Why I will not apply for the Council on Foreign Relations’s “Religion and Foreign Policy Bulletin”

State of Formation recently announced that it would nominate its Contributing Scholars to be featured in the Council on Foreign Relation’s “Religion and Foreign Policy Bulletin.” This is a great chance both for State of Formation and for the writers on this blog. I have seen caring, critical engagement on this site, and I think it important that the U.S. foreign policy establishment hear such voices.

I will not, however, throw my hat in the ring. My reasons come from personal experience with our foreign policy in action, and the vision of the world, and our role in it, that the Council assumes.

The Council accepts as normative the current state of international relations and the role of the United States in it. Although using the term “empire” to describe the United States can cause more confusion than clarity, it is appropriate here. We are, if not imperial, than at the very least, hegemonic, as our military presence in hundreds of locations across the world, and the recent revelations of the reach of our surveillance activity, attests. We are not Romans, nor are we Ottomans or even British colonial administrators. We do not deploy proconsuls, governors or viceroys. But our effects on the lives of others can be just as invasive and profound. Given our technological ability, our effects may even exceed the empires or hegemonies of the past. For example, a recent study of the effect of drones on civilian populations illustrates how the constant presence of U.S. drones in Pakistan terrorizes the local population in a way that a local, imperial garrison could not.1

This is a cruel irony in a war fought in the name of ending terror.

The Council’s stance is one that assumes this U.S. hegemony without providing any truly substantive critique of it. In its “Religion and Foreign Policy Bulletin,” for example, the Council focuses on such issues as the future threat to the United States by jihadi fighters in Syria, terrorist activity in China from its province, Xinjiang, and connections between Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Though timely, and certainly relevant, such topics mask with their urgency the equally urgent need for critical and creative reflection on the unstated assumptions that the Council, and so much of our foreign policy establishment, makes. The focus on religion here is reactive, used to shore up interests and relationships without asking more critical questions, including the real effect of U.S. foreign policy on other peoples. Engagement with religion, in this context, usually involves throwing religion into analysis without questioning what, if anything, the term religion means. It is an engagement that employs religious ethics and religious studies scholars, as well as some leaders, but does not allow religious traditions to critique and possibly transform the worldview out of which we make our policy.

It is an engagement with religion that, sadly, abandons the opportunity to investigate the assumptions of our actions for the less complicated task of shoring up an entrenched status quo. Such foreign policy has not yet truly engaged the irony and consequence of U.S. imperialism; the values we purportedly hold versus our actions, such as supporting dictatorships in the name of our own security as a democracy; and even how our foreign policy outsources American fear, making communities in other parts of the world pay, through our military actions and diversion of violent conflicts to the periphery, for a sense of security at home.

While engaging such organizations as the Council on Foreign Relations from within is important, we also need a deeper engagement with the foundational assumptions that under-gird U.S. foreign policy in the world. And this means a critique, as well as creating new visions, of the worldview on which the Council’s work rests. I speak here of a deeper level of criticism that questions not our response to particular conflicts as they flare up, but instead, investigates the motivations for U.S. power and hegemony and questions the assumptions of such power.

We can begin by de-centering bodies such as the Council and, instead, center those who have experienced U.S. foreign policy, who know what U.S. foreign policy feels like and, in the case of drones, what it sounds like, as well. I consider the insights coming from these voices, and the experience of an often involuntary engagement with U.S. foreign policy, as privileged. We can get such insights from nowhere else, certainly not in our conference and meeting rooms. These voices, if they want to speak, may tell us not just about how we act, and how effective our policies are, but also who we are. For they have seen the consequences of American being-in-the-world, to steal a phrase, that most of us rarely see, if at all, and they have witnessed our relationships and how we affect the lives of others.

What would it be like, for example, to have think tanks or institutionalized spaces where reflective activists and concerned scholars could not just critique but re-envision our role in the world? What would it look like if, instead of international relations scholars instrumentalizing religion, actual religious scholars and practitioners engage their traditions, side by side, to reinterpret the very basis of foreign policy?

My sense is that it would be transformative, and not just for other nations. The assumptions and power dynamics that under-gird our foreign policy are tied to the history, structures and relationships within our own country. Any real engagement with the foundation of our foreign policy will, I argue, turn out to be nothing less than an engagement with the foundations of our society and its flaws and graces. We are, after all, defined by our relationships with others and to the fruits of our involvement in the world. It would, I hope, be a humbling, not only of our foreign policy but also of the way that we Americans regard ourselves.

1 “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan.” This is a study put out by centers at both Stanford and NYU Law Schools. See, www.livingunderdrones.org. See also Nasser Hussain’s phenomenology of drone strikes, which draws from the report, in the Boston Review. See, www.bostonreview.net/world/hussain-drone-phenomenology.

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