Despite admonition from Christ and scripture to seek peace whenever possible, American Christians have an uneasy relationship with diplomacy. Conceiving American society as Christ’s “city on a hill,” American Christians tend to perceive convergence between America’s international role and Christ’s Great Commission, often seeing American policies as universal truths to disseminate abroad, with little tolerance for deviants. In 2002, Americans identifying as part of the “Religious Right” were vital advocates for removing Saddam Hussein, providing key support for Operation Iraq Freedom (OIF) in 2003. OIF removed Hussein but unleashed anarchy, displaced millions, strengthened Iranian regional influence, stimulated new terror groups, killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and several thousand US military personnel, with many more seriously wounded. Since 2003, the US military intervened in Libya and supported Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war, increasing regional chaos. US actions stimulated numerous problems that remain unresolved.

An alternative approach is diplomacy “to mitigate and civilize the differences between states.”[1] Diplomacy may peacefully resolve disputes and accommodate parsimonious military campaigns, and it remains essential for preserving gains achieved by force. Unfortunately, the American government hasn’t prioritized diplomacy. The Department of State has been neglected in the present century as the US engaged in kinetic diplomacy, or “diplomacy by armed force.” The Obama and Trump administrations have deployed US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) personnel to more than three-fourths of states worldwide, with Trump filling only 76 of 188 ambassadorships abroad. This suggests an American preference for coercion over negotiation. The Global War on Terror (GWOT) has likely incited as much terrorism as it has quelled, and American conventional superiority has narrowed. Beyond these concerns remains the issue of the undue use of violence. Christians claim to worship the “Prince of Peace.” If they do, shouldn’t they support peaceful foreign policies whenever possible?

Christianity & Diplomacy in History

Historically, Western diplomacy is incomprehensible without reference to Christian influence. When Rome collapsed in the fifth century, Roman bishops acted “like the last surviving wing of the Roman imperial service” by resolving conflicts. In tenth-century France, Catholic bishops developed the “peace of God” concept to prohibit intra-Christian violence, designate noncombatants, suspend hostilities on holy days, and shepherd Christian relationships with non-Christians. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI mediated boundaries between Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The Protestant Reformation of 1517 ushered in religious wars across Europe, but throughout Western history Christian institutions regularly sought to restrain armed conflict. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia established secular over clerical authority, but the balance of power system associated with Westphalia “was not the antithesis of a ‘Christian’ politics, but rather the best possible expression of it,” contrasting prior religious wars and the “vicious era of nationalist and ideological wars that followed.”

Of course, European powers utilized violence in colonial ventures, but they also consistently invoked Christianity to curtail broader war. However, Christian influenced stability suffered from the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule thereafter. American influence on the attitude toward revolt in France cannot be dismissed because both revolutions championed universal values, discounting regimes that represented merely particular national interests. If a state could objectively seek universal interests, balance of power is obsolete. Westphalian diplomacy, mindful of humanity’s limitations, could be abandoned and international order constructed by empowered rationality. Both revolutions encouraged notions of human self-sufficiency apart from divine authority.[2]

However, this didn’t abolish diplomacy that sought to accommodate divergent interests. Napoleon’s campaign to overturn the balance of power system provoked European states to reestablish just such a system, the Concert of Europe. The Concert was bolstered by Tsar Alexander’s Holy Alliance that “promised to uphold Christian principles of charity and peace,”[3] and met some 30 times between 1815 and 1914, preventing crises like the Crimean War and wars for German unification from escalating. However, Napoleon’s bid for a superstate promising universal rights profoundly impacted nineteenth-century philosophy. Hegel proposed a dialectical history encouraging unrestrained power “absorbing the will of God into the spirit of the world and the spirits of the nations;”[4] Darwin posited survival of the fittest, and Nietzsche rejected Christian humility, depicting religion as “an instrument of rule.” As European rivalries intensified, new military technologies proliferated, and Darwinism impacted European mores, circumstances buttressing traditional diplomacy contracted. European fears that Western civilization might destroy itself grew.

Ideology, New Diplomacy & Their Influence on Christian Foreign Policy

The 1914­­–18 war transformed diplomacy. As prewar European diplomats failed to restrain military imperatives borne of revolution in communications, transport, and firepower (and compounded them by concluding broad alliances), traditional diplomacy was discredited. This was partly due to fragmentation of Christian Europe. Early in the war, Karl Barth decried the descent of Christianity into tribal religion, but many Christian clerics disagreed, supporting the war regardless of their nationality. Unanticipated destruction demanded new solutions. In 1917, the US joined battle, with President Wilson professing a “war to end all wars.” Wilson supported “popular control of foreign policy, control of armaments, and international organization”[5] to save civilization. In retrospect, despite Wilson’s success in defeating Germany, by “voicing limitless objectives, he gave little if any thought to how America’s armed forces could actually achieve them.” Simultaneously, Lenin assumed power in Russia, promising global socialism. Diplomacy became an ideological contest between two disparate visions of justice, disdaining proximate solutions to international problems. The New Diplomacy extolled competing visions of earthy salvation.

Perceiving the twentieth century as a contest between capitalism and communism, American elites harnessed Christianity to advance American influence globally. John D. Rockefeller set up a commission under Harvard philosophy professor William Hocking to analyze missionary activities of seven Protestant denominations, concluding that they should forge “alliances across religious divides…that non-Christians can join while remaining faithful to their own traditions. In short, the primary duty of Christian missionaries was to apply the social gospel internationally.” The Hocking report laid “the groundwork for the moral justification of American global hegemony.” Ideologues would oversee American Christianity’s international mission, usurping scripture, theologians, and thinkers, unless they too were co-opted.

British historian Herbert Butterfield countered with his conception of Christian responsibilities in an age of ideological furor entitled Christianity, Diplomacy and War (1953). Butterfield (1900–79) held a chair of modern history at Cambridge and is best known for The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), which discounted utopian visions conditioned by progressivism. For Butterfield, Western Christians should be circumspect regarding foreign policy precisely because ideology linked temporal issues with ultimate purposes. Considering twentieth-century conflict, he declared the “whole situation is barbarizing…each side feels that its own severities are not vicious at all, but simply punitive acts of laudable measures of judgment.”[6] Butterfield believed Christians should have utmost regard for human fallibility, as the Christian “doctrine of Love, goes beyond any other system in its recognition of all those points in which it is the duty of human beings to make allowances for one another.”[7]

Inability to consider one’s own limitations, misperceptions, and mistakes produces foreign policy failure, as “moral indignation” against an enemy makes reflection increasingly difficult.[8] Instead, Butterfield advocated a return to traditional diplomacy, conceding diplomacy involved calculations of potential effect of using force but “an improvement on the blind hazards of actual war.”[9] In sum, as all parties have subjective interests, diplomacy produces humility and offers the best alternative for crafting a healthy international society:

Steady conditions, historical continuity, and the healing effects of time…we greatly underestimate when we try to play providence for ourselves. It is through these…the diplomatic profession develops into an international society… We underestimate the importance of peace and stability…for the development of human reasonableness and for the proper balancing of the activities of men.[10]

War, Diplomacy & Concerns for Twenty-first Century American Christians

The rationalization of American “indispensability” doesn’t countenance Butterfield’s wisdom that wars of righteousness are self-defeating operations. American Christians should realize that while coercion is justifiable under certain circumstances, it must be balanced with potential costs of disorder. More specifically, American Christians should consider effects of military operations on international Christians, veterans, and current US military personnel. America’s twenty-first-century wars have been disastrous for Christians in Syria and Iraq, as some two million have been displaced since 2000. Greater awareness of Middle Eastern Christians should influence American Christians to question US interventions’ impact on Christian communities and whether diplomatic alternatives provide better prospects for their stability. Also, instead of advocating future wars of choice, American Christians should consider lobbying for more resources for disabled American veterans. In 2014, 20 veterans committed suicide per day, and only 30 percent of these had access to VA health services. While most were older veterans (over 50), the same difficult circumstances apply to younger veterans going forward. Cost of veterans’ care extends far into the future, and this is even truer of recent wars due to increasing numbers of Americans who survive combat injuries.

Finally, American Christians should appreciate the plight of current military members who, due to their oath to defend the US Constitution, are compelled to fight wars that they deem morally dubious. Regarding ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, an Army aviator laments our “divided country,” in which “our military has become a syncretic religion, enjoying the support but not due consideration of the nation.” The possibility of eroding the US military’s morale is genuine. For Christians backing military interventions (e.g., Dallas First Baptist Church Pastor Robert Jeffress’ call for war against North Korea) but rendering seemingly superficial support to US military members, it’s time to empathize with those ordered to fight wars of choice. For all of the reasons presented above, American Christians should advocate for exhaustive attempts at diplomacy before endorsing US policies that produce further conflict and chaos.

Gregory F. Ryan is an associate professor at Union University’s Department of Political Science in Jackson, TN.

Photo Credit: Kim and Trump shaking hands at the red carpet during the North Korea–US Singapore Summit on June 12, 2018. By Shealah Craighead, via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Adam Watson, The Dialogue Between States (London: Eyre Methuen, 1982), 20.

[2] Alisdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Political Thought, eds. Rosen, Michael & Jonathan Wolff (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 269-284, 283.

[3] R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, 2nd edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), 419.

[4] Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 59.

[5] Arno Mayer, Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 39-40.

[6] Herbert Butterfield, Christianity, Diplomacy and War (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953), 43.

[7] Ibid, 42.

[8] Ibid, 61.

[9] Ibid, 69.

[10] Ibid, 76-77.