NOVEMBER 1, 2001
The Wisdom of Serpents: Religion and American Foreign Policy
-- Roland Homet
The events of September eleventh illuminate starkly the distortions that hatred can bring to religious expression. Osama bin Laden and his colleagues have twisted Islam into into forms and for ends that mainstream Muslims do not support. If we want our foreign policy responses to be effective, we have to try to understand that deviation, along with habits and practices of the Abrahamic faiths as practiced in America that may have stimulated that hatred.
We do not usually think about such matters. The relationship between religion and foreign policy is one that most Americans would have trouble describing. Does religion drive foreign policy in this country, or are the two unrelated? A new report concludes that neither view is correct. The Wisdom of Serpents issues from the multi-disciplinary, inter-religious Forum on Religion and Foreign Policy. Its members consist of international lawyers and business people, diplomats, scholars, nonprofit leaders, and clergy, spanning the Abrahamic tradition -- from Catholics and Protestants to Muslims and Jews. They met regularly for three years in a comprehensive search for the intersection of faith and diplomacy.
Religious confrontation is a sad feature of this age as it has been for centuries. The traditions that have given rise to shared instruments of peace and traditions that constrain excessive uses of force, such as the Just War principles, also harbor extremist perspectives that can disdain such constraints. The Forum emphasized the positive potential of the Abrahamic traditions to support constructive policies.
Several key points emerged from Forum discussions. The most basic of these is that religion does shape, for good or ill, American attitudes toward the world. Currently, the Forum concluded, the desire to coerce others to adopt the values we profess threatens to dominate foreign policy attitudes on both the right and the left in this country. This does not represent the best of the Abrahamic tradition, and serves to obstruct American interests by stirring up negative reactions against our policies.
The moderate leadership of the monotheistic faiths can contribute to peaceful dialogue and harmony, by recognizing that their respective traditions offer at least three attitudinal choices -- which the report identifies as triumphal, beneficent, and modest. The first two differ from each other, but they have in common a posture of superiority, or condescension, that runs counter to many teachings of the Bible and the Qur' an. Modesty, the Forum concluded, can move us beyond arrogance to a workable spiritual humility.
Foreign policy growing out of this distinctive Abrahamic vein can generate what may be called a servant leadership, of the kind that saw America rebuilding a war-torn Europe after World War II. The Marshall Plan was a self-interested initiative that also served our higher values. When those two motivations are separated from each other, the report concludes, our foreign policy can get us into trouble.
One of the more provocative suggestions of the group is that avoiding disinterested interventions abroad can safeguard against the usurpation of God's will, and history. In fact, the point is not a novel one, having been previously advanced by such American theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness) and Peter Gomes (The Good Book).
Likewise, George W. Bush's year 2000 campaign emphasis on a greater humility in our foreign policy, and Congressional concerns about undue unilateralism in the practice of that policy, invoke an American political tradition shaped by Washington, Lincoln, George C.Marshall, and George Kennan. The tradition is summarized well by Thomas Jefferson's appeal, in the Declaration of Independence, to "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind."
This is a counsel not of isolationism but of effective internationalism. Over-reaching foreign policies, with their associated failures and frustrations, spawn isolationist postures which proper reticence would avoid.
There is no conflict, the report observes, between religious modesty and foreign-policy effectiveness. The two complement each other. We may want to change other societies or bend them to our will, but progress and reconciliation are not to be found in that way. In a complex and changing world where persuasiveness is at least as important as conviction, persistence in that direction can only be self-defeating.
-- Roland Homet is an international lawyer and diplomat who serves on the Peace Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. He authored this report and convened the forum that produced it. The seventy-three page text can be downloaded from www.relpol.org, click on "Objectives." A limited number of printed copies are also available by e-mail request to email@example.com.