Religion in Foreign Policy
Summary and Keywords
The foreign policies of most states are secular in orientation and focus. A few make religion a prominent component of their ideological approach to foreign policy. States whose foreign policies are consistently or irregularly informed by religion include: Egypt, Iran, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In each case, these states’ foreign policies feature domestic religious actors seeking to have regular or intermittent involvement in the making of foreign policy. The impact and capacity of such religious actors is linked to the ideological and/or national interest priorities of incumbent governments. That is, religious actors may have an opportunity for input into foreign policy that reflects a concern more generally with the association between material concerns—national security—and religious and ethical ideas, norms and values.
In addition to states with input from religious actors in foreign policy making, we can also note several important non-state actors whose religious beliefs centrally inform their foreign policies, which often focus on the United Nations (UN), the world’s largest and most comprehensive organization with near-universal state membership. The UN is a key focal point to pursue such policies, and three such actors can be identified: the Holy See/Vatican (and, more generally, the Roman Catholic Church), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the World Council of Churches, whose religious orientations are, respectively: Roman Catholicism, Islam, and non-Catholic Christianity.
Religious actors have important roles in foreign policy in relation to selected states and to non-state actors.
When we think about the most significant current issues in international relations, it is impossible to ignore various manifestations of religious involvement. For example, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) encouraged both the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church more generally to get involved in human rights, with the United Nations (UN) the favored place. In addition, over the last four decades, the Israel-Palestinians conflict has been couched in increasingly polarized religious terms. From the late 1970s, Iran’s Islamic revolution significantly focused world attention on Islamist actors. However, it was the terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (known as “9/11”), and subsequent terrorist attacks—such as bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 (“3/11”), and in London on July 7, 2005 (“7/7”), and attacks in Belgium, France, and Germany in 2015 and 2016—which raised the profile of religion in modern international relations to an unprecedented level. This is not to imply that such involvement was unprecedented in the historical past. For example, various religious actors have taken the view for decades that involvement in international relations is an essential part of their ethics. For example, various (mainly Christian) groups were centrally involved in the abolitionist antislavery movement in the 19th century, the civil rights struggle in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa. There were also several prominent Christian individuals—including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope John Paul II, and Archbishop Oscar Romero—of seminal importance for recent political outcomes, both within individual countries and internationally.
Taken together, these issues, and many more like them, serve to underline the important historical and contemporary role of religion in international relations. Within this context, there is the issue of the role of religion in foreign policy of both states, such as Iran, and important nonstate actors, such as the Roman Catholic Church. This article examines the issue of religion in foreign policy in both state and nonstate contexts.
There are three general categories of religious actors1 in international relations:
Most states’ foreign policies are secular in orientation and focus. A few make religion a prominent component of their ideological approach to foreign policy. States whose foreign policies are consistently or irregularly informed by religion include Egypt, Iran, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In each case, these states’ foreign policies feature domestic religious actors seeking to have regular or intermittent involvement in foreign policymaking. The impact and capacity of such religious actors is linked to the ideological and/or national interest priorities of incumbent governments. That is, religious actors may have an input into foreign policymaking, which reflects a concern more generally with the association between material concerns—including national security issues—and religious and ethical ideas, norms, and values. As Hay (2002, p. 194) notes, “ideas often hold the key to unlock political dynamics—as change in policy is often preceded by changes in the ideas informing policy and … the ability to orchestrate shifts in societal preferences.”3
In addition to states with input from religious actors in foreign policymaking, international relations also features several important nonstate actors whose religious beliefs centrally inform their foreign policies, which often focus on the United Nations, the world’s largest and most comprehensive organization with near-universal state membership. The United Nations is a key focal point to pursue such policies, and this article identifies and briefly discusses three such actors: the Holy See/Vatican (and, more generally, the Roman Catholic Church), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the World Council of Churches (WCC), whose religious orientations are, respectively, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and non-Catholic Christianity. In addition, there are other religious transnational actors from different faiths, such as the Baha’is.
While the concerns and goals of nonstate religious actors undoubtedly vary from entity to entity, what they have in common is the desire to act internationally to try to achieve their stated objectives. For example, both moderate and extremist Islamists, the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant and Orthodox churches, Hindu nationalists, and pro-Israel Jews all seek to influence outcomes via international activities. Such actors are more likely to be influential when they successfully inaugurate, embed, and develop interactions with like-minded groups across state borders, typically focusing on the United Nations as a favored environment. Such actors may engage in transmission and receipt of, for example, interpersonal and intergroup exchanges of information, ideas, money and/or personnel. This is made possible by the fact that such religious actors inhabit a globalizing social reality, characteristic of globalization. This is an environment where previously significant barriers to communication have diminished considerably. These circumstances serve to facilitate national, regional, continental, and, in some cases, global networks of like-minded entities. In sum, what religious state and nonstate actors have in common is that they share objectives that, informed by religion, bring a renewed significance of faith issues to international relations.
Increased involvement of religious actors in international relations is taking place in the context of what may appear to be a widespread religious resurgence, which emerged in the 1980s. As Casanova (1994, p. 6) notes, at this time, “[w]hat was new and became ‘news’ … was the widespread and simultaneous’ refusal of religious actors any longer to be restricted to the private sphere.” Henceforward, many nonstate religious actors became overtly and actively concerned with political, social, and/or economic issues that collectively challenged both the legitimacy and autonomy of the primary secular spheres: the state, political society, and the market economy, in both domestic and international contexts. In doing so, they raised important questions about the interconnections of private and public morality and the claims of both states and markets to be exempt from normative considerations. Such concerns were focused and contextualized by the political, economic, social, and cultural impacts of globalization (Haynes, 2005, 2013a). In short, many nonstate religious actors have appeared in recent years with common aims, which many pursue internationally: they seek to acquire both domestic and international influence through focusing on moral, ethical, economic, social, and/or political concerns, and they employ various means to achieve their goals.
Within many domestic contexts, as Casanova (1994) notes, many religious actors acquired increased public prominence from the 1980s. Yet it took most international relations scholars a while to factor this change into their analyses and investigate the international consequences of this shift. As Reus-Smit (2005) notes, for most analysts of international relations and foreign policy, both religion and culture4 were “largely neglected” until the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s Twin Towers. A consequence of 9/11 and its aftermath was increased focus on an array of often competing ideas in international relations, including those linked to religion and culture. For example, the concepts of “the West” and of “Islam” as radically different transnational communities have been constituted and are related to the constitution, or erosion, of state power, and “can be mobilized to sustain system-transforming political projects, either on the part of liberal democracies, seeking to redefine the norms of sovereignty and global governance, or terrorist organisations seeking an end to the liberal capitalist world order” (Reus-Smit, 2005, p. 211).
Several conclusions follow from these initial thoughts. First, in recent years, various state, quasi-state, and nonstate religious actors have all expressed religious beliefs, norms, and values in their foreign policies. Second, this is surprising given the history and trajectory of international relations since the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which emphasized the exclusion of religion from international relations. This was because religion was seen to be a baleful and divisive influence, leading to international conflict.5 Third, over time (that is, until the 1980s), this view, which Hurd (2012), among others, has correctly identified as an ideological approach, encouraged the belief that international relations discourse is always predominantly secular.
Religion and Foreign Policy in Post-Westphalian International Relations
International relations theory is based on the premise that historically, religion had a central importance to many political outcomes in many parts of the world, but it lost that prominence as a consequence of modernization. Until the 18th century and the subsequent development of the modern—that is, increasingly secular—international state system, religion was a key source of political competition and conflict in many parts of the world. Rival religious faiths stimulated, molded, and exacerbated numerous group conflicts until the 18th century. Things changed following the Peace of Westphalia and the subsequent development of centralized, secular states—initially in Western Europe, and then via colonialism to the rest of the world. The consequence for international relations was that the significance of religion declined significantly.
Religion’s reduced importance in international relations was reflected in two interrelated international processes: modernization and secularization. Each carried a key assumption: secular sovereign states are the key actors in international relations, guided by the profane Westphalian international system and characterized by a key concept (state sovereignty) and a fundamental principle (nonintervention). These notions gradually became embedded in international thinking in subsequent centuries via the institutionalization of the so-called four pillars of the Westphalian system:
• States are the sole legitimate actor in international relations.
• States do not seek, via their foreign policies, to change the relationship between religion and politics in other countries.
• Religious authorities legitimately exercise few—if any—domestic temporal functions, and even fewer transnationally/internationally.
• There is clear and robust separation of church and state within polities.
In sum, as Philpott (2002, p. 79) notes, the Peace of Westphalia was “a structure of political authority that was forged centuries ago by a sharply secularizing set of events and that has endured in its secular guise ever since.”
The importance for international outcomes of the Westphalian four pillars lies in the fact that the Peace was primarily geared to remove religion as a justification for both regional and international conflicts. By the 17th century, religious competition and discord had long been at the heart of much conflict involving European countries and their extra-European rivals, notably international actors motivated by Islam. As the salience of religion for international relations declined, it was believed that secular modernization and the rise of science and rationality would combine to put inexorable pressure on religious faith, resulting in its steady decay. Many key thinkers in the humanities and social sciences shared this belief, including Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and Max Weber. According to Norris and Inglehart (2004, p. 3), “All believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society.”
In sum, modern Western intellectual thought coalesced in the belief that religion was fading into political and public irrelevance. This notion, captured in a key social science assumption known as secularization theory, was turned on its head by recent events, as noted previously, which collectively emphasize the contemporary and current importance of religion in international relations.
Yet it is also the case that only a few states among the 193 members of the United Nations are significantly motivated by religious considerations in their foreign policies (Haynes, 2013a). All states have foreign policies overtly directed toward achieving a set of national interest goals, interests, and aspirations; not many feature religious goals among their top priorities. A state’s foreign policy must be flexible enough to follow the changing contours and dynamics of international politics, while simultaneously preserving and promoting national interests. It is widely agreed that any country’s domestic environment has a major role in shaping its foreign policy. Foreign policy is to a large extent a reflection of a country’s domestic milieu, its needs, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. This suggests that a state’s foreign policy is influenced by certain objective conditions—such as history, geography, socioeconomic conditions, and culture—that interact in complex ways with the changing dynamics of international politics. For a country to enjoy a successful foreign policy, it is necessary to achieve a balance between domestic and external dimensions. In sum, foreign policies of all countries are, to some degree, a product of and interaction between (a) a country’s overall power indices (including geostrategic location, economic wealth and health, military strength, and domestic political stability) and (b) the prevailing international environment.
Religious Actors and State Foreign Policies
How, and under what circumstances, might religious actors influence a state’s foreign policy? To answer this question, it is useful to begin with the proposition that as “religion plays an important role in politics in certain parts of the world,” then there will be “greater prominence of religious organizations in society and politics” in some countries compared to others (Telhami, 2004, p. 71). Table 1 indicates that the ability of certain religious actors to translate potential ability into actual influence on foreign policy will depend crucially on whether such actors can consistently or regularly access and thus potentially influence their state’s foreign policy processes.
Table 1. Domestic Religious Actors and State Foreign Policy
Type of Political System
Domestic Religious Actors’ Access to Foreign Policymaking
Egypt (during period of Muslim Brotherhood influence/rule, 2011–2013)
Easy—if accepted or welcomed by foreign policymakers
Potentially profound—if alliance forged with state powerholders sympathetic to religious actors’ goals
Easy—if accepted or welcomed by foreign policymakers
Potentially profound—if alliance forged with state powerholders sympathetic to religious actors’ goals
Easy—if accepted or welcomed by foreign policymakers
Potentially profound—if alliance forged with state powerholders sympathetic to religious actors’ goals
Easy—if accepted or welcomed or foreign policymakers
Easy—if accepted or welcomed or foreign policymakers
Easy—if accepted or welcomed by foreign policymakers
Table 1 indicates that religious actors’ ability to influence foreign policymakers depends on the nature of a political system’s institutional characteristics, as well as on extant opportunities to influence policy. For example, the United States is a liberal democracy with relatively accessible decision-making structures and processes, potentially offering actors—both individuals and groups—opportunities to influence policy, both domestic and foreign (Hudson, 2005, pp. 295–297). Note, however, that accessing decision-making structures and processes does not guarantee religious actors’ ability to influence either policy formation or execution significantly. To have a profound policy impact would require them to make often elaborate efforts not only to build coalitions with key political players, but also, more generally, to foster good relations with significant players in the political system. These circumstances were facilitated when, after 9/11, there was pronounced ideological empathy between some important religious actors and state powerholders. The Religious Right was an influential actor, close to President George W. Bush and his key advisers and helping to inform US foreign policymaking in the Middle East (Haynes, 2008).
India is another liberal democracy with relative ease of policy access in some circumstances for favored religious actors. This was apparent during the rule of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; 1996–2004, 2014–), in relation to (Hindu-majority) India’s long-running conflict with (Muslim-majority) Pakistan over the issue of India-ruled Jammu and Kashmir. (Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state with a majority Muslim population.) To what extent were Hindu nationalist characteristics inherent in India’s foreign policy during periods of BJP government, especially in relation to its arch-enemy, Muslim Pakistan, and the issue of Kashmir? Despite the ability of Hindu nationalists to access policymaking, Ram-Prasad (2000, p. 188) explains that there was “very little even in a ‘hard’ Hindu nationalism which could translate into an ideology of expansion …” In fact, in India during the period of BJP rule, “religious ideology in itself has played virtually no direct role in major political and economic decisions,” including those related to foreign policy (Ram-Prasad, 2000, p. 153). In other words, while Hindu nationalist ideas were favored during BJP rule, there is little or no evidence that this was translated into specific foreign policies in relation to Kashmir and the wider rivalry with Pakistan.
Turning from Hindu India to states significantly informed by Islam, three Muslim-majority countries serve as examples of the sometimes influential role played in foreign policy by Islamists. Next, we briefly look at three Muslim-majority countries with differing political systems: Egypt (in 2011–2013, during liberal democratic rule under a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood president), Iran (post-1979, a Shia-dominated theocracy) and Saudi Arabia (post-1932, a Sunni-dominated theocracy).
Rebellions that swept the Middle East and North Africa region, beginning in Tunisia in 2010, were manifested in Egypt by a broad-based religious and secular coalition that colluded and combined energies to form a movement for change that helped remove the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. The key political actor at the time was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 but long forced underground due to long periods of illegality, enforced by successive governments. Underground, the Brotherhood developed both its support base and its capacity to operate at the community level, and this stood it in good stead following Egypt’s 2011 revolution and subsequent shift to democracy. In a closely fought multiround campaign, Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood became Egypt’s elected president in 2012, which potentially began a period where the Islamist Brotherhood would be a key component in Egypt’s policymaking. How this would be manifested in foreign policy was a keenly debated issue.
Once in power, Morsi found that not all Egyptians favored a shift to an Islamic state. Long illegal, and without experience of government, Morsi and the new Brotherhood-led government soon “floundered and squandered much of its goodwill,” overreaching with “a single-minded focus on factional gain and power all but ignoring the crushing economic burdens that Egyptian society was forced to bear every day” (Hanna, 2014, p. 68). In this context, combined with a significant miscalculation by Morsi—granting himself sweeping powers to overcome parliamentary gridlock—secular-minded Egyptians found common ground with the antidemocracy military establishment in expressing fears that a Brotherhood-led Egypt would be led by an autocratic style of Islamism.
How the Brotherhood would have managed its newfound democratic legitimacy over time, and expressed this in foreign policy terms, will never be known. Fear of an Islamic state enabled the military to overthrow the Morsi administration in 2013 via a military coup. The Muslim Brotherhood was (again) declared illegal, “targeted and expelled from the public sphere by the threat and practice of state violence – under the new presidency of former general President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi” (Rees, 2015, p. 51).
Turning to the Islamic Republic of Iran, since the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, it has been governed as a theocracy, with the influence of its majority-religion, Shia Islam, to the fore. Few states today have so clearly articulated, as has postrevolution Iran in the country’s constitution, an official, religion-based ideology and view of the government as an instrument of that ideology. But like India under BJP rule, Iran’s foreign policy is not consistently characterized by a dominant role for religion. Instead, like many nonreligious states, there is often a discrepancy between the official theocratic ideology on the one hand, and policies dictated more by national security interests, which may differ from religion-oriented goals, on the other. Put another way, Iran’s postrevolution foreign policy has only intermittently highlighted and pursued so-called Islamic goals, such as seeking to advance collective Muslim interests, preferring perceived national interest objectives linked to security and economic advancement.
Whenever the perceived national interests of the state have conflicted with commitments to Islamic solidarity, Tehran has almost always given preference to security and economic considerations. Indeed, Iran often uses religion to pursue material state interests as a way of contending with neighboring regimes or trying to force changes in their policies. In particular, the Revolutionary Guards have been used to pursue Iran’s foreign policy in neighboring countries, including Iraq. In addition, Iran’s government promotes Islamic radicals and antiregime movements when official relations with a Muslim country are poor, such as with Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan, but does not work to undermine secular Muslim regimes such as Turkmenistan if that regime’s relations with Tehran are good. The Iranian case illustrates the importance of separating a state’s rhetoric about its policy decisions from the policies themselves.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, its foreign policy since the country’s creation in 1932 has been ostensibly based on religious considerations (Partrick, 2016). During the Cold War, the government of the Sunni-majority country was fervently and consistently opposed both to the Jewish Israel and the atheist Soviet Union, while also seeking to promote its favored form of supposedly purist Islam—Wahhabiya—around the world. We can see the hand of hard power in operation here: following the onset of oil prosperity in the 1970s, the Saudi state donated large sums of money—amounting to millions of U.S. dollars annually—to support the spread of Wahhabiya in various ways, including the building of mosques and the printing and distribution of numerous copies of the Qur’an. In addition, Saudi Arabia serves as the chief patron of the Muslim duty to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, expanding arrangements to house and transport the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca from all over the world. Saudi contributions also played a major role in the World Muslim League, a religious-propagation agency founded in 1962 with headquarters in Mecca. Finally, Saudi Arabia is also highly influential in the OIC, an international network of Muslim-majority states that is active at the United Nations.
We can see the influence of religion in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, especially its purist strand of Islamism, Wahhabiya. Its influence is reflected in the fact that the country is run as a theocracy, under the aegis of a king, where sharia (Muslim) law is the law of the land and where Wahhabiya-influenced Islamists consistently have access to those in power, including with relation to foreign policy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy does not only reflect the social and religious prominence of Wahhabiya. Like other states, such as India or Iran, Saudi Arabia has important security goals not clearly connected to religious objectives. For example, spurred on by the fear of invasion by Iraq at the time of the first Persian Gulf War in 1990–1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and seemingly threatened Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s leaders accepted that the country’s security would be best protected by an alliance with a non-Muslim country—the United States. In other words, when faced with an existential dilemma, the government of Saudi Arabia prioritized survival over religious purity and invited into the country to defend it against external attack the army of an infidel state, the United States. Later, in order to avoid what might have been an unacceptable level of conflict with the United States, the then ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, blocked the support of his rival, Prince Nayef, for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist organizations. In addition, fear of offending Washington also prevented a Saudi stand against U.S. sanctions on Iran and Pakistan for its development of the sole nuclear capacity in the Muslim world. Finally, when Washington questioned Saudi Arabia’s strategic loyalty on the basis of its somewhat ambivalent initial responses to 9/11, American attacks on the regime’s antidemocratic practices and policies and cultural differences between the two countries suddenly became both apparent and relevant to their relationship.
We turn finally to the issue of religion in Israel’s foreign policy. According to Chazan (1991, p. 83), Israel’s foreign policy and international relations more generally are significantly molded by three domestic factors: “(1) the structure and composition of political institutions; (2) social differentiation and the concern of specific groups; and (3) the substance of political debates and their relations to fundamental ideological concerns.” She adds that “Israeli responses to external stimuli are filtered through a domestic political lens which operates according to its own distinctive rules” (Chazan, 1991, p. 83; quoted in Ehteshami, 2002, pp. 278–279). We noted earlier in this article that such an arrangement is common: foreign policies of all states are affected by domestic political arrangements, including, in some cases, the influence of favored religious actors. In Israel, religious Jews’ political significance derives from (a) the nature of the country’s political system: proportional representation, giving an influential voice to an array of minor parties, including overtly religious ones; (b) society’s increasingly fragmented characteristics; and (c) a highly divisive political party system. When we add to this already volatile mix the fact that Israel’s public life also reflects the consistently influential voice of various—sometimes polarized—expressions of public opinion, that leads to the conclusion that Israel’s foreign policy is affected, but not dominated (as we shall see), by the views of religious Jews. Evidence for this conclusion comes from the Ariel Sharon government’s momentous decision a decade ago, in August 2005, to remove all 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, giving Palestinians some control of the territory.
The Gaza Strip was home to 400,000 Palestinians at the time of Israel’s occupation in 1967. This presented a great demographic and security problem for the state of Israel. The original intention was to annex Gaza and to resettle elsewhere the Palestinians living there. In 1973, then–prime minister Yitzhak Rabin called for the Palestinians to be sent to Jordan. Ultimately this drastic step was not attempted, but a growing number of mainly highly religious Jewish settlements did move into the Gaza Strip.
As a result, over time, the Jewish population there grew by 2005 to about 8,000. By the early 1990s, Gaza’s Palestinians numbered more than 500,000 people, and they were crammed into only 140 square miles, giving the area a greater population density than the tiny island territory of Hong Kong. By this time, Jewish settlers—backed by the state of Israel—had occupied more than a third of the total area of the Gaza Strip; and this took place despite the fact that Gaza’s Jewish settler population made up just one-half of 1 percent of the total population. Jewish settlers on average had around 2.6 acres of land each in Gaza, while Palestinians had 0.006 acres each (that is, more than 430 times less).
Eventually, in August 2005, in an effort to increase the country’s security, Israel’s government decreed and put into effect a total Jewish settler withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. This undermined the Israeli state’s long-term covenant with Jewish settlers and made it clear that security concerns in Gaza were more important than the religious goals of the mostly orthodox Jewish settlers. The bond had been forged following the 1967 war between secular political leaders and religious Jews, meshing security concerns of the former “with the visions of a messianic minority to claim the spoils of war as a God-given right” (McGreal, 2005). Establishment of Jewish settlements in both the West Bank of the River Jordan and the Gaza Strip served the security interests of successive governments—both Likud and Labor—who saw them as the first line of defense against neighboring hostile Arab countries. This chimed with the views of religious Jews who believed that the settlements were an important stage on the road to reclamation of all of Eretz Yisrael for the modern Jewish state.
Yet by 2005, the formerly firm and mutually supporting connections between states and religious Jews over Gaza were emphatically broken; thousands of Jewish settlers were expelled from their homes in the Gaza Strip, following orders from the then–prime minister, Ariel Sharon, once their main patron and defender. In removing the settlers from Gaza, Sharon recognized that the Jewish religious vision of “greater Israel” was no longer tenable because the country’s secular security interests no longer aligned with the religious goals of the settlers, whose desires had once been central to government decision-making in relation to the Palestinians.
How can one comprehend and account for the influence of religious actors on foreign policy in relation to Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States? The examples briefly discussed in this section collectively underline the fact that religious actors may be influential in foreign policy formation and execution, but there is no assurance that this will endure if national security issues take precedence. However, to achieve any influence, it is obviously important for religious actors to be able to access state decision-making structures and processes to have any chance of their preferred policies being put into effect. This access will in turn depend on a high degree of ideological affinity between the religious actor and the ruling regime.
Following our brief examination of the role of religion in selected states’ foreign policies, we turn next to examine how nonstate religious actors seek to influence international relations via their foreign policies. Our examples are the Holy See, the WCC, and the OIC.
Nonstate Religious Actors and Foreign Policy
Nonstate religious actors that regularly cross country borders in pursuit of their goals are not a recent phenomenon. Levitt (2004, p. 1) notes that “religious life has long been global.” Today, how do nonstate religious actors pursue their foreign policy goals?
While the growth in international significance of nonstate religious actors is theoretically facilitated by globalization (Haynes, 2007, pp. 65–95), this does not necessarily imply that they always succeed in the pursuit of their goals. Some scholars comment on the apparent defensiveness of many current religious responses to globalization, local, national, or transnational responses to global economic, cultural, and political forces. What is only poorly understood, however, are the consequences of
the emergence of religious communities as key transnational actors increasingly engaged with other faith traditions and concerned with global issues. The formation and contestation of more global religious identities has both reflective and ethical dimensions. On the one hand, it entails wrestling with the implications of religious pluralism for received understandings of truth. This involves communication and dialogue across religious traditions. On the other hand, more global identities encourage a reframing of received ethical commitments to peace and justice as transnational, and not just local or national imperatives. This broader ethical horizon increasingly informs religious engagement and collaboration around global issues including peaceful conflict resolution and economic and social development.
(Banchoff, 2005, p. 1)
Until recently, transnational religious organizations were widely regarded by international relations scholars as theoretically interesting phenomena—yet they were seen to be of only historical interest. As a result, many treatments of transnationalism have devoted little attention to religious phenomena (Rudolph, 2005). Instead, the primary focus was on political and economic security, concerns that did not appear to have much if anything to do with religion. Today, however, there is increasing scholarly and policy concern paid to various transnational religious actors, including Islamic organizations of various ideological hues such as both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), at one (extremist) end of the ideological spectrum, and the OIC, at the other, moderate pole. The OIC portrays itself as “moderate” because it “lays claim to the mantle of Islamic legitimacy and presents itself as working for the benefit of the transnational umma” (Akbarzadeh & Connor, 2005). In the Christian (Catholic) context, the Holy See (Vatican) of the Roman Catholic Church stands out for its transnational and international activities and focus. This was especially the case under Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), with his concern with human rights (including democratization), and now under Pope Francis, with his focus on global justice. In the non-Catholic Christian context, the WCC also pursues an active international agenda, focusing on global justice, especially in relation to the polarizing effects of dramatically unequal nature development outcomes, especially as they affect poor countries in the Global South (Haynes, 2013b, pp. 15–19).
According to Shani (2008, p. 308), a cross-border nonstate religious actor “may be defined as any non-governmental actor which claims to represent a specific religious tradition which has relations with an actor in another state or with an international organization.” It is now widely accepted in the international relations literature that such actors, especially those characterized by religious fundamentalism or signs of religious revival, are growing in numbers and international significance and, as a result, can appreciably affect states’ internal political and/or religious regimes and potentially or actually qualify state power (Esposito, 2002; Fox & Sandler, 2004; Haynes, 2007, 2013a, 2014; Juergensmeyer, 1993; Rudolph, 2005).
Overall, the various examples of transnational nonstate religious actors that are active in international relations indicate that there are
dramatic signs of a transfigured religio-politics, according to which religious sources of identity, imagination and desire are being animated among large and growing populations, and religious modes of power are expanding within, across and beyond the world system of nation-states. The ascendance of this religio-politics has shattered much of the conventional wisdom about the nation-state as the locus classicus of identity formation, legitimate authority, or normative vision, pushing new questions about the meaning of religion and secularism on to the agenda of discussions about modernity and postmodernity, or nation-states and globalization.
(Stolow, 2004, p. 110)
This highlights the growing importance of “religio-politics,” examples of which include various transnational nonstate religious actors with political goals. It also casts doubt on conventional wisdom about the nation-state: “locus classicus of identity formation, legitimate authority, or normative vision.”
To examine these issues in more detail, we turn next to examine (a) the Holy See/Roman Catholic Church, (b) the WCC, and (c) the OIC. The overall purpose is to examine what these transnational nonstate religious actors aim to achieve in their foreign policies, in relation to the United Nations, the key forum where their foreign policy goals are expressed and pursued.
Vatican City, the world’s smallest state (1 square kilometer, located in the centre of Rome), is the focal point of the Holy See,6 the home of the clerical jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy See has an important role at the United Nations, working, inter alia, with a variety of faith-based and secular state and nonstate actors on a human rights agenda, including in relation to a gender-focused concern with “family values.” The position of the Holy See at the United Nations is controversial, however, including among many Roman Catholics. Bob (2012, p. 51) notes that “since 1964, the Holy See has been a non–member state ‘Permanent Observer’—a position unique to any religious organization.” This enables the Holy See to enjoy most of the rights that UN member-states hold, although it chooses “not to vote on UN resolutions. As such, it is a cornerstone of the religious network, one whose heft rival [nongovernmental organizations] cannot match … a leader on ‘dignity of the [human] person’ issues [at the United Nations].” The core issue pursued by the Holy See at the United Nations, where it leads a broad-based coalition of like-minded allies, is antiabortion in the context of “family values.” “The Holy See underscores the fact that life is a gift from God.” Both abortion and euthanasia are “violation[s] of the Divine Law, an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attempt against humanity to suppress the life of an innocent human being, whether it be foetus or embryo, child or adult, elderly, incurably sick, or dying” (The Holy See, n.d., p. 2). In short, the Holy See and the wider Roman Catholic Church at the United Nations focuses on antiabortion as a core human rights issue, a concern that significantly contours a wider “family values” agenda. In addition, there are also interests in other issues, including human rights, human development, and environmental issues.
In addition, the Holy See and other religious communities or institutions, such as the Rome-based Catholic lay organization Sant’Egidio, are representative of a developing strand in foreign policy: “faith-based diplomacy” (Johnston, 2003).While the Holy See has a long track record of international mediation, with the 1980s Beagle Canal dispute between Chile and Argentina being the best-known example (e.g., Mariño Menéndez, 1985; Princen, 1987; Bustamante, 2010), other nonstate religious actors seem to offer opportunities for convincing mediation efforts, especially in civil wars (e.g., Jackson, 2005, Haynes, 2009).
The WCC, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is a 349-member umbrella organization that calls itself a “global fellowship of churches” (WCC, n.d., p. 3). It seeks “visible church unity” and is concerned with the collective interests of non–Roman Catholic Christians. “The WCC is the broadest and most inclusive among many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, which seeks visible church unity” (WCC, n.d., p. 3). WCC members include “most of the world’s Orthodox churches, the Old Catholic and Mar Thoma churches, churches of the historic denominational traditions such as the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed, many united and uniting churches, as well as churches such as the Mennonite, Friends, Congregational, and Disciples” (WCC, n.d., p. 3). The WCC is concerned with “global justice,” especially in relation to unequal development outcomes, and seeks to use the United Nations as a key way of focusing, expressing and pursuing its concern to achieve better development outcomes for the world’s poorest people in the Global South. The WCC is highly critical of current globalization, which it believes is polarizing rich and poor (WCC, 2001; Haynes, 2013b, pp. 15–19).
The OIC, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, “is the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations,” with 57 member “states spread over four continents.” The OIC seeks to be “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” aiming to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world” (OIC, 2016). It is very unusual in international relations: a faith-based entity that brings together both states and nonstates in an umbrella campaigning organization whose remit is, on the one hand, to advance the interests of the global Muslim community, and, on the other, to pursue wider justice and human rights goals that, the OIC claims, transcend the interests of Muslims alone.
In sum, the Holy See, the WCC, and the OIC are important focal points of faith-based activity at the United Nations. All of these organizations use it as a key forum for their foreign policies: to pursue justice and human rights goals on behalf of both their faith constituencies and a wider international community. We do not include the so-called Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, in this survey, for the simple reason that no country or significant nonstate entity has a foreign policy based on either of them. We turn next to the issue of Christian and Islamic involvement at the United Nations.
The Holy See, the OIC, and the WCC at the United Nations
Transnational nonstate religious actors, including the Holy See, the WCC, and the OIC, are active both in transnational civil society and at the United Nations, using the latter in particular to pursue foreign policy goals. However, these transnational nonstate religious actors do not only focus at the United Nations on what might be called “religious” concerns. Instead, they act as de facto political actors, with pragmatic policies that are more likely to succeed than when only religion-based arguments are employed to pursue narrow religious goals.
In other words, in order to increase chances of foreign policy success, religion-derived principles may be pragmatically amended to include nonreligious concerns and issues in order to build broad-based coalitions. As a result, the issue at the United Nations is not “religion versus nonreligion.” Instead, it is to what extent, and with what results, do nonstate religious actors find it expedient to work with secular actors and those of other faiths that share their goals? The case studies of the Holy See, the WCC, and the OIC collectively indicate that they focus their activities at the United Nations based on an understanding that, as the largest and most influential international governmental organization, the United Nations is uniquely positioned to provide them with institutionalized access to influential people, including leaders, diplomats, and policymakers (Böhmelt, Koubi, & Bernauer, 2014).
At the United Nations, nonstate religious actors—including the Holy See, the OIC, and the WCC—claim to represent millions of people. The Holy See represents 1.3 billion Roman Catholics at the United Nations in New York, with an institutionalized presence, manifested in Permanent Observer status since 1964, with the attendant right to attend all sessions of the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), a key policymaking body. The OIC brings together 57 mainly Muslim-majority countries, with a combined population of hundreds of millions of people, and claims to be Muslims’ global voice. Its relations with the United Nations began soon after the OIC’s founding in 1969. Like the Holy See, the OIC has Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. Finally, the WCC, founded in 1948, is the umbrella organization for 349 non-Catholic churches with tens of millions of members. The WCC established relations with the United Nations soon after its creation, principally through the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. It has maintained a constant and active presence at the United Nations for over 50 years, with UN headquarters liaison offices in New York and Geneva. In addition, consultative relations have further been established with virtually the whole family of UN-related agencies (including the United Nations Environment Programme, UN Conference on Trade and Development, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization), although not with the state-dominated General Assembly or Security Council. Table 2 illustrates the engagement of the Holy See/Roman Catholic Church, the OIC, and the WCC at the United Nations.
These nonstate religious actors organize and work at the United Nations as necessarily strategic, goal-oriented actors, similar to other kinds of comparable organizational structures, including many of the thousands of secular nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) registered at the United Nations. This is because, as Hopgood and Vinjamuri (2012, p. 38) explain, nonstate religious actors, like secular NGOs at the United Nations, typically adopt two main strategies: alliance formation and specialization. They adopt these tactics as part of a foreign policy strategy to try and achieve their objectives, as they must compete in an oligopolistic NGO market.
The point is that although nonstate religious actors are strongly motivated by their faith, they face the same challenges of earthly existence as those that confront secular NGOs: securing limited resources and maintaining donor loyalty. It is crucial for nonstate religious actors to achieve consultative status with the ECOSOC. This is because this confers a key validity—a virtual currency that is necessary both to build alliances and “seek financial support from other organizations within the field.” Nonstate religious actors denied such legitimacy will find it very hard, if not impossible, either to obtain support from or enter into formal arrangements with other actors, including human rights NGOs, foundations, and states. According to Bush (2005, p. 16), “This explains why even groups like ‘Watchtower,’ whose theological doctrines declare the United Nations to be an instrument of Satan, or the World Sikh Organization, many of whose members opposes affiliation with the UN for political reasons, have nonetheless held or aggressively sought consultative status with the UN.”
Table 2. Nonstate Religious Actors and Foreign Policy at the United Nations
Nonstate Religious Actor
Type of Entity
Key Foreign Policy Goal at the United Nations
Pursuit of Key Foreign Policy Goal
Holy See/Roman Catholic Church
Headquarters of church/religious community
Continuing pursuit in tandem with other actors of policy in relation to normative understanding of “family values”
World Council of Churches (WCC)
Non-Catholic Christian umbrella group
Global developmental justice
Key actor in drawing up Sustainable Development Goals (2015–2030), along with various other religious and secular entities
Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)
Sunni and Shia Islam
57-member Muslim international organization
Global antireligious defamation policy
Antireligious defamation policy denied at the United Nations in 2011
In addition to serving as the key global forum for debate and policy related to various social, socioeconomic and political issues, the United Nations is an arena where religious identities are legitimated, challenged, or otherwise negotiated. This contention can be illustrated briefly by focusing on the array of nonstate religious actors, grouped under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand, there are normatively “progressive” Catholic nonstate religious actors, such as Catholics for Choice (CFC, founded in 1973 as Catholics for a Free Choice), which seeks both to defend women’s reproductive rights and to downgrade the Holy See’s position at the United Nations from Permanent Observer to NGO.7 Denounced by several Catholic bishops, CFC illustrates both a fundamental conflict and question over what it means to be Catholic, who gets to speak for Catholics, and how to define Catholic perspectives on human rights and justice issues. Some Catholic actors, such as the socially conservative Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, have very different—albeit, “Catholic-inspired”—worldviews compared to Catholics for Choice.
As Bush (2005, pp. 17–18) notes, “Catholic identity is continually negotiated” through competing claims involving, inter alia, the Holy See and competing Catholic claims, often focused and competed over at the United Nations. In addition, Muslim nonstate religious actors evince a conservative/progressive split. In this context, we can note the socially conservative Muslim World League, with close ties to the OIC, and the normatively liberal and autonomous Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies.
Finally, the WCC has shown itself also to have a split in relation to foreign policy. In this case, it is a broad division between “Northern” churches and those in the Global South. Over time, the balance of power in the WCC has shifted from the former to the latter, which has served to radicalize the foreign policy goals of the WCC at the United Nations, expressed in often-scathing denunciations of the inequities consequential to current globalization. On the other hand, the WCC spoke with a unified voice in its strong support for the Sustainable Development Goals (2015–2030) agenda at the United Nations (WCC, 2015).
Recent issues at the United Nations involving the OIC point to disharmony. A key example was the long-running, yet unsuccessful, OIC-led campaign to seek to create an international law against “defamation of religion.” Despite the OIC claim that it was pursuing a universalist measure of value to all faiths, the “defamation of religion” issue was perceived by most Western governments and secular NGOs to be a self-interested measure motivated by an OIC desire both to deny freedom of expression and, in some cases, provide justification to denigrate religious minorities. Kayaoğlu (2011, p. 13) notes that the main “argument against the measure was that [opponents] believed that the anti-defamation resolution would not only threaten Christian life but also work to block missionaries from proselytising among Muslim-majority nations,” and make life (even) harder for religious minorities in some countries, including unconventional Muslims, such as the Ahmadis, and non-Muslims, such as the Baha’is (Fox, 2008).
In sum, these accounts of nonstate religious actors at the United Nations highlight a general truth that links them: each has normatively “progressive” and “conservative” viewpoints, captured in different religion-based perspectives with competing concerns and objectives. Negotiations over identity, beliefs and goals are very important, as they have the potential to influence relationships of power within as well as among religious groups. Nonstate religious actors with formal ties with international institutions such as the United Nations via accreditation with ECOSOC can have significant input into these types of negotiations. Those that lack such access do not. Thus, nonstate religious actors’ ties to and influence within international institutions, especially the United Nations, the world’s biggest and most significant of these, are vital indicators of stratification among religious nonstate actors in international relations (Barot, 2013).
This emphasizes a wider point of great importance to the analysis presented in this article. The issue is that there is ideological variation among nonstate religious actors at the United Nations that is at least equal to that between religious-based and secular nonstate entities (Barnett & Stein, 2012, p. 23; Bob, 2012). As Berger (2003, p. 2) notes, nonstate religious actors, even those from the same faith tradition, frequently compete with each other, at the United Nations and elsewhere, with individual entities pushing “for change from both liberal and conservative platforms.”
In other words, even when nonstate religious actors share a faith, it does not mean that they necessarily see the world in the same way ideologically. The implications of this are profound, as differing ideological worldviews on issues such as justice and human rights can mean that nonstate religious actors from the same faith tradition may actually perceive each other as ideological and political foes. The United Nations functions as the key global forum for the playing out of these rivalries, providing an environment where nonstate religious actors can pursue their foreign goals.
Although religious believers would normally regard their chosen religious expressions as both benevolent and inspiring, religious faiths are sometimes linked to violence and conflict both between and within religious groups (or at least entities with a religious veneer, such as various armed groups around the world, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, which claim religious justification for their activities) (Basedau, Strüver, Vüllers, & Wegenast, 2011).
Religion is often implicated in both domestic and international conflicts, not least because religious conviction contains within it various sources of related danger:
• Religion is focused on the absolute and unconditional, and as a result can adopt totalitarian characteristics. The monotheistic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—may have particular difficulty trying to distinguish between, on the one hand, claims of the absolutely divine and, on the other, the traditions and history of human existence.
• When claiming both absolute and exclusive validity, religious conviction can lead to intolerance, overzealous proselytization, and religious fragmentation. Religious exclusiveness may also be hostile to both pluralism and liberal democracy.
• Religion can increase aggressiveness and the willingness to use violence. Added symbolic value can be an aspect of religious conviction, deriving from profane motivation and aims that become “holy” objectives.
• Leaders within faith-based organizations may seek to legitimize abuses of power and violation of human rights in the name of religious zeal. Because such leaders are nearly always men, there can also be specific gender issues and women’s human rights concerns (Holenstein, 2006, p. 79).
Religious leaders may try to use the following susceptibilities. First, domination strategies of identity politics may seek to harness real or perceived ethnic-cultural and cultural-religious differences. Second, misused religious motivation can inform terrorist activities, including those associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Third, leaders of religious fundamentalist movements “lay claim to a single and absolutist religious interpretation at the cost of all others, and they link their interpretation to political power objectives” (Holenstein, 2005, p. 11). The last point relates to what Kurtz labels “exclusive accounts of the nature of reality”—that is, followers accept only religious beliefs that they regard as true beliefs (Kurtz, 1995, p. 238). Examples include the “religions of the book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—because each faith claims an authority that emanates principally from sacred texts (which are actually quite similar). Such exclusivist truth claims can be a serious challenge to religious toleration and diversity, which are essential to our coexistence in a globalized world; this makes conflict more likely. On the other hand, many religious traditions also have core beliefs that theoretically can help develop a peaceful, multicultural world. For example, Christianity features the notion of nonviolence. The faith’s founder, Jesus Christ, insisted that all people are children of God, and that the test of one’s relationship with God is whether one loves one’s enemies and helps the poor. As St. Paul said, “There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female: because you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
In terms of contemporary conflicts, three forms involving religion are common: religious “fundamentalism”; “religious terrorism,” especially involving “failed” states, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia; and controversies surrounding “the clash of civilisations” thesis (Huntington, 1993, 1996). The core of Huntington’s argument was that after the Cold War, the “Christian,” democratic West found itself in conflict especially with radical Islam, a political movement concerned with changes in the political order, united by antipathy to the West, and inspired by antidemocratic religious and cultural dogma encapsulated in the term Islamic fundamentalism, a key threat to international stability. Christianity, on the other hand, was said by Huntington to be conducive to the spread of liberal democracy. As evidence, he notes the collapse of dictatorships in southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the development of liberal democratic political norms (rule of law, free elections, and civic rights). Huntington regarded these events as conclusive proof of the synergy between Christianity and liberal democracy—both key foundations of a normatively desirable global order built on liberal values.
However, it is one thing to argue that various brands of political Islam have qualitatively different perspectives on liberal democracy that some forms of Christianity, but quite another to claim that Muslims en masse are poised to enter into a period of conflict with the West. That is, there are actually many “Islams,” and only the malevolent or misinformed would associate terrorist attacks with an apparently representative quality of a single idea of Islam. Moreover, the September 11 atrocities, as well subsequent outrages, do not appear to have been carried out by a state or group of states or at their behest, but by al-Qaeda, an international terrorist organization. Despite energetic U.S. attempts, no definitive proof was found to link the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq with either Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda.
In sum, around the world, various recent and current contemporary conflicts have religious components. What they also have in common are close links between religion and identity politics.
This article has examined both state and nonstate religious actors, with a focus on foreign policy. In terms of state-related religious power, our examples—Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—collectively underline “that religion’s greatest influence on the international system is through its significant influence on domestic politics. It is a motivating force that guides many policy makers.” (Fox & Sandler, 2004, p. 168). We have seen, however, that this “motivating force” is not necessarily consistent; the influence of religion on foreign policy waxes and wanes depending on the issue and the nature of the ruling regime. To understand and account for the influence of religious actors on foreign policy, we argue that they must be able to influence foreign policymakers and encourage them to adopt policies which are favored by the religious entity. It is obviously important for religious actors to be able to influence the state through various available mechanisms—both formal and informal—in order to have a chance of their preferred policies being put into effect. In sum, religious actors may try to influence outcomes in international relations by encouraging states to adopt foreign policies that they believe are most in tune with their religious values and goals. We saw that in relation to our case study countries, the impact of religious actors was quite variable, and that rarely (if ever) do religious goals take precedence over national interest concerns, covering political, diplomatic, and economic issues.
We also saw that there is another category of religious actors—nonstate religious actors—who attempt to influence international relations, significantly through a focus on the United Nations. The United Nations is the favored environment for such activity because of its perceived importance as the key global environment for public policy agenda creation. In relation to our three examples—the Holy See/Roman Catholic Church, the WCC, and the OIC—we stated that each of them pursues a foreign policy at the United Nations based on a striving for improved human rights and global justice.
To try to achieve these goals, whose accomplishment is by no means assured, these nonstate religious actors are willing to build coalitions with a variety of religion-based secular actors, both state and nonstate. What is most important is not religious purity in pursuit of foreign policy goals at the United Nations, but rather an open and pragmatic approach, which appears more likely to yield success than a closed, ideologically rooted one that is unlikely to succeed, as there are fewer coalition partners with which to work and thus a reduced overall chance of success.
In sum, this article demonstrated that both state-related and nonstate religious actors can be significant for outcomes in international relations. Overall, the discussion made four main points:
• State foreign policies can be motivated or significantly influenced by religious actors.
• Religious actors can cross state borders and become internationally significant.
• Transnational religious actors seek to build coalitions with like-minded entities—both religious and secular—to try to achieve foreign policy goals.
Religious norms and values can affect international relations in various ways, which in turn affects how we create and use international relations theories involving religion and culture.
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(1.) Duffy Toft, Philpott, and Shah (2011, p. 23) define a religious actor as “any individual, group or organization that espouses religious beliefs and that articulates a reasonably consistent and coherent message about the relationship of religion to politics.” In this article, I shall follow this understanding of what religious actors are and what they seek to achieve.
(2.) This category comprises only one entity: the Holy See, the physical basis for the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
(5.) There were, however, in the 19th and 20th centuries, nonreligious ideologies such as nationalism, fascism, and communism, which might be seen as secular substitutes for “actual” religion.
(6.) The term Holy See is derived from the Latin Sancta Sedes, meaning “holy chair.”
(7.) CFC describes its mission as follows: “to shape and advance sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women’s well-being and respect and affirm the capacity of women and men to make moral decisions about their lives” (http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/about/ourwork/default.asp).