Today's date:
Summer 2006

Religion, Culture and 21st-Century Foreign Policy

Madeleine Albright was US secretary of state under Bill Clinton. She spoke recently with NPQ about her new book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs. In the book, Albright examines the profound impact of religion on America’s view of itself, the effects of the rise of the Christian right on US policy, the Bush administration’s successes and failures in responding to 9/11, the challenges posed by the war in Iraq and the importance of understanding Islam. Albright argues that, to be effective, US policymakers must understand the power and place of religion in motivating others and in coloring how American actions are perceived. She suggests not only that religion and politics are inseparable, but that their partnership, when properly harnessed, can be a force for justice and peace.

NPQ | In your new book, you argue that religion and culture should count in foreign policy and not be dismissed as minor issues. “Al-Qaida,” you write, “does not speak trivially—they concern themselves with transcendent issues of history, identity and faith. To be heard, the rest of us must address matters equally profoundly.”

Isn’t that a big shift from the post-Cold War triumphalist view in the West that everything now was about economic modernization and political freedom? It now seems that view was a legacy of Cold War thinking. Maybe Sam Huntington was onto something when he wrote about a “clash of civilizations”?

Madeleine Albright | One of the really basic issues here is how we get away from seeing the world through a prism that no longer reflects reality. When the Bush administration first came to power, it said it had assembled “the greatest foreign policy team in history.” That would have been true for the last century, but not this one. They never figured out that the 21st century would be a lot different, that issues like religious or cultural identity would matter most and, in that context, a self-righteous and arrogant stance would antagonize the world.

We are not in a clash of civilizations, but we are in a battle of ideas. When I say that we must address matters as “equally profoundly” as al-Qaida, people often look at me with horror, as if I am somehow validating them. No. Al-Qaida are evil because of their terrorism. But, if they were irrelevant, if their actions did not resonate on some level across the Muslim world because they link their faith in a higher being to social justice, they wouldn’t matter. We have to recognize that they are raising very important issues and must respond on that level. If we don’t try to understand where they are coming from, if we don’t have our own answers for the issues they are raising, then we are not going to get very far in this battle for ideas.

Look at what happened with Hamas. They were elected because we offered democracy in the abstract but didn’t deliver anything that ultimately mattered to the lives of many Palestinians.

NPQ | If culture and religion are on the front line of global affairs today, that puts America in an odd spot because of our mass popular culture. Even if the soul of America is a kind of religio-secular hybrid, as the theologian Martin Marty says, Hollywood, not the church, is America’s face to the world.

Though some find it glamorous, many parents at home, no less conservative Muslims around the world, are horrified at the secularism, materialism and permissiveness of America’s globally pervasive pop culture. Akbar Ahmed, the Muslim scholar, calls the American media “storm troopers of the West” engaged in an assault aiming to erode the whole idea of a civilization centered on faith. Even Pope Benedict indicts the American-led global culture as being based only on “ego” and “desire” without a spiritual dimension.

So, it’s not just the secular West vs. Islam, but also the Pope vs. Madonna, so to speak. Doesn’t this make America suspect as a model for those who want a more balanced culture? Shouldn’t we be a little more honest about the mixed fruits of freedom?

Albright | Yes, it makes it much more difficult for America to be out there as a model, something which is also not helped by the Bush administration’s disrespect for the norms of international law. I agree that America is an exceptional country, but we shouldn’t be seeking exceptions for ourselves.

I don’t think we in America have yet fully understood the impact of the 1960s on how we view ourselves or how we are viewed by others, specifically in the Islamic world or by the late Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict, frankly. This pope has made it very clear that he wants to fight against the “value relativism” which came out of the ‘60s that said there was no such thing as real right or wrong. Of course, absolutism, the opposite extreme, is not a good thing either.

Certainly, the whole ‘60s ethos has had a big impact on how the conservative, traditional Islamic world looks at America. There is no question. The face we show is one of great permissiveness. Women go around with their midriffs exposed, or worse. I have to tell you, I’m horrified whenever I watch some American television shows when they appear on the screen in Istanbul or Cairo. What must these people think about America? That really has lessened our ability to present ourselves as a role model.

The problem is that modernization, like globalization, is not something you can stop. You have to figure out how to mitigate the worst parts of it. We are having a very hard time doing that at the moment because we are not in a position to promote what’s good because so much of the negative is out there.

I can totally understand that people in Karachi can be offended by the excesses of American mass culture, because they are in Kansas, too. There is a reaction to the over-permissiveness we see in our culture. I feel like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I understand this perfectly. I raised a family and can’t tell you how many times I had to turn the TV off or change the channel when my girls were growing up.

NPQ | One of the new realities of the 21st century is that America’s presence in the world is not only its embassies and aircraft carriers, but its Hollywood films, TV programs and pop music. It has to be taken into account as a factor in international relations because the message they convey can be at odds with other cultures’ norms.

Albright | Definitely. Part of what has happened is that certain aspects of America that people saw when they used to watch shows like Dallas or Dynasty became part of the global revolution of rising expectations. The prosperity portrayed in these TV dramas created both a desire to be like that, but also envy at not being like that. It made clear the divide between the rich and the poor world.

Now, we have something different—the violence, the sex and vulgarity. That is something that offends people; they don’t want to be that way. This is the kind of society they don’t want.

NPQ | This is the problem Karen Hughes has as under secretary of state: trying to promote the American way of life as part of public diplomacy. American freedom has produced the Bill of Rights and The Sound of Music, but also the rap lyrics that go on endlessly about “bitches” and “hos.”

Albright | What must people think when they hear those things? On the other hand, we can’t be in favor of censorship. What we’re left with is a plea to the creators of entertainment that they must develop a sense of propriety. They must have a sense of civic responsibility—only with a global scope because that is the world we live in today.

The Danish cartoon episode was an example of this. No one in the West could say flat-out that those depictions of the prophet should not have been published. But what one has to do is realize there needs to be propriety and responsibility if you are going to live in a society where your freedom of expression is protected.

What we need to understand, above all, is that we now live in an age of information technology by which anything can be spread. Religion can be spread that way, too. In fact, we see it with the televangelists. Some help spread a message of hope, love, unity, tolerance and responsibility. Others spread a message of hate and division, us versus them. This is part of the prism today in which politics and international relations have to be seen. You can’t ignore it because the media ties us all together.

NPQ | The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr often called for humility and restraint in American conduct of foreign affairs, because, as you quote Bill Clinton in your book, we have to recognize “we’re not in possession of the whole truth.”

Don’t we need a little humility in our global cultural model as well?

Albright | Absolutely. Look, I’m very proud of America. I’m a naturalized citizen. But we have to admit that everything we’ve done may not be so great, including the mass culture aspects we’ve been discussing. There has to be some humility.

One of the big problems of the Bush administration is that they lack this humility. It is us versus them, evil versus good. For a leader, there is a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness. We have to recognize this in our culture, too.

But, especially, the president and his administration need to recognize that mistakes have been made. America is good, but not perfect. By insisting we are the epitome of the good, we have narrowed the base of our support internationally.

Bill Clinton is very wise on this subject. He quotes the Apostle Paul saying “we see through a glass darkly”—in other words, there is absolute truth, but we humble humans can’t know it. And we shouldn’t act as if we do. You need to be strong, but you have to harbor doubt in all things.

The practical policy problem, as we’ve seen in Iraq, is that if you are so sure of yourself with Plan A, you don’t have a Plan B when things don’t work out. Then you just wallow in the mess brought on by your hubris. That is very troubling.

NPQ | To summarize: Foreign policy is no longer just about trade and strategic missiles. The fact of globalization, which throws everyone with sometimes incommensurate values into the same public square, necessarily makes international relations today as much about religion, culture and civilization as anything else.

Albright | No question. And that requires a much greater knowledge about the world. An incredible amount of information is available. We are bombarded by it in this common public square. The assumption is that, because the information exists, there is also more knowledge. But that is not so. Religion and culture are a big part of the discourse, but there is actually very little understanding among us all. Understanding the belief and motivations of others—and how those beliefs may lead to conflict with our way of life—is part of the ballgame now.

NPQ | Haris Silajdzic, the former prime minister of Bosnia, has argued that there is so much information out there today about things of which we have so little direct experience that the only way to organize it all in our minds is in stereotypes and prejudices. More information can, in this way, make things worse.

Albright | It makes it worse. There is so much. Some of that is the normal way a person’s brain works. What it means is that you have to be extra careful about generalizations and assumptions, especially in diplomacy and when you are in a position of political leadership.