Undefender of the Faith

After 15 months in office, why hasn't Obama even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom?

The United States' 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports -- one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters -- one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress --- have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated that the freedom to practice religion, a founding tenet of the United States, become a foreign-policy priority. Since then, presidents have spoken out against religious persecution in places such as China and Afghanistan. They have extolled the value of religious freedom to individuals and societies. But the promotion of international religious freedom has rarely been more than a talking point. Presidents and diplomats have failed to integrate the issue fully into U.S. foreign policy, ignoring its potential contribution to world peace and vital U.S. interests.

Too often, Washington has focused on specific cases of persecution, rather than the support of political and social institutions that can yield more widespread religious liberty in other countries. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries that severely restrict religious liberty, banning certain forms of religious expression and public worship and persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of religion.

There are two main reasons why the United States ought to do more to promote religious freedom abroad -- one moral, one practical. First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas.

Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable. Pew Forum sociologist Brian Grim has found that religious liberty means less religious persecution and thus less conflict. Religious freedom is a constituent part of what he calls a "bundled commodity" of human freedoms (along with things like a free press and equal rights for women). With this "bundled commodity," countries tend to be secure, democratic, socioeconomically stable, and less violent.

Given these powerful twin imperatives -- justice and national security -- one would expect that U.S. foreign-policy makers would long ago have integrated religious freedom into other initiatives: democracy promotion, public diplomacy, commercial and economic strategies, global women's issues, development programs, and counterterrorism. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Part of the problem has been an aversion on the part of diplomats and administration officials to consider religion as a policy issue. In The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote, "Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion." Albright now believes this attitude was deeply mistaken, and her book calls for greater foreign-policy attention to religious ideas and actors. But the religion-avoidance syndrome that she identified in U.S. diplomacy remains a problem, especially in the area of religious freedom.

Within the State Department, the religious-freedom ambassador and his office have been bureaucratically isolated since their establishment. The congressional act that created the office styles the ambassador at large as a "principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State." Yet the ambassador has been placed under the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor. That means that a position that Congress intended to have direct access to the secretary of state and the president has had little clout even within the State Department. Moreover, a key recommendation of the Chicago report is to fill the position with someone who has the foreign-policy skills to reduce persecution and advance religious freedom worldwide. But the leading candidate for the job -- though highly accomplished and well-connected -- is a pastor, not a diplomat.

Although the president has yet to even nominate his ambassador at large for international religious freedom, other ambassadors at large -- for global women's issues, counterterrorism, and war crimes -- have long been at work, directly under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A large group of other senior envoys are also in place, with portfolios such as disabilities, AIDS, climate change, Guantanamo, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and outreach to Muslim communities. The State Department is also developing an international gay rights initiative. It is difficult not to conclude that all these initiatives are more important to the administration than religious freedom.

In this regard, it is worrying that, for the past year, Obama and Clinton have often used the term "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion." The former is largely a private activity with few if any public-policy implications. The latter certainly denotes the right to worship, but it includes as well the right to engage in political and public life on the basis of religious beliefs. It is the latter that the United States has failed to address in its religious-freedom policy, even though the public element of religious freedom is by far the most important aspect of any engagement with majority-Muslim communities, which do not see their role as a private one.

Mostly, the State Department condemns individual cases of persecution, like that of Christian convert Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. The United States played a central role in freeing Rahman from execution; in the Afghan criminal justice system, apostasy is a capital crime. But it also failed to understand, or to try to convince Afghans, that such laws are inconsistent with stable democracy and work against Afghanistan's long-term interests.

There have been exceptions to this largely reactive approach. For example, Ambassador at Large John Hanford worked successfully to achieve legal changes in Vietnam that laid the groundwork for greater religious freedom. More recently, the State Department's office of international religious freedom organized an interagency group that meets regularly on issues of religion and global affairs. Unfortunately, such glimmers of progress remain exceptions that prove the rule: Twelve years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, the issue still has little salience in U.S. foreign policy.

What might a better course of action look like? Dennis Hoover and I have provided detailed recommendations in a booklet titled "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration." It includes some obvious steps: placing the ambassador and his office directly under the secretary of state and integrating international religious freedom into such broader policies as democracy promotion, public diplomacy, and counterterrorism. Among other things, it is clear that a country that protects the religious freedom of all its citizens is far less likely to nourish and export (including to American shores) religion-based terrorism.

Obama should also build off his speech in Cairo: "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together." Recently a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy, based on extensive interviews with young Middle Eastern civil society leaders, found support for a refurbished religious freedom policy in the Middle East. "In our conferences," the report notes, "participants sharply objected to U.S. practice relating to religious freedom, but instead of calling for an end to the IRF office and its reports they argued that its mandate should be expanded to focus on a) freedom of political participation by religious persons and b) the freedom of independent religious debate and institutional life, in addition to c) the freedom of individual practice."

What does this tell us? That at least some young leaders in the Middle East not only want democracy -- we've know that for some time -- but also want help in establishing the freedoms and limits that help make democracy stable and lasting.

There is ample reason for the president to retool and refurbish the country's international religious freedom policy. Among them is the fact that his predecessors failed to see the potential in such an effort. Far more important, however, is the growing awareness that successful religious freedom diplomacy can serve the interests of peace, stability, and American security.


The Classics Rock

Eleven reasons Plutarch and Herodotus still matter.

Is the study of classical history pointless? What useful knowledge will I glean from reading about some dead Roman governor of Britain? How will studying what the Delphic oracle had to say about the Persian advance into Greece help me in my future job at the State Department?

I hear such questions often in my seminar on Thucydides and other classical writers, which I teach at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. My students -- future policymakers, pundits, and managers -- approach the class with a good dose of skepticism about the value (aside from mere amusement) of reading about ancient times. Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War -- in particular the Melian Dialogue, a quintessential tale of the small, neutral Melians defending themselves against the strong Athenians -- is relatively common reading among budding wonks. But Tacitus, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Plutarch? Most students favor the latest tome on the rise of China over the insights of these long-dead writers.

My students' predilections reflect a wider skepticism about the present-day relevance of old texts. For modern academics and policy analysts, ancient authors are guilty of adopting an unscientific approach, relying on anecdotes, and showing a primitive fear of natural events. What good does it do the reader to know that before battle the Romans often consulted a pullarius, a chicken-feeding augur? Such texts say nothing about modern life, critics say, and certainly will not help one get a job at Goldman Sachs or the Pentagon. The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves.

But that's precisely the point. Reading Thucydides's description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus's praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar's tale of Vercingetorix's uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood. Human affairs cannot be fully understood through a single lens, whether politics or economics; we are often at the mercy of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces. Events can sometimes only be appreciated when taken as they are.

With that understanding, let me relate 11 ancient lessons relevant to today's world.

1. Superstition bests logic. Today's leaders, like those of ancient times, do not think exclusively in terms of gains and losses, balance sheets, costs and benefits, and legal constraints. Rather they are moved by hearsay, superstitions, and dreams. Consider, for instance, the Athenian general Nicias, who spent more time in divination than pondering how to extricate his troops from Sicily. He took a fateful decision to stay at Syracuse because of a nocturnal eclipse of the moon and ended up being executed by the Sicilians.

2. Theology is far more important than economics. People are humans, not cash registers. And humans, even today, tend to hold strong beliefs about the Supreme Being, eternity, and what happens when you drink the waters of the Lethe River. They act here and now on the basis of those beliefs. Many will be led to great sacrifices, incomprehensible to those without an appreciation for the divine, in defense of their faith. Witness the Jews who refused to allow Caligula's statue in the Temple and were spared his full wrath only by his timely and violent demise. Others, notably the early Christians in Rome, were not so lucky, and their bodies littered imperial streets and stadia.

3. Political leaders care about public opinion, but they also care about history and their place in it. They might be willing to trade present public support and admiration -- or even the survival of their city or army -- for a shot at immortality and a place in history books. As a British rebel put it to encourage his men to fight the Roman legions, "Think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after!" Well, they lost, and, in Tacitus's description, an "awful silence reigned everywhere." But he fought not as much for that day as for the past and the future. People engage in politics and war sub specie aeternitatis, with all of its consequences.

4. Money is not the sinews of war. Men are. Wealth is nice, but an enemy's center of gravity is his soul, character, mind, and faith, not his arms or his cities. As Xenophon wrote, "It is not numbers or strength that bring victories in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods' gift of a stronger morale that their adversaries, as a rule, cannot withstand them." On another occasion, the Persians ate on tables of gold and still had a hard time defeating 300 Spartans who ate porridge. Persia's large reservoirs of money and manpower could not bend the Greeks' disdain for the Medes and love of independence. The Greeks never surrendered.

5. Thus, to conquer an enemy, change him. Julius Caesar, when expanding the Roman Empire across Gaul and Britain, knew he needed to sap his new and unwilling constituents' desire to rebel. Calgacus in Caledonia and Vercingetorix in Gaul could be defeated on the battlefield, but the Romans had to assimilate the British and Gauls to rule. Thus, Caesar made the enemies into Romans, providing them with things like schools. Tacitus described the result: "The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilization,' when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement."

6. Fear is powerful, but love can overcome it. Our modern understanding is that fear motivates individuals and states. (Thank you, Thomas Hobbes!) Politics is then the attempt to calibrate fear to achieve stability, deterrence, or whatever other desired outcome. Yet the ancients teach that love of one's brother in arms, family, city, nation, honor, prestige, justice, and god will make one do things deemed impossible or even suicidal. For instance, the Melians' faith in justice and their gods led them to naively believe that Sparta would help them against Athens.

7. States are fragile, no matter how wealthy, strong, or cohesive. The "school of Hellas," Athens, collapsed into a whirlwind of violence when the plague struck its people. The Athenians ceased to fear their gods and respect the law and "coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner," as Thucydides wrote. In fact, even families, the rock of societies, can fall apart. In the "bloody march of the revolution" in Corcyra, as Thucydides put it, fathers killed their sons, and there "was no length to which violence did not go." Polities may break up unexpectedly, and the beastly state of nature is always around the corner.

8. Expect the unexpected; not everything makes sense all the time. A respected, beloved, and experienced general can be, in a key moment, a pusillanimous and superstitious leader whose actions border on the treasonous. The Athenian general Nicias, mentioned earlier, refused to retreat speedily at the end of the siege of Syracuse -- for no clear reason at all. Much cannot be understood. The ability to comprehend is limited. Live with it.

9. For some, war is not a means to an end, but a goal in and of itself. Some fight because they love the glory of the battlefield, the pleading of the defeated, the plunder, the women, the gold, and the social cohesion of the battalion. For some, war is a way of life and peace the beginning of the end. Take, for instance, Julius Caesar, who loved the Germanic soldiers who fought on his side even though their fellow tribes were threatening Roman imperial interests from across the Rhine. They simply enjoyed a good fight. Similarly, Tacitus describes a Roman officer who "exulting less in the prizes that danger wins than in danger for its own sake, ... sacrificed the assured gains of the past to a novel and hazardous gamble." Or, as Achilles put it in The Iliad, "What I really crave is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men."

10. Technology extends man's power over nature, but nature is powerful too. An earthquake stopped a Spartan invasion of Attica; a plague devastated Athens and upset its political order; and Julius Caesar barely made it back from Britain to Gaul across the British Channel. Nature can redirect history in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.

11. Success is elusive. Sometimes naiveté, arrogance, and dumb luck turn the most powerful into a loser. (Looking for a Ph.D. dissertation topic? "Stupidity as an independent variable in international relations" would be useful and rare.) Accept this as a tragedy of the human condition. You will never engineer the perfect political administration. Often a group of brilliant generals can lead to a disaster, as the Athenians found out in Sicily.

In the end, we will never fully comprehend power, war, or life. The biggest danger for modern leaders and students of politics is that we think we know more than we do and that we can play with political realities as if they were hard sciences. Reading these classical texts is a good antidote to modern arrogance. Politics is an art, after all.

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