Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department Pursued Greater Religious Engagement

By Amy Frykholm | May 8, 2013

Hillary Clinton in Tanzania

(Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty) Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with women of the Upendo Women’s Cooperative group in Mlandizi, Tanzania.

At the end of January, in the days after Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state, the media rushed to analyze her achievements. Writing for The New York Times, Gail Collins made much of Clinton’s personal diplomacy: the number of miles she had spent on the road (956,733), the number of countries she had visited in four years (112), and even the number of airplane meals she had eaten (570). While no one questioned Clinton’s work ethic, others in the media were less sanguine about her accomplishments. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Cassidy assessed Clinton as a great and hard-working diplomat, but not as a great secretary of state. Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement and a frequent collaborator with the State Department, put it to me this way: “Make no mistake, Obama has kept most of the foreign policy for himself. All the big issues are being run out of the White House … She’s been very circumscribed in terms of what she has been allowed to do.”

It is easy to look at Clinton’s tenure and see no Marshall Plan, no great doctrine for the U.S. to adhere to in the post-9/11 era. And yet, Clinton’s leadership was found in the attempt to draw small, creative partners—particularly religious partners—into meaningful relationship with the U.S. government. Clinton worked, quite literally, on the ground, as a grassroots organizer and community partner to take the enormous, unwieldy power of the U.S. government and apply it in remote corners of the world to work on health, education, and environment. This is delicate work that must happen to a large degree outside the limelight. It could be overlooked, demeaned as “women’s work”—but it is no less significant for its invisibility.

In 2011, Clinton launched the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, which has been an attempt to graft this grassroots philosophy onto the byzantine halls of the federal government. She used her time as secretary of state to rethink how the U.S. interacts with partners abroad and to seek partners beyond the usual diplomatic circles, paying particular attention to the issues surrounding women and girls. In a 2010 report, Clinton said the State Department will “invest in women and girls at every turn, with the goal of empowering them.” One of the most effective means for achieving this “empowerment” is by working with faith-based organizations, whose leaders are very often women—a fact that belies the notion that engaging with religious communities simply means meeting with male clerics. The world’s health, education, and environmental organizations have what Seiple and Maryann Cusimano Love, professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America, both call “a female face of faith.” So the goal of greater religious engagement and the goal of greater engagement with women and girls can be met together.

In some ways, this form of diplomacy worked in conjunction with the Obama administration’s philosophy of cooperation and engagement. In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama inaugurated what he hoped to be the era of engagement with the Muslim world. He called on the U.S. and Muslim communities to create meaningful partnerships. “Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life,” he said. Engagement and partnership were, both Obama and Clinton believed, a direct refutation of the Bush era’s reputation for unilateral action. The era of engagement was meant to be an era of mutual partnerships, entrepreneurial vision for underdeveloped nations, and an end to the United States’ reputation as a sometimes well-intentioned, but still clumsy and ineffectual, bully.

To do this, Clinton pursued “personal diplomacy,” seeking out non-traditional conversation partners. In part, this method of working was essential to meet Clinton’s goals of drawing more women into circles of influence. The Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society convened six working groups: governance and accountability; democracy and human rights; empowering women and girls; global philanthropy; religion and foreign policy; and labor. The Dialogue is attempting to find and engage partners in more than 20 countries with thousands of people in civil society. How much of this work will continue during Secretary Kerry’s tenure is difficult to know, but the Strategic Dialogue continues.

Clinton’s drive to engage a wider number of conversation partners came from two global realities. One is that traditional partnerships are failing the United States as nation states fail in places like Mali, Syria, and Libya. Failed nations provide one reason to turn to civil society for different allies. For a long time, the U.S. government worked with states that were known to be oppressive, simply because they were better, we believed, than the alternatives. “Dictators and double-standards” was a well-known method of combatting communism, and when communism turned to terrorism as the greatest perceived threat, the U.S. continued to work with questionable allies because they were believed to help us with counter-terrorism efforts.

The Arab Spring complicated these efforts, hitting at what Love calls our “double weak spot.” The Arab Spring, she says, is “difficult for the U.S. government to deal with because we don’t have a good track record supporting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and we don’t have a good organizational structure for dealing with religious-based actors or political parties. So it hits us in a double weak spot.”

The fight against communism also left the State Department unprepared for the rigors of engagement with religious people and people with different religious traditions. Love explains, “For fifty years, the focus was on fighting communism and constraining the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union were ‘godless communists.’ So religion and religious actors weren’t primarily important if you were fighting an atheistic state.”

There are other reasons the U.S. State Department has traditionally avoided directly engaging religious groups: in places of religious conflict, diplomats do not want to be seen as favoring one religious group over another. They do not want to unwittingly violate the First Amendment, a poorly understood clause about the “establishment” of religion. They are not comfortable themselves speaking a religious language. Up until a year ago, there were no Foreign Service courses that focused on religion. In the 1990s, the State Department created the Office for International Religious Freedom after Congress passed a law requiring an annual report on the status of persecuted minority religious groups around the world. But highlighting those human rights abuses is not the same thing as engaging religious entities.

Seeing this dearth, in 2009, Judd Birdsall, who at the time worked on the Secretary of State’s policy staff, started hosting a discussion group at the State Department called the Forum on Religion and Global Affairs. He invited people who were interested in thinking about the relationship between religion and diplomacy. Birdsall points out that engaging religious groups is just plain necessary in most of the world. “If you were a strict church-state separationist and thought we should only work with secular groups, there would be large swaths of the earth that you just couldn’t engage at all … If you don’t engage with those groups, the Taliban certainly will.”

The working group was eventually folded into the Strategic Dialogue initiative, and in the months leading up to the dialogue’s establishment, the Religion and Foreign Policy working group within the State Department sent a survey to 167 embassies to find out what kind of religious engagement they already had. What they found, says Rob Lalka, another former staffer, was that religious engagement was “sporadic, ceremonial, and all too often ad hoc.” In many cases, it amounted to nothing more than a dinner where a few leading clergy were invited to speak. But, says Birdsall who initiated the survey, “There were some real standouts … The best reports were from Israel, India, Philippines. A lot of the best reports were from Africa—again because religion is a compensating force. In Tanzania, the embassy there has a faith outreach coordinator. That is a great model—one that many of us had been pushing for in different iterations, having one person look after religious engagement across an embassy.”

The Religious Engagement Report (RER) that Birdsall, Lalka and others initiated, has served as a significant document as the Religion and Foreign Policy Group gets on its feet within the Strategic Dialogue. Meanwhile, the dimensions of religious engagement have been expanding. An office of religious engagement that will answer directly to the Secretary of State is opening—initiated under Clinton, but carried over into the Kerry administration. Chris Seiple sees the State Department, “for the first time, intentionally and comprehensively seeking to institutionalize its engagement with religious actors worldwide.”

While for those outside the government, these kinds of shifts can seem insignificant, within the structure of government, they are very important. Seiple, who acts as a senior advisor to the Strategic Dialogue and has spent much of his career pushing for religious literacy in diplomacy, says that the group’s vision is being implemented step by step. Indeed, he says, this is the first time that the State Department is “intentionally and comprehensively seeking to institutionalize its engagement of religious actors worldwide.”

Tanzania provides an example of what personal diplomacy and community engagement might look like. In 2011, Clinton visited the country of about 4.5 million people, 45 percent of whom are Christian and 40 percent of whom are Muslim. The nation experiences critical problems with poverty, food insecurity, and HIV/AIDS, and has typically been of little significance for U.S. foreign policy. But with a “partnership” model and an eye on faith-based organizations, the U.S.’s relationship with the country is changing. When Clinton traveled there, she stopped at a women’s agricultural cooperative, planting a sweet pepper seedling and giving a speech about the U.S. Feed the Future program. Engaging this and other organizations provides a way for the U.S. government to tangibly impact the lives of Tanzanians without over-reaching. The State Department has hired a faith outreach coordinator at the embassy in Dar es Salaam whose job is to reach out beyond the usual circles and communicate with organizations like Tanzania’s thriving Interfaith Partnership, a group that works around poverty, literacy, and HIV/AIDS. Working through grass-roots organizations, the government can support and provide resources directly to those most vulnerable.

But this kind of engagement does have drawbacks. For example, if you want to have a “strategic dialogue” with “civil society,” with whom exactly are you going to talk? The dialogue partner is vague—and it can never be a conversation among equals. One has vast resources at its disposal. The other needs support and help. Others worry that “engagement” may very well mean engaging religious groups who are persecuting others; it might mean creating partnerships with the oppressors. It can be very confusing, in societies where there is a great degree of stability, to understand who merits engaging in conversation. Plus, if religious engagement is to happen at all, it requires time, resources and staffing. Love says if you funnel U.S. aid dollars through grass-roots organizations, you can get “bang for your buck.” But the process still requires funding—at a time when funding is perceived as short.

The State Department under Hillary Clinton made a concerted effort to engage with civil society and the work of religious people around the world. It attempted in part to make religion and outreach to religious communities a significant part of modern diplomacy. This century’s diplomacy, argues Rob Lalka, is about networks. “Who has the strongest networks? Well, faith communities are certainly near the top. Who is the most charitable? It is the religious organizations. If you are trying to figure out how to do diplomacy in the 21st century, you have to find the networks that mean the most to people,” he says. “This is the reason that it was embraced: it is effective in all the little ways that you never hear about.”

Amy Frykholm is associate editor at The Christian Century, and author of, most recently, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity.        

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