The Corner

The State Department and International Religious Freedom

First, the good news. The latest State Department Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF), released July 30, has much to recommend it. Thanks to the Internet wizards at Foggy Bottom, the entire document, which covers almost 200 countries, is easier than ever to navigate. Moreover, the Annual Report is the world’s gold standard for a comprehensive catalogue of repression, discrimination, and persecution on the basis of religion. It is widely used by scholars, the media, and policy experts — and for good reason.

On top of that, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, gave a credible performance in introducing the report. And Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave her strongest speech to date on why religious liberty is important, not only to the victims of persecution, but to America’s self-understanding and its fundamental interests abroad. Among the rhetorical gems: “”For the United States, of course, religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign-policy priority.” Religious freedom is “not granted to us by any government, rather it is the responsibility of government to protect” it. Religious freedom is “an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies [and is] statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability.”

Even more pointedly, in responding to a questioner, the Secretary of State said that the United States must send a clear message to persecuting nations, especially those such as Egypt who are struggling to make democracy stable and lasting: Without religious freedom “you will not be successful, you will not be stable, you will not be secure, and you will certainly not have a sustainable democracy.”

#more#Precisely so. Now let’s follow her logic to its policy conclusion. If the success, stability, and economic development of Egypt and other struggling democracies whose fates are tied to U.S. interests (Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Indonesia) depend in some significant way on their achieving religious freedom, the United States should obviously take the advancement of religious freedom in those countries quite seriously, right? The stakes are immensely high, not only for them, but for us. If democracy collapses into theocratic autocracy in any of those states, the prospects would be grim. People would suffer. The region would be destabilized. Religion-related extremism and terrorism would find more safe havens. In the latter sense, promoting religious freedom can be a diplomatic counterterrorism strategy.

Given the high stakes, surely the U.S. would have a series of well-developed IRF strategies for these and other key countries, headed by someone with the authority and resources to succeed. In this case, that person would be the aforementioned Ambassador Johnson Cook who by law leads U.S. IRF policy.

Now the bad news. Johnson Cook has little authority, few resources, and a bureaucracy that is — notwithstanding the secretary’s fine words — largely indifferent to the advancement of international religious freedom. Unlike other ambassadors-at-large (Global Women’s Issues, Global AIDS), Johnson Cook does not report to the Secretary, but is several levels removed from Clinton. The IRF ambassador controls virtually no resources for IRF programs, and is not present in senior policy meetings involving those countries or any others. A quick look at the “U.S. Policy” sections of the reports will tell you that we have little in the way of a coordinated IRF strategy for any of these countries. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this issue is not a priority for this administration, except perhaps for the speechwriters (who are doing an outstanding job). 

Secretary Clinton made an exceptional case for IRF policy, and based it on her department’s outstanding Annual Report. Let us hope that she, and others in the Obama administration, will see the need to marry powerful rhetoric with a strategy and policy action worthy of the stakes raised by a world increasingly bereft of religious liberty.

— Thomas F. Farr is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.


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