Published in the Toronto Star, June 10, 2013
Depending on your view of Canada’s recently opened Office of Religious Freedom, you may or may not welcome the likelihood that a related idea from the U.S. State Department will be percolating its way northward.
In recent years, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs (and its changing cast of partner departments) has been adopting experiments in diplomacy tried out by their counterparts in Washington. As well as copying the U.S.’s Office for International Religious Freedom, our government is in the early stages of figuring out how to emulate American initiatives in digital diplomacy and diaspora engagement that were pioneered under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now comes unofficial news that another initiative will soon be launched at the State Department: an office of religious engagement.
Would this be a welcome development for our diplomats to copy as well?
You don’t have to be carrying a brief for any particular religion, or religion in general, to see this as a pragmatic issue.
An answer to that question must start by distinguishing between the mandates of these two religion-and-diplomacy efforts. The mission of the U.S. and Canadian offices of religious freedom is to advance that cause as one in a much broader spectrum of human rights. The activity of the Canadian version has thus far consisted mostly in issuing condemnations of religious persecution abroad – something that might occasionally ruffle feathers with other governments but is unlikely to have any great practical import for Canadian diplomacy. And its minor impact aside, questions remain about why our government should devote a micro-office specifically to promoting this one human right among others.
Those issues of practicality and principle are wholly different with respect to a hypothetical office of religious engagement. As Brookings Institute scholar Peter Mandaville explains, the rationale for such an office is wholly pragmatic: because “religious actors and institutions” are “important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads,” reaching out to them is indispensable for promoting American aims abroad. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world,” he says, “a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”
You don’t have to be carrying a brief for any particular religion, or religion in general, to see this as a pragmatic issue. Negotiating peace, setting up vaccination clinics, getting more education for girls: on these issues and many others, doing diplomacy and development work through and with religious groups makes sense as a way to get results. (This is particularly true given that religious networks are often extensive and vibrant in countries where government is weak, corrupt or mistrusted.)
The notion that diplomats might do their work by reaching out to religious groups and authorities is part of a larger revisioning going on among the world’s diplomats of what diplomacy is all about. It’s no longer, or even mainly, about state-to-state relations; it’s about states engaging directly with people through the civil society networks (religious, political, economic or otherwise) in which they’re already engaged.
It’s true that a potential minefield of issues is bound up with undertaking such efforts when religion is involved. As commenters on the nascent U.S. office of religious engagement are noting, it will take committed and sophisticated training to equip diplomats with the knowledge and skills to engage the right religious actors in ways that can deliver hoped-for results. Much can go wrong – for instance, by inadvertently reinforcing one religious group’s marginalization of other religious groups, or its role in sustaining the inferior status of women.
That said, it’s not new for potential agendas within a foreign ministry to conflict – such as security and democracy, to name one of the most often-opposed binaries in dealing with unstable regions of the world. Managing tensions between religious engagement and gender equality, or religious engagement and religious pluralism, would have to join the list of other challenges at Foreign Affairs headquarters and in the field.
These aren’t problems that Canadian diplomats and the public need grapple with urgently. Our government will be watching to see what shape the U.S. office of religious engagement takes when it’s finally announced, and how its activities develop. If they like what they see, there’s a good chance that they’ll take very cautious steps in similar directions – steps that won’t come to public notice for several years at least.
In the meantime, however, it’s worthwhile for Canadians to keep in mind that such an alternative conception does exist of what an integration of religion into diplomacy might look like and what it might achieve. If you’re inclined to think that Canada’s existing Office of Religious Freedom is lacking in justification and results, keep an eye on the Religion/Diplomacy 2.0 experiment unfolding down south – and an ear open for eventual echoes in Ottawa.