Faith-based diplomacy in the new strategic order
10 Oct 2018|

In the future, no American ambassador should be assigned to a country where religious feelings are strong unless he or she has a deep understanding of the faiths commonly practiced there … The State Department should hire or train a core of specialists in religion to be deployed both in Washington and in key embassies overseas.

Madeline Albright, 2006

In the West, secularism has advanced the domestic political agenda and helped to foster a dispassionate and rational assessment of national interests in international endeavours. It’s become the norm for practitioners of foreign policy, broadly defined, to purposefully separate religion from their processes in order to clear the path for lucid decision-making and a greater suite of opportunities.

That secularist configuration has become more intuitional and habitual in Australia than in the US, where strident rhetoric on the separation of church and state is equalled by an elaborate civil religion replete with oaths and iconography. With our liberal democratic traditions and institutions, and our mildly religious populace, Australia assumes secularist values with such ease and naturalness that they’re projected, almost unthinkingly, onto our engagements with a diverse cast of international interlocutors.

However, as a changing strategic order animates our closer engagement with nations whose religiosity is foundational to life and deeply embedded in national identity, our secularism could impede the cultivation of strong regional relationships and become a burden to us. For example, many communities in the Pacific islands are actively Christian in belief and integrate rich Christian references and assumptions into their political and diplomatic discourse.

As Australia looks to increase, and deepen, connections with these nations, they’re likely to view our secularist narrative suspiciously, as evidence of ‘an irreligious cultural tide’ that’s determined to inundate everything in its path. As specialist Pacific journalist Bruce Hill remarked, ‘Our current secularism is not exactly looked on with favour by many in the islands—something which we don’t always grasp.’

What does this mean for how we approach diplomatic and strategic efforts in the region? Has Australia too eagerly embraced ‘exclusive secularism’ in pursuit of the progressive ideal? Does a kind of faith-based diplomacy need to be incorporated into the diplomatic arsenal?

The Australian Army may have something to teach on this front. There’s long been an understanding in the military that in war one must understand one’s opponent. The same applies when trying to obtain influence. The army has quietly enacted informal faith-based diplomacy through military chaplains as a resource for commanders. While most of their work has been geared towards the welfare of soldiers and their families, chaplains have also used their specialist knowledge and skills to work with local communities, cultivating dialogue with religious representatives to foster peaceful relations during operations.

During the Vietnam War, for example, chaplains and Australian soldiers celebrated mass with local villagers in the Iron Triangle and a Catholic community in Binh Ba, helping to encourage trust and respect and further civic affairs initiatives in the region. Likewise, chaplains who were involved in UN peacekeeping operations in East Timor engaged closely with the Timorese Catholic community. And in the more overtly religious conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, they served as mediators with local religious communities, recognising, as one chaplain explained, that ‘building bridges of common mutual understanding’ made ‘our job on the ground a lot easier’.

Given the significance of religiously charged issues in shaping contemporary global dynamics, faith-based diplomacy, if exercised judiciously, is likely to have broad applicability. There’s an implicit power in the religious intermediary, quite apart from his or her theology, that remains relatively untapped in the Australian diplomatic enterprise. As S.K. Moore, a senior fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy, explains, ‘The success of the chaplain lies in his or her role as a “tolerant voice” and the subsequent sharing which this tolerant voice precipitates.’ Moreover, religious leaders are often held in high esteem and tend to occupy positions of authority.

Religious affiliation and religious knowledge can open doors and inspire connections that transcend the fickle and somewhat impersonal bases of realpolitik. Accordingly, the US has created specialist organisations, including the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and the Institute for Global Engagement, the mantra of which is, ‘Know your faith at its deepest and richest best, and enough about your neighbour’s faith to respect it.’

Australian practitioners, too, should be developing faith-based initiatives in parts of the globe where religious observation infuses all echelons of society and government. While they should take care not to compromise Australia’s fundamental values, and they should pay attention to how those initiatives might be received by allies and future friends, it seems short-sighted not to provide formal and informal diplomatic forces with the most useful, flexible and influential toolkits. Indeed, as the strategic climate shifts, Australia could find that many of its diplomatic bedfellows favour a method of discourse that entails not merely intellectual or material matters but the dynamics of religious devotion and the lived experience of belief.

Religious scholar Huston Smith has observed that ‘the surest way to the heart of a people is through their faith’. If that’s so, greater consideration of faith-based initiatives can only boost the diplomatic capital of the nation.