David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy
Date: May 25th, 2014

Does religion affect the way nations interact with one another? Does it affect foreign policy?  And if so, why have scholars of international relations ignored the role of religion until recently?  David Smith, a lecturer at the University of Sydney in the Department of Government and International Relations and a researcher in the United States Studies Program, provides us with an overview of how religion has played, and possibly still plays, a role in international relations and foreign policy.

We start out with an overview of the field of international relations (IR), a sub-discipline in political science (and one that stretches across other academic fields), and why scholars working in that area have, until recently, ignored religion.  David takes us back to 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia to explain this general academic oversight.  It is argue that since Western Europe essentially took the “religious question” off the table in the real of interstate conflict and diplomacy following the Thirty Year’s War, it was never considered to be a point of interest to scholars studying IR.  Add to this the general tendency to favor materialist and realpolitik explanations in studying nation-states, and religion never seemed to be something interesting to study.

Things begin to change in the IR field with the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  We note that although the Peace of Westphalia may have conditioned thinking about the role of religion (and ideas more generally) in diplomacy, the rest of the world really wasn’t party to this worldview.  The general pattern of thinking in U.S. foreign policy prior to 1979 was that Islam would always be an ally to America in the battle against communism, thus the popular revolt that swept Islamists to power in Iran caught policymakers by surprise.  Prof. Smith notes that the Iranian revolution has had the effect in the US State Department of creating a concern over popular uprisings with religious overtones.  He illustrates this with the recent US reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

After acknowledging that religious ideas, movements, and organizations need to be taken seriously by IR scholars and diplomats, we then discuss how religion might play a role in international affairs.  This is where we pick up the work of Stephen Rock, Eric Patterson, and Andrew Preston, which was the focus of David’s recent review article in The Australian Journal of Political Science.  Our first possible method whereby religion impacts diplomacy relates to lobbying.  Groups like the American-Israeli Political Action Committee or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops often try to influence American foreign policy, but David explains how these groups are largely ineffective.  We then look at how public opinion, typically expressed institutionally by voting patterns, may influence diplomatic leaders.  Again, the relative impact of religious beliefs and preferences get filtered out from the diplomatic corps, although there are times when Congress can use religious issues to press for certain foreign policies.

The third possible mode religion may influence international relations is via the personal beliefs of leaders and diplomats.  David, though, notes that there is not much evidence between a president’s religious beliefs and the general patterns of foreign policy.  Richard Nixon (Quaker) and Jimmy Carter (evangelical) are used as example of how leaders are constrained in their ability to affect foreign policy.  The final pathway relates the general ideological (theological) milieu of the United States and how it acts as “background radiation” on the thinking of political leaders.  Examples of this include John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” concept, Jeffersonian isolationism, Wilson’s liberal internationalism, and Reagan’s aggressive nationalism.  We discuss the empirical difficulty of explaining how these three different ideas are influenced by America’s religious ideas.

David provides a number of examples of how religion has played a real role in conditioning US diplomacy.  We discuss the issue of human rights and Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union, the creation of the International Religious Freedom Act, Boko Haram, and finish up with how U.S. evangelicals approach climate policy, both domestically and abroad.  David also reflects upon the role that religion plays in the diplomatic relations of other countries, most notably Europe and Australia.  Recorded: May 8, 2014.



David T. Smith’s bio at the University of Sydney and the United States Studies Program.

The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd.

Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations, by Daniel Philpott.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, by Mahmood Mamdani.

Faith and Foreign Policy: The Views and Influence of U.S. Christians and Christian Organizations, by Stephen Rock.

Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy, by Eric Patterson.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston.


Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and US Diplomacy.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, and the Arab Spring.

Roger Finke on Religious Persecution.

Daniel Philpott on Religious Resurgence and Democratization.

Jonathan Fox on Religion and State around the World.

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