The God Factor

Reviewed by Noah Feldman
Sunday, May 14, 2006


Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs

By Madeleine Albright

HarperCollins. 339 pp. $25.95

In his introduction to Madeleine Albright's surprising new book on religion and foreign policy, Bill Clinton writes that his former secretary of state chose her subject "against the advice of friends." Those friends are left unnamed, but they surely include colleagues who helped Albright craft U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton years -- and maybe even President Clinton himself. The cause of their trepidation must have related to the most important -- and bravest -- point that Albright makes here: that on her watch, U.S. foreign policy made every effort to ignore religion.

To a new generation of foreign policy thinkers who must now deal with jihadist terrorism, it seems absurd that America's leaders self-consciously pretended that religion was not an important world force. But according to Albright -- and it is hard to see why she would overstate the case -- the Clinton team insisted privately, not just publicly, that the Balkan crises, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, yes, al-Qaeda's August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa were "not about religion."

Given that the participants in all these events said that their conflicts were precisely about religion, it is worth wondering how our best and brightest could have remained so obstinately in denial. The cause, according to Albright, was the legacy of foreign policy "realism" -- the view that nations' actions could be predicted by assuming that they would rationally pursue their own interests. This theory, which is "almost exclusively secular," taught diplomats to ignore religious rhetoric and zeal and to look instead for familiar, interest-based motives. Albright, with the help of her longtime speechwriter Bill Woodward, argues that the realist approach must be amended by inserting an awareness of the increasingly significant role that religion plays in the making of individual and national decisions, not just abroad but here in the United States as well. The result is a book that makes an important contribution to the question of how our foreign policy should adjust to the rise of religion worldwide.

Albright's reckoning with her own policy legacy amounts to a particularly candid first draft of history. She's right that foreign policy realism did, in a certain sense, downplay the religious interests of nations, but she does not acknowledge the main reason that realism let her down in confronting the principal diplomatic crises of the 1990s. Put simply, realism is a theory about the behavior of states . Yet the most important foreign policy challenges of the Clinton years came not from states but from nonstate actors such as Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the militias in failed or failing states such as Somalia. Even Yasser Arafat, whose intransigence at the summer 2000 Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David cost Albright and Clinton a permanent place in diplomatic history, was not the head of a proper state.

This matters a lot. Leaders without states have very different incentives than do presidents and kings. Although dictators and democrats do not always behave the same way, any government -- admirable or nasty -- needs to deliver basic security and services in order to maintain its authority. That is why the behavior of presidents (for life or otherwise) can often be predicted by asking what actions would best serve the interests of the state in question.

The same is not true of guerrillas, freedom fighters or terrorists, who may be chasing dreams of world-transformation. Without a body of citizens for whose well-being they are in some way responsible, nonstate leaders are free to act according to ideals that may well clash with practical reality -- and some of those ideals will be religious ones. Albright is therefore right to call for enhancing religious expertise in the State Department, but we also need to pay much more attention to the ways that U.S. foreign policy engages not just governments but groups and movements made up of ordinary people who are moved by the full range of human beliefs and emotions.

Of course, religion's role in foreign policy does not stop at the water's edge. In our own democracy, citizens' religious commitments often play a major role in shaping their preferences about how the United States should engage the world. It would be hard to explain, for example, America's close relationship to Israel without at least some reference to the strong connection to the Holy Land felt by many Christians and Jews.

When it comes to the effect of religion on U.S. policies, Albright takes a somewhat complicated stand. She is eager to make common cause with evangelicals who care deeply about humanitarian issues in order to create an international genocide-prevention force under U.N. auspices. (How many evangelicals would agree to this plan is left unexamined.) She studiously avoids criticizing the Bush administration's foreign policy as religiously inspired, though she quotes others who accuse the White House of being "theologically presumptuous" and "dangerously messianic." And she accepts that "religion must be taken into account" by leaders who, like the rest of us, are inevitably influenced by their faith when they choose a course of action.

At the same time, Albright espouses a skeptical theology according to which we should tolerate other people's religious views because they might turn out to be right, after all. As a proof text for this approach, she quotes Clinton himself: "It is OK to say you believe your religion is true, even truer than other faiths, but not that you are in possession in this life of a hundred percent of the truth." This cautious doctrine is appealing -- even characteristically American. But it is by no means shared by all people of faith, many of whom believe the Bible or the Koran contains the whole truth. In a democracy, the votes of the true believers weigh just as heavily as the votes of the skeptics. To welcome religion into the making of our foreign policy is to acknowledge that certainties, not just well-meant aspirations, are going to play their part.

The painful truth about democracy is that the policies we make will generally be the product of compromise, not reasoned judgment. Realism sought to solve this problem by teaching diplomats to ignore ideals and focus on long-term interests. Today, our moral compass tells us that realism without values is not enough. But once we open the door to values, we cannot be sure that our policies will be coherent enough to succeed. ยท

Noah Feldman, a professor of law at New York University and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It" and "What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building."

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