Religious Freedom and the National Interest

Religious Freedom and the National Interest

Religious freedom should not be the top priority of U.

So far no foreign government anywhere has lost even one dollar of U.S. foreign aid specifically because of its religious-freedom violations.  But the threat of such cuts helped make a difference in Boris Yeltsin's Russia, which in 1997 enacted a harsh statute restoring state control over religious life-the first explicit, statutory rollback of the human-rights reforms which Yeltsin himself had helped secure earlier in the decade.  The unexpectedly strong reaction in Washington included an appropriations amendment crafted by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), which created a real possibility that the Kremlin would lose most of its bilateral aid from Washington.  (The amendment would not have affected transactions of private U.S. businesses or U.S. government aid to Russian non-government organizations.) 

Though the State Department was predictably horrified at the Smith Amendment, some of its own diplomats told me that they used it as a tool in their talks with the Russian government.  The amendment set up a classic "good cop/bad cop" scenario, with the U.S. embassy coaxing the Russians for concessions to show to the hard-liners on Capitol Hill.  What followed was a dramatic watering down of the 1997 law in its concrete implementation, especially as it affected western missionaries and their Russian partners. The episode fits a larger principle noted by Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma; as he put it to me in a telephone interview, "quiet diplomacy and ‘blaming and shaming' are mutually reinforcing." 

Unfortunately, the overall lesson of Yeltsin's religion law and its selective enforcement is that the game of "divide and rule" works.  Since 1997 the Yeltsin and Putin administrations have discriminated not just between religions but within a single religion.  For example, we now see both favored Baptists and disfavored Baptists in Russia, with the same fault line between them as in the Soviet years.  The disfavored are the independent "initsiativniki" Baptists, who split from the semi-establishment Baptist Union four decades ago because of its compromises with the Soviet state such as agreeing not to teach religion to children.  The major American missionary organizations, such as those sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, prefer to deal with the larger and better-connected Baptist Union.  Usually they have not spoken up for the increasingly isolated "initsiativniki"-nor has the State Department.

Since the September 11 trauma, human-rights issues in general have receded.  Robert Seiple, ambassador-at-large for religious freedom under the Clinton administration, told me that "security went to the top of everyone's hierarchy of values.  Any human-rights organization that could not define itself in the context of security became irrelevant.  Some made the mistake of pitting human rights against security in a zero-sum game, beating their chests; they lost a major opportunity to show how freedom actually enhances security."

That opportunity is especially obvious in places such as Uzbekistan, which risks repeating the Iranian scenario of the late 1970s: a secular, authoritarian regime allied with Washington collapses because it is tone-deaf to religion and provocatively ham-handed in its persecution of religious dissenters.  Intelligently pursuing U.S. strategic interests in such countries will often mean telling allies things they don't like hearing about topics which U.S. diplomats don't like discussing.  Washington needs to get better at doing that.


Lawrence Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch.