The Duke Chapel brouhaha and US ‘soft’ foreign policy


Photo credit to Bill Majoros.

U.S. foreign policy isn’t just the stuff of policy papers, talks at Washington think tanks, strategy positions in Foggy Bottom and the work of establishing economic ties, trade links and military alliances drawn up in the bowels of the Pentagon.USflag

To borrow a concept from Joseph Nye, that’s all ‘hard’ foreign policy.

But there’s also a ‘soft’ foreign policy, and it’s the kind of thing that can equally affect foreign relations, often in explosive and unpredictable ways. Officials in tiny Denmark never anticipated their country would alienate the entire Muslim world when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper printed several disparaging images of the prophet Mohammed in 2005. Nor did French officials have a role in the publication, week after week for decades, of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, but last week’s horrific murders in Paris could become the focal point of French domestic and foreign policy discussion for weeks, months or even years to come.

So, too, the latest manufactured scandal on the American political scene, a decision by Duke University, a private university in Durham, North Carolina, to allow its chapel to be used for a weekly call to prayer for Muslim students. Under pressure from Christian groups, conservative activists and preachers like Franklin Graham, and in the face of several threats, according to Duke officials, the administration backed off todayInstead of using Duke Chapel, Muslim students will sound the prayer call from the quadrangle in front of the chapel, instead of from the chapel’s bell tower. 

It just so happens that I have some interest in this story because I am, myself, a graduate of Duke University. For whatever reason, Duke has found itself at the center of several controversies in recent years, from a 2001 incendiary advertisement regarding slavery reparations that we ran in our days in charge of the student newspaper, The Chronicle, to more serious issues, including prosecutorial abuse in the now-famous 2006 lacrosse rape case. The school’s most recent headlines involved a certain porn star amid its undergraduate student body. But I’m proud to say that Duke is at the center of this latest controversy, in particular, because universities should be precisely the place where students and free thinkers smash against the conventional boundaries of society, ideology and every other sacred cow.

As David Graham (another Dukie and Chronicle alum) writes for The Atlantic, the chapel issue is really less about religion than about the type of society that the United States wants to be in the 21st century, and he quotes Omid Safi, the director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, who really nails this concept:

“At the end of the day, this is not an Islam conversation,” Safi told me. “It’s an America conversation. It’s a ‘who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?’ conversation. Are we a zero-sum society? Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?”

But we can’t really have a grand debate about freedom of religion or freedom of expression in the context of a private university. Government played no role in either enabling or restricting anyone’s religious rights on Duke’s campus. But that doesn’t mean the discussion won’t inform future US attitudes and the world’s impression of US attitudes toward the freedom of religious expression.

Just as in Denmark in 2006 and in France today, the catalyst of the debate comes not over laws and regulations so much as the cultural values, assumptions and norms that often, ultimately, inform laws, be it increasingly tougher Danish restrictions on immigration or the 2010 French law that prohibits public face coverings, such as the burqa that many Muslim women wear.

Set aside the irony of the fact that Christian conservatives effectively shouted down the freedom of a religious minority at one of the most elite institutions of higher education in the United States just days after many of those same conservatives were voicing their solidarity for the principles of free speech and expression for which nearly a dozen French cartoonists died last week.

Does the United States fundamentally want to be a country with the kind of robust values and freedoms that its citizens defend for everyone? Or is the United States willing to compromise those values and freedoms out of fear or for some inchoate sense of greater security? In that regard, the fight over Duke chapel is the same debate that Americans have been waging for over a decade — over the way that its government conducts the ‘war on terror,’ over whether the CIA should torture suspected terrorists, over whether creeping civil rights violations, increasing government surveillance and absurd security theater in US airports are providing any real security, even over the manufactured debate in 2010 involving the ‘9/11’ mosque in New York City. They all boil down to the same question. Does ‘freedom, American style’ mean freedom for everyone or just freedom, in this case, for non-Muslims?

The narrative of nearly 250 years of US history and constitutionalism is clear. It’s ‘freedom for everyone or freedom for none of us.’ That’s a value, perhaps honored historically more in the breach than in the observance. But compared to 1776 or 1865 or 1920 or 1964 or even in the past decade with the rise of marriage equality, that American narrative rings more true than false.

The United States, as an entity, tests these freedoms not by how it treats peaceful Buddhists or Hindus or Mormons, but how its citizens as well as its government treat Muslims at a time when radical jihadist Islam is very much a threat to the United States. There are plenty of Christians and conservatives in the United States who would argue that it’s the defense of universal liberties and equality of freedom under the law that fundamentally define the concept of civilization itself.

So the way that Muslim Americans are treated reverberates throughout the world. That’s the essence of soft foreign policy.

It’s not that the hearts of hardened jihadists are warmed under the notion that the United States, by respecting equality, liberty and freedoms to its fullest ability. But it signals to the rest of the world that, for all its shortcomings, the United States strives to live up to the universal values and standards that it sets for itself. That, ultimately, must win many more hearts and minds in the Muslim world, from Marseille to Bangui and from Damascus to Baghdad, than any number of bombs from unmanned drone aircraft, with all the collateral damage they’ve wrought. (And it’s a lot less costly).

The power of ‘soft foreign policy’ can work both ways — it can catalyze near-existential crises for countries (Denmark) and it can hasten the worst terrorist attack in decades (France).  The gains of the  United States throughout the 20th century had as much to do with soft foreign policy as hard foreign policy. What won two world wars and the Cold War involved a smart, nimble military force and a strong economy characterized by innovation and a wealth of natural resources. Hard power.

But it also had to do with baseball, jazz music, the blues, Hollywood and American cinema and the inchoate notion of US constitutionalism and the rule of law. The role that the United States played in establishing the norms of international law and the institutions that help resolve so many of the world’s problems today, from the United Nations to the World Bank. Soft power.

(10) El beisbol

When you go to Nicaragua today, you won’t see a lot of USAID projects or US-built infrastructure or US military installations. You will see large, air-conditioned malls showing the latest films from Hollywood. You can ride in Ford Explorers blasting the lasted Madonna single. You can watch children play a game of baseball in the shadows of Sandinista tent cities.

That’s the magic of soft power — and soft foreign policy.

As the United States enters the 14th year of its ‘war on terror,’ with US military forces on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq today, no matter that both ‘wars’ technically ended long ago, and with frequent US engagement from Pakistan to Yemen, it’s not just policymakers but all American citizens who should be thinking harder about the kind of role that US soft foreign policy will play in the 21st century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *