Rethinking Religion’s Role in International Relations

By David Webster, Bishop’s University |

How much does religion matter in global affairs? A seemingly undiplomatic topic, religion can actually tell us quite a bit about diplomatic history.

Take the case of Burma, which in 1953 decided to refuse any more development aid money from the United States. Prime Minister U Nu made the decision to protest against the presence in Burma of Kuomintang troops, loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s US-backed government on Taiwan.

To American observers at the time, it seemed that Burma was hurting itself by refusing US funding. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles noted, “Burma is doing U.S. no favor in accepting aid.” U Nu himself conceded that “Burma must have technical assistance and America is [the] only country having [the] technical capability [of] supplying this aid.”

So why did Burma unceremoniously refuse US money? Religion provides one possible answer. A devout Buddhist, U Nu had once spent a happy afternoon in the Indonesian state botanical gardens releasing trapped insects from carnivorous plants. Visiting Moscow, he made time to pray over Stalin’s embalmed corpse in an effort to instill merit into the dead Soviet leader. Buddhism was not incidental for him or his government – it was basic.

It also influenced development aid, perhaps the most important aspect of Burma’s diplomatic relations in the 1950s. In Theravada Buddhist terms, aid can be seen as a global parallel to coins being dropped into a monk’s begging bowl. If someone donates to a monk, they accumulate merit. For U Nu, aid wasn’t simply a gift. Burma was doing America a favour by accepting aid. It allowed the US to accumulate merit – or in more political terms, to appear as a fair-minded, impartial donor. Religion is not the only way to explain the Burmese government’s seemingly counter-productive decision, but it is one possible factor – a factor that should be taken just as seriously as alternative explanations grounded in so-called “high politics.”

Religion should be part of our understanding of Canada’s foreign relations, too. Historian Andrew Preston has been trying to address this in U.S. diplomatic history. In a contribution to the latest edition of Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, he notes a “religious turn” in the field of the United States and the world. Religion receives limited attention in the study of Canadian foreign relations. It might be time for a “religious turn” in the field of Canada and the world. Lester Pearson, the most storied figure in Canadian diplomacy, called religion “part of our being.” It was, and it is.

It is important to see religion as a major influence on foreign policy, even in the second half of the twentieth century, a period often glossed as overwhelmingly secular. “In fact, it was the very nature of the cold war that allowed religion to play a greater role in international history than ever before,” Preston writes in the introduction to a recent volume on religion and the cold war. With direct war unthinkable, the cold war became a “contest over legitimacy,” a clash of ideas – religion’s field of operations.

As Canada entered the cold war, religious influences pervaded. It is worth considering that policymakers may have actually meant what they said. Comments abound implying that policymakers must have been cynical when they spoke of Christian values. Was Louis St. Laurent mainly concerned with mobilizing consent in Catholic Quebec to back the Korean War in the 1950s, or did he really believe that this was an epic struggle of “Christian civilization” against atheistic totalitarianism and “barbarism”? It is at least possible that both are true. Similar points may apply with regard to more recent cases, such as Stephen Harper’s government’s decision to create a post of ambassador for religious freedom – and the way Canada stressed religious freedom in multiple diplomatic interventions.

Again, development aid provides an example. “To preserve civilization,” St. Laurent said in 1950 at the University of Toronto’s convocation ceremony, “we have to nourish the spirit within.” From that philosophical basis, he spelled out a Christian and Cold War case for aid: “We cannot neglect the less fortunate in our own midst, nor can we ignore the plight of nations less fortunate than our own. The preservation or civilization requires us to help those untold millions, most of them in Asia, to improve their standards of life and to achieve a situation they will feel it is worthwhile to defend.” Foreign aid was not charity. It was a method to sign new nations up to the side of “Christian civilization” in Canada’s cold war combat.

Similarly, Canadian diplomat Hugh Keenleyside could dub development assistance as technical assistance as “a great crusade for human progress.” This mattered as Canada became one of the major backers of the United Nations Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance and Keenleyside took office as the first head of the UN’s Technical Assistance Administration. Though Keenleyside grew up attending multiple Protestant services on Sundays, he was not himself religious. Still, Christian and other religious thought shaped the emergent development assistance universe.

Recent studies increasingly challenge the idea that foreign aid was ever altruistic, pointing instead to its cold war motivations and its entanglements in both east-west and north-south struggles. Aid diplomacy was not separate from other forms of diplomacy, and each government’s aid strategy and positioning followed that government’s perceptions of its own national interests. This is an important insight, but it is increasingly important to nuance it and see how religious influences shaped policymakers’ aid diplomacy – and indeed all their diplomacy.

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