Monthly Archives: April 2016

Religion and Foreign Policy

Foreign Affairs

In the modern era religion has played a relatively small or insignificant role in foreign policy, especially among academics and professionals. International relations are assumed to be subject to rational processes and the primary motivating force is not religion but maximization of gain and minimization of loss.

But the Iranians following the revolution of 1979 have been the first significant departure from this trend. Iranians have defined themselves as fundamentally Islamist and any effort to organize against them, any war or confrontation, is considered an attack on Islam. Global jihad and pressures on other Islamic countries not to partner with non-Muslim governments are part of the growing entanglements between foreign-policy and religion.

The United States is oblivious, and I don’t mean that as a compliment, to issues in religion in foreign policy. They miss theological underpinnings all the time and have naïvely misread and failed to grasp incidents such as the Iranian revolution, Islamists objections to our presence in Saudi Arabia, all while we blithely armed Islamists in Afghanistan because we thought we were thwarting communism. Even our efforts at democracy promotion have failed in the face of confrontations with religious tenets that we fail to understand, ignore, and consider to be little more than inconsequential background.

And probably the biggest blind spot for the United States has been the published documents by ISIS and Al Qaeda members detailing terrorism with a vision of Islam. These documents make reference to the creation of a global caliphate; foment a religiously apocalyptic narrative; and use religious motivations to recruit young believers. The US continues to fight the war on terrorism as a military and security matter and not a religious one. Theology animates ISIS such that killing them only creates more committed actors who will find new ways to subvert their enemy, namely, the US.

Interestingly, it is a form of political correctness that keeps the US from acknowledging the theological underpinnings of terrorism or any other foreign policy with a basis in religion. What I mean is that American leaders do not want to be perceived as attacking Islam or being critical of Islam even if it is religious tenets rooted in Islam that justifies violence in its name. Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama might refer to gun laws, history, morals, economic deprivation, or some aberration but they never tie violence or some aggressive behavior by another group directly to theological principles of Islam. I can understand the delicate diplomatic position of the President of the United States such that he does not want to prance around the world condemning world religions. In fact, organizations like ISIS want to divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims and blaming entire religions would play right into their hands. They succeed at this to the extent that the US blames Islam or gets involved in military actions on land that is considered caliphate. Still, our policies will be ineffectual to the extent that they fail to consider religion in foreign policy.

It is not easy for the United States to all of a sudden adopt religious oriented policies or even to begin to use the language of religion in an effort to appease or seek a superficial identification with another political entity. That is why we must find other ways to weaken their theological basis. This includes empowering natural enemies, and providing improved social and economic progress in contested areas. We’re also losing the propaganda or information war as these religious oriented policies spread their beliefs. Organizations like ISIS and countries like Iran clearly embrace religion as part of foreign-policy. In the end, if we are to make progress in the information war we are probably left with Justice Brandeis’s adage about how “the remedy for bad speech is more speech.”

Authoritarian States Are Not so Stable

Der libysche Revolutionsführer Muammar el Gaddafi, salutierend in Uniform, am 04.12.1985 während seines Besuches im Senegal/Afrika. In Libyen steht am 1. September zum 30. Mal der Nationalfeiertag vor der Tür. dpa (zu dpa-Korr "30 Jahre Revolution in Libyen" vom 25.08.1999)

I tend to be an unapologetic democracy advocate who is confident in the premise that elevates the essence of democracy (consent of the governed) to the most moral and ultimately stable form of government. Holding such a position can certainly get you in trouble if you convert it into neoconservative foreign policy and start meddling in the affairs of others under the justification of “democracy promotion.” Moreover, there are more than a few people who make the counterargument that democracy is destabilizing for cultures unprepared for it (many in the Middle East and Arab world), and authoritarian regimes may be on the wrong side of human rights but they are stabilizing. Beyond all the opinion on these matters, there is the problem of sufficient cases and empirical demonstration, namely, what are the instances where democracy promotion and advocacy actually work to undermine authoritarianism and can be credited with “democratic regime change.”

Gregory Gause has initiated excellent steps in this direction in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. You can find it here. Gause takes up the task of explaining the “myth of authoritarian stability.” The “Arab world” as he terms it sports a long list of authoritarian leaders – Qaddafi in Libya, the Assad family in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt, the al Saud family in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali in Tunisia and others. And even though there are complex differences amongst these cases there seems to be, according to Gause, two issues that align themselves in such a way as to predict either the likelihood of authoritarian stability or democratic liberalization.

First, you’ll rarely find, if ever, an explanation that accounts for Arab regime stability in terms of culture. Most attribute stability to the relationship between the state and the military. Still, the assumption that there is no daylight between the military and rulers is not necessarily correct. There are cases where the military was protective of protesters and this was true of Egypt in particular. When societies are homogeneous and the military is not subduing an ethnoreligious minority they are more sympathetic to types of resistance. When the military is professionalized and mature they tend to be less implicated in automatic obedience to the regime.

Gause offers a second assumption about authoritarian stability which is the state control of the economy. Oil wealth, for example, built systems of patronage and provided social services that appeased the population. Salaries, subsidies, state created jobs, and various other social welfare programs are assumed to maintain authoritarian positions. But it turns out that attempts to modernize the economy have been more successful at enriching a few and creating opportunities and privileges for the upper classes composed mostly of the super wealthy and ruling families. Some authoritarian regimes are then quick to provide salary increases and other benefits for citizens, but have often been surprised at the extent to which groups are politicized and willing to foment rebellion.

Turns out, as Gause concludes, that authoritarian regimes are not so stable after all and many have underestimated the pressures for change lurking beneath the surface. These conditions make it tempting to interfere and try to manipulate the dynamics of change in authoritarian societies. But it’s important to remember that most basic dynamics are indigenous and outside states should tread cautiously.






The Twisted Logic of Cultural Differences

Israeli-Palestinian face-off

One of the most pressing and distressing cultural and communication problems is how you talk to the “other.” Group and cultural polarization is no longer an interesting insight posed by an academic or intellectual. No, it is common knowledge and easy enough to see even for the most disengaged citizen. It is the problem of perceived incommensurability when the belief that two cultures – especially cultures in conflict – are irreconcilably different. These differences cause distortions in the communication process resulting from the cognitive and political consequences of intergroup contact and the absence of bridging discourse that closes or shrinks cultural gaps. These distortions are apparent in discourses and interactions between the two groups that sustain violence. Although this results in damages and injustices to both sides there are ways to mitigate effects and work to transform the conflict into morally acceptable democratic argument.

The term incommensurability was introduced to refer to scientific values that were so different that they lacked any common unit by which they could be measured. Aristotelian versus Newtonian mechanics is an example. But over time incommensurability became associated with other ideas including concepts related to the humanities and social sciences. Cultures have been termed incommensurable and cultural incommensurability has been associated with diversity and other social agendas. Strong diversity advocates cherish incommensurability as a sign of cultural uniqueness and claim that all group and cultural differences lack some common units by which they can be compared. So, the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, is equivalent to the differences between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. There is no bridging language.

Thomas Kuhn explained that incommensurability referred to “irreconcilable differences” because two or more paradigms involve different sets of problems, definitions, and standards. It is possible to “interpret” the two incommensurable paradigms in a language other than the paradigm, which is what conflict resolution specialists do, but this will always be limited.

Cultures and groups polarize because they engage in a process of increasing differentiation. They develop negative identities such that part of the definition of group or cultural membership involves the rejection of the other. This produces extremes: being Israeli is defined as not being Palestinian, or being a Republican is defined as not being a Democrat.

Increasing differentiation explains how the discourse of difficult conflicts can devolve into contradiction, paradox, and double binds. The natural consequences of differentiation is to gravitate around binaries including binaries of ethnicity (Arab-Jewish), gender (male-female) religion (sacred-secular), history (war of independence-nakba), cultural narratives (victimization-displacement), politics (Republican-Democrat), and so on. Even when groups engage in communicative contact the result can be communication that dissolves into debates, arguments, and blame. These then harden into fixed positions and the sort of interest-based thinking that is not able to deal with identity-based conflicts. The doubly bound messages of conflict groups continue to stimulate the process of differentiation; that is, these groups reify incommensurability through the differentiation described above which results in a type of deformed communication where individuals are trapped by the accusations of the other. Each side of the conflict interprets the other as being responsible for its own oppression and the act of denying such a claim is understood as simply providing additional evidence of the claim in the first place. Thus, you have the twisted logic of group differences.

Attempts to win arguments such as “who started it” or what historical event is responsible for the current situation are typically futile and mostly damage the possibilities for dialogue. These binaries and double binds are so exhausting that the communication resources of both sides are depleted and continuing conflict differences becomes the accepted reality.


Blaming the United States for ISIS and Al Qaeda – Unjustified

US flag in the desert

It is already the case that it will have taken the US longer to defeat Al Qaeda and ISIS than it did Germany and Japan. There are two reasons for this. The first is the tendency to blame the United States for these problems, and the second is the role of religion in foreign policy.

Blaming the US

I find the argument that the US is responsible for ISIS and we are reaping what we sow to be indefensible and a rather weak argument. Here’s how the current litany of arguments blaming the US goes: ISIS is George Bush’s fault because of Iran. The Taliban are Ronald Reagan’s fault because we armed them to fight the Soviets. The splinter groups in Syria and Yemen are offshoots of Al Qaeda. The PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas are Israeli creations all because of the occupied territories. The jihadists in Libya are our fault because we supported the overthrow of the vicious dictator Qaddafi. I suppose I haven’t heard an explanation for how we are responsible for Boko Haram but I’m sure someone can construct one. We seem to be engaging in “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacious reasoning such that the existence of a terrorist group is looking for a cause and pointing to some prior act of United States.

America apparently has more influence than Islam even though jihad has a long history and every Middle Eastern slight gets easily interpreted as caused by Europe or the West. There are more than a few motivations that have their basis in religious imperatives that existed before the United States did. I accept that there are two sides to the argument about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq and related terrorist activity, but there’s a difference between justification for the war in Iraq and its prosecution.

WMDs (nuclear weapons) are one day going to be responsible for catastrophic destruction. The US is going to have to remain diligent and aggressive to prevent a mushroom cloud over New York City. And this is not hyperbole. The most likely political entities to make them available to terrorists are Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan. Stopping their potentialities in Iraq or anyplace else before they’re able to be used elsewhere is sensible policy. The levels of violence, organizational structure, and ideology associated with Al Qaeda or ISIS is beyond the capabilities of the United States. Even if United States is implicated in the creation of a few of these groups claiming that we are directly responsible seems to be quite a stretch.

And if Bruce Hoffman’s predictions are correct then ISIS and Al Qaeda will merge and the US will be the only “answer” to the problem rather than its cause.

Religion and Foreign Policy

The second reason Al Qaeda and ISIS are so difficult to defeat is the role of religion. This is, of course, a large issue and we can address it more fully at another time. But Jacob Olidort explains how soft power and attempts at democratic and rational conflict management are no match for the pull of theology and religion for ISIS and Al Qaeda followers. Salafism and other tenets of Islam provide a theological basis for jihad and other relationships between religion and politics. The United States is in no position to challenge the theology of ISIS or Al Qaeda when in fact this is exactly what must be done. Foreign policy rooted in religion make problems more recalcitrant and difficult to manage. Religion makes the actors on both sides more “devoted” than “rational” as Scott Atran explains. This makes them less subject to a shared an intersubjective reality that one day can provide the basis for common ground.






%d bloggers like this: