WHAT’S THE NAME OF THE BOOK?
Gregorio Bettiza. 2019. Finding Faith in Foreign Policy: Religion and American Diplomacy in a Postsecular World (New York, Oxford University Press)
WHAT’S THE ARGUMENT?
Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has increasingly “desecularized,” such that it is now deeply intertwined with religious agendas, interests, and organizations. We see this trend in efforts to advance international religious freedom, mobilize faith-based actors for humanitarian and development purposes, fight global terrorism by promoting ‘moderate Islam,’ and solve global crises through various forms of religious engagement. These developments may erode the separation between church and state that has helped the US, lead America to impose itself on other societies’ religious landscapes, and undermine norms that protect the sovereignty and self-determination rights of foreign countries.
TELL US WHY WE SHOULD CARE?
American international-relations scholars, with a few notable exceptions, tend to treat religion as, at best, an indirect influence on U.S. foreign relations. Conventional wisdom views religion as a major force in other countries, especially Muslim ones. This distorts our understanding of U.S. foreign policy and exoticizes the foreign policies of non-Western states. For example, it leads analysts to cast the religious orientations of those states as a threat to liberal international order, while overlooking the degree the United States itself is undermining the secular, pluralist foundations of that order.
WE SHOULD BELIEVE YOUR ARGUMENT BECAUSE…?
I tested my argument with rigorous qualitative analysis. I gathered data for the case studies from three main sources: participant-observation studies during fieldwork in Washington, DC; extensive interviews with policymakers, analysts, and religious actors; and a wide range of primary sources and documents. For instance, I trace how Huntington’s ideas about civilizational clashes problematically influenced America’s response to 9/11 and the War on Terror, a matter of interest in recent discussions about political scientific lab-leaks.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE IT IN THE FIRST PLACE?
The project was entirely question driven. I grew up in Rome, which is permeated by the sacred. Yet, like many others of my generation, I believed that religion would have an ever-diminishing role in a modernizing world. Events like 9/11, however, brought Islam to the center stage in world politics. The United States–a country that embodied modernity–had a born-against Christian President and was seemingly intent on making Samuel Huntington’s dystopia of civilizational clashes a reality through the War on Terror. Suddenly a thought struck me: at the dawn of the twenty-first century religion mattered in unexpectedly powerful ways. I needed to understand more. So I applied to do a PhD in the late 2000s, which ultimately led to this book.
WHAT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO CHANGE ABOUT THE BOOK, AND WHY?
I’ve been pleased that the book has received many positive reviews, but even favorable reviewers have suggested that I oversell the novelty of the post-Cold War turn towards the institutionalization of religion in U.S. foreign policy. The book does note that there is a deeper history of its subject, but I think that I could have done more to trace how that history shapes current developments. It may also have been useful to have a broader comparative perspective, examining other cases of states using religion in their foreign policies. A good example is the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, based at Georgetown University and led by Peter Mandaville, which is precisely doing this comparative work.
THE + 1: HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO GET THE BOOK PUBLISHED?
Let’s say that it was not the most stress-free experience of my life.
The incentive structure of British academia (especially related to the government’s REF system) favors churning out multiple journal articles, generating some measurable form of societal or policy impact, and acquiring funding to set up research teams. All of this dramatically disincentivizes the long, slow, painstaking, and often individual process of book writing. While working on the book part of me was always thinking that I should be doing something more ‘valuable’ for my career, like writing more grant applications.
Working with the editorial team at Oxford University Press was a real pleasure. As my first book, the publisher wanted to review the full manuscript before offering a contract. Once the monograph was submitted to Oxford, however, the wait was nerve-wracking. The whole process took an extended period of time because one of the reviewers vanished and my editor had to find a replacement. I had nightmares that, after the long wait, the book would be rejected and I’d have little to show for the years spent working on it. As a discipline, we may need to pay more attention to the way the review process can have major (negative) impacts on early career scholars.