questions addressed is likely to have broad applicability to similar situations in other parts of the world (such as what measures Islamic governments might take to alleviate the second-class status of minorities in a Sharia context).

Because the catalyst both for the current conflict and its predecessor a decade earlier was religious in nature, i.e., the North seeking to impose Islamic law on the entire country, the planned meeting of religious leaders will be dealing directly with cause.  As such, it assumes transcendent importance vis a vis other initiatives that will, for the most part be addressing symptoms.

With sincerity of purpose and open-minded dialogue, with a lot of hard work and a healthy dose of divine intervention, the difficult issues can be surmounted and a lasting peace can be achieved in which the full potential of this troubled but well-endowed country can at last be realized.



Chapter by Douglas Johnston in Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.
February 1, 2002

Comments are closed.