Book Reviews

Foggy Bottom Faith

Bridging the religious divide at home with a faith-based foreign policy abroad.

By Alan Wolfe

Tagged Foreign PolicyReligion

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs By Madeleine Albright • HarperCollins • 2006 • 352 pages • $25.95

Until recently, of all the subjects diplomats needed to master, religion ranked near the bottom of the list. If you were headed for any important foreign policy position, at home or abroad, you had to familiarize yourself with international relations theory, global economics, military strategy, weapons technology, geography, and foreign languages. You did not spend much time contemplating the nature of the divinity or the ramifications of original sin.

Madeleine Albright achieved her prominence as a diplomat under
conditions such as these. She herself comes from an unusual religious
background: Jewish by family history, she was raised Catholic after
moving to this country at age 11, but never made religion a major focus
of her adult life. After she became a Georgetown professor and began to
cultivate ties to prominent Democratic politicians, she spent
relatively little time learning the intricacies of faith. “Diplomats in
my era,” she writes in her new book, The Mighty and the Almighty,
“were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more
inherently treacherous than religion.” If she had wanted to learn more
on the subject, moreover, not many institutions capable of teaching her
existed. And not only was the diplomatic establishment indifferent to
religion in general, it was, at almost every level, especially
unprepared to tackle the increasingly important nexus of Islamic
politics and U.S. foreign policy interests. Although relationships with
the Muslim world would dominate so much of Albright’s stint as
Secretary of State, no Muslims served in a senior position at the State
Department when she took office in 1996 and few at Foggy Bottom had
even thought of ways the United States could communicate its concerns
to Muslim-majority countries.

Now all that has changed; every serious policymaker recognizes the
centrality of religion to numerous global conflicts, and the makers of
U.S. foreign policy understand that the subject deserves their
attention. It is a sign of these new realities that Albright, obviously
a quick learner, has published her reflections on the role that
religion should play in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Whether we are
talking about long-simmering disputes between nations–and regions
within nations–of different religions (e.g. Israel and the
Palestinian Authority, India and Pakistan, Nigeria); the increasingly
irreconcilable differences between Iraqis who share the same language,
country, and religion but differ, and differ violently, over who is the
proper successor to the Prophet; how to best protect Americans against
another terrorist attack from Muslim fundamentalists; the use of
condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa; birth-control and
family planning issues; or Turkey’s membership in Europe, some
knowledge of religion is essential for the wise conduct of U.S. foreign
policy. However, how the United States should approach religion abroad,
and to what extent religion should influence its ideals and policy, has
yet to be worked out. While some of Albright’s suggestions for how this
might be achieved are questionable, her assessment of both the need and
the opportunity for a new liberal-conservative consensus on foreign
policy–one that marries liberal concerns for international social
justice with a conservative appreciation for the importance of religion
in global politics–is both vital and, surprisingly, imminently

It would seem self-evident that religious people are likely to have
an instinctive understanding of how other religious people view the
world. Yet foreign policy rarely works in such predictable ways.
Indeed, because they lacked an appropriate framework, two of the most
serious misunderstandings of religion’s role in fueling global
conflicts were made by America’s two most religious recent presidents.

Jimmy Carter, Albright writes, was capable of using his personal
faith to achieve diplomatic ends. “The peace agreement between Egypt
and Israel would never have come about if not for Carter’s ability to
understand and appeal to the deep religious convictions of President
[Anwar] Sadat and Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin,” she argues. It
helped Carter considerably that neither of the two men he invited to
Camp David shared his Baptist heritage; because Carter was neither
Muslim nor Jewish, the leaders of Egypt and Israel did not feel that
their faith commitments would be threatened by his. (These days, as any
Episcopalian can testify, believers more frequently disagree with those
closest to their own faith tradition than they do with those from a
different one.) What mattered was that, because he shared a basic
belief in God, they felt they could trust him.

But, as successful as Carter was in achieving the Camp David
Accords, his greatest failure, the Iranian hostage crisis, was also
rooted, in part, in his religious worldview. In some ways, Carter and
his Iranian antagonist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were similar: both
were pious, learned, and spiritual. In theory, their common religious
commitments should have given them a means of communicating with each
other. Indeed, Khomeini, like most Iranians, was a Shia Muslim, and as
Bernard Lewis has pointed out, Shias are more likely than Sunnis to
practice their faith in ways Christians can understand, primarily
because they have something resembling a clergy (There are no
ayatollahs in the Sunni branch of Islam). Yet neither the fact that
Carter and Khomeini were men of faith, nor the fact that their faiths
are similarly organized, helped them in this crisis. Khomeini may have
been religious, but he also was quite capable of manipulating Iranian
nationalism to achieve his end, which was the humiliation of the
superpower that had supported the widely unpopular (and relatively
secular) Shah. For all his religiosity, Carter was hindered by his
faith as he faced the hostage standoff: his capacious Christian
sensibility most likely led him to undervalue Khomeini’s sectarian and
self-righteous zeal. An idealistic Baptist and a Shia fundamentalist
have some things in common, but, in practice, there is an enormous gap
between their outlooks on the world. Some of the reasons for
American-Iranian hostility have to deal with the usual stuff of
geopolitics: oil, the role of Iraq, and relations with Russia. But at
least part of the hostility involves religious differences that
seemingly cannot be bridged, a fact Carter failed to grasp.

Jimmy Carter adhered to a faith tradition emphasizing Jesus’ role as
a peacemaker, and one of the charges frequently made against him,
especially by conservatives, was that the moralistic idealism he
inherited from his Christian beliefs rendered his policies too
wooly-headed for the hard realities of global politics. No such charge
can be made against the other recent American president who has spoken
so fervently about his faith in God: George W. Bush. Like Carter, Bush
identifies with the evangelical Protestantism that flourishes in the
American South. But his form of faith is more of the Old Testament “eye
for an eye” version than Carter’s “swords into ploughshares” theology.

Yet Bush’s religion has proved to be as inappropriate for the
nuances of foreign policy as Carter’s. Much has been said about the
failure of the Bush Administration to anticipate the difficulties that
would follow the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It is too soon to conclude
that the war in Iraq will prove one of the greatest foreign policy
disasters in U.S. history, but at this point it certainly seems headed
in that direction. Many of the Administration’s failures were
geo-strategic in nature: the administration underestimated the number
of American troops that would be needed to keep order; was too quick to
purge all those with ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baathists from postwar
politics; appointed too many cronies to important positions in Iraq and
was thus unable to restore electricity and other services efficiently;
and became trapped by its own democracy-building rhetoric into siding
with those who, months earlier, had attacked American troops.

The most surprising aspect of the Bush Administration’s bungling of
Iraq, however, turned out to be its inability to appreciate the role
religion would play in exacerbating civil strife in that country; one
would think that a presidency given to urging faith-based initiatives
in domestic policy should have understood the role of faith in foreign
policy. Yet no one in the Administration seemed to recognize how
fundamental the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq had
become, how strong were the grievances the Shia held against the
Sunnis, how much the relatively quietist form of Shia Islam represented
by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani was being challenged by a younger
generation of more radical clerics, and how close were the ties between
Shia Muslims in Iran and those in Iraq. An elementary course in the
history of Islam was as essential to postwar planning as a seminar in
weapons deployment, yet no such course evidently existed.

Albright thinks the time has come for Americans to pay more
attention to religion in the conduct of their foreign affairs. As the
examples of Carter and Bush suggest, however, this cannot be
accomplished simply by replacing foreign policy realism with a form of
faith-inspired Wilsonian idealism. It is true that realism, because it
urges states to act only out of their national interest, has difficulty
understanding the passions unleashed by apocalyptic religions focused
on otherworldly concerns. But it is equally true that none of the tools
of diplomacy or war can ensure individual salvation or bring paradise
one step closer to realization. Albright, therefore, seeks a middle way
between religion and realism. Faith-based diplomacy, she argues, is
“useful,” but she rejects the notion that “it can replace traditional
diplomacy.” As important as it may be to understand religion, and even,
at times, to be inspired by its insights and teachings, in the final
analysis, Albright believes, all foreign policy must be guided by what
is in the national interest.

Some of the recommendations Albright makes for adapting to the
religious ferment abroad are relatively straightforward. She would, for
example, require American ambassadors to strongly religious countries
to have “a deep understanding of the faiths commonly practiced there.”
She also believes that the State Department needs to encourage greater
understanding by Americans of the role that religion plays in global
affairs. As modest as such recommendations may be, they will prove
difficult to implement. Ambassadorships still go disproportionately to
campaign contributors, and if Americans have difficulty learning
foreign languages, they are unlikely to become instant experts in non
Judeo-Christian religions.

It is not the specific recommendations regarding how our foreign
policy should adapt to religiously charged tensions abroad that make
Albright’s reflections valuable. Rather, it is her view that religion
not only should, but can, play a part in redefining U.S. foreign policy
itself. Religion, as we all know, plays an exceptionally divisive role
in domestic politics, splitting liberals from conservatives in ways
that fuel the culture war over abortion or gay rights. But in foreign
policy, Albright suggests, religion may well do the exact opposite. It
is, in fact, already bringing liberals and conservatives around common

One of those concerns involves religious liberty. Liberals are
aghast at religious intolerance in societies like the Taliban-led
Afghanistan or contemporary Indonesia because they believe in pluralism
and encourage freedom of thought and conscience. Conservatives also
find religious intolerance unacceptable, in part because mainstream
evangelical Protestantism in the United States has historically been
committed to the fundamental precepts of the separation of church and
state and in part because intolerance in countries like China involves
the repression of Christians. Both liberals and conservatives, in other
words, have already taken the lead in promoting human rights abroad,
along separate but complementary paths. (This nascent alliance is
especially valuable as many of the countries that harbor religious
intolerance are also places where terrorism flourishes.)

There is, as well, the question of global poverty. Significant
numbers of conservative Christians are making an attack on poverty and
AIDS in Africa central to their mission, and Albright rightly sees in
this shift toward faith-based activism a potential breakthrough on the
question of foreign aid. “Historically,” she writes, “the left has put
too much faith in aid administered through foreign governments while
the right has preached discredited ideas of trickle-down economics.”
Here again an alliance that has already come into existence can be
strengthened. To do so, liberals need to recognize that nongovernmental
organizations, including religious ones, can target foreign aid more
efficiently than top-down governmental efforts. Conservatives, on the
other hand, must put their premodern views aside, and for instance,
stop viewing AIDS as a sign of God’s anger toward homosexuals. Albright
is a bit too sanguine on this issue for my taste; even though Pope
Benedict XVI has signaled a potential new Catholic openness on the use
of condoms among married couples in Africa, the Church may still opt
for firm opposition to condom use under any circumstances and, in any
case, Protestant conservatives will not be guided by anything the Pope
does. But Albright is absolutely right to say that “bipartisan
cooperation on humanitarian issues can help to influence for the better
how America is perceived in the world.” (To be sure, whether the United
States ought to concern itself with how it is perceived in the world is
a debatable question in an age of terror. But the opinion of Muslims
around the world toward us does matter to our security, and while we
cannot let a quest for popularity drive our foreign policy, we would be
foolish to sacrifice so easily our humanitarian heritage.)

While these and other concrete examples of such a left-right
alliance are already in place, it is not hard to imagine more of them
coming into being as the Bush era winds down. Indeed, it is an open
secret in Washington that there exists a broad, even bipartisan, group
of foreign policy specialists prepared to step in after Bush leaves
office with the task of rebuilding America’s credibility in the world.
Whether such a move can ever be successful depends in large measure
upon whether the religious right and the secular left can find common
cause around opposition to torture and other extraordinary measures as
they have around religious liberty and AIDS awareness.

There are, needless to say, significant ideological barriers to such
a confluence. Secular and faith-based communities tend to eye each
other with suspicion–faith is such a powerful force that those who
lack it tend to dismiss those who have it as superstitious and
irrational, while those who have it look on those who lack it as
shallow and unfeeling. And, historically, their views on foreign policy
have differed greatly. At least since the days when Eleanor Roosevelt
led the fight to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in
1948, liberals have been in favor of promoting social justice abroad
(though in recent years their unwillingness to appear vulnerable to
conservative attacks have led some of them to mute those concerns).
Conservative Christians, meanwhile, generally have not been active on
the global humanitarian forefront. Strongly anti-communist, as
isolationist as they were unilateralist, they tended to justify any
steps necessary to promote U.S. military strength. In more recent
times, when threats to the United States come from Islamic terrorists,
some of their leaders ascribe the evils of Islamic terrorism to what
they believe to be the false religious beliefs of Muslims. If
conservative Christians view the current global situation as an
emerging clash of civilizations, they are more than capable of making
it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet it would be a mistake to write off conservative religious
believers as inherently opposed to a potential reemphasis of America’s
long-time commitments to human rights. Christians, as their concern
with abortion demonstrates, are committed to the idea that every human
life is worthy of respect. It is not easy for them to look the other
way in the face of torture knowing how much Jesus suffered on the
cross. Having brought moral issues front and center to American
domestic politics, they cannot easily ignore the implications of
morality for international politics. So far there is little evidence
that conservative Christians will join with secular liberals in a
campaign to prevent torture or to curtail extraordinary rendition. But
Albright is correct, I believe, to view them as potential allies for
any future American foreign policy that understands that fighting a war
on terrorism requires ideals as well as realpolitik.

Albright brings to the discussion of religion and foreign policy a
down-to-earth sensibility and political moderation missing in these
contentious and fearful times. “Fear,” she writes, “fuels terrorism.
Only if fear is allowed to spread can Al Qaeda hope to win lasting
support.” Governed at the moment by leaders who show a disturbing
proclivity to manipulate fears of terrorism to advance partisan and
ideological agendas, the United States desperately needs to restore the
sense of hope that guided this country through its most difficult times
in the past. Liberalism is one source of such hope, and religion is
another. Only when they work together will we be able to recall the
days when the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.

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Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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