The Growing Role of Religion in Great Power Rivalry – English versionPeter Mandaville
For two decades now, rapidly shifting global power dynamics have been a central preoccupation for analysts and observers of international affairs. Whether expressed through the terminology of “rising” or “emerging” powers, or as a new era of multipolar great power rivalry, scholars of international relations have spilt much ink speculating about the likely shape and characteristics of today’s fluid world order. China’s emergence as a major power on the global stage has been a persistent theme, as has Russia’s assertive foreign policy under Vladimir Putin. India and Brazil also often feature in such narratives. In much of this analysis the primary focus tends to be on conventional indicators of international power such as military capacity and economic strength. Far less commonly noted, yet increasingly prominent in the new geopolitics of global power, is the element of religion.
Religion in world affairs: what’s new and what isn’t?
On the face of it, religion would appear to be one facet of what Joseph Nye famously termed “soft power,” which refers to the ability of a nation to induce preferred behaviors on the part of other states not through coercive or material means but rather through the attraction of its culture and valuesJoseph S. Nye, Soft Power, the means to success in world politics, Public affairs, 2019.. And yet, with a few exceptions, religion has not been a primary focus of the scholarship on soft powerJeffrey Haynes, Religious Transnational Actors and Soft Power, Routledge, 2016.. That is not to say that the softer aspects of emerging and new great power machinations have not received their fair share of attention. The strategic value of China’s global network of Confucius InstitutesSee Ying Zhou et Sabrina Luk, « Establishing Confucius Institutes : a tool for promoting China’s soft power ? » Journal of Contemporary China, 100 (25), 2016, pp. 628-642., for example or the transnational popularity of Turkish soap operasVoir Jana Jabbour, « Winning Hearts and minds through soft power: the case of tukish soap operas in the Middle East”, in Nele Lenze, Charlotte Schriwer, Zubaidah Abdul Jalil (eds), Media in … Continue reading are both frequently cited as examples of how rising nations have found creative ways to exert influence abroad beyond the conventional instruments of diplomacy or economic assistance. However, it is not always easy to discern any particular geopolitical logic in such activity, or to measure its effects in tangible terms.
Conversely, the emergence and impact of religion as an instrument of statecraft in the context of contemporary geopolitics is only too clear and highly concrete. In what follows, I will discuss several modalities through which great powers exert global influence via religion as well as highlighting some of the ways in which religion has become a new terrain on which great power rivalries are playing out today.
It is important to note at the outset that there is nothing particularly novel about identifying religion as a relevant factor in world affairs. Since the end of the Cold War, numerous scholars have pointed to the resurgence of religion as a factor in, for example, various civil wars and ethnic conflictsMonica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century, Resurgent religion and global politics, New-York, London, Norton, 2011.. The focus of the present discussion, however, is not on the relevance of religion as a contributing or causal factor in explaining events and outcomes in global politics. Rather, we are concerned here with highlighting a trend whereby several countries frequently identified as rising or revanchist great powers have integrated religion and religious engagement as an explicit component of their external conduct. Even in this regard, one would not want to overstate the new: during the Cold War, the United States saw significant geopolitical utility in religion as a counterbalance to “godless” communism and was happy to promote religious activities in countries viewed as being at risk of pro-Soviet insurgency. Likewise, a sometime American ally in this same effort, Saudi Arabia, viewed support for a wide range of Islamic causes as a useful way to blunt the influence of its regional competitors such as Egypt in the 1960s and Iran after 1979Peter Mandaville (ed.), Wahhabism and the world, understanding Saudi Arabia’s global influence on Islam, New-York, Oxford University Press, 2022.. What is distinctive today in several key contexts is the emergence of persistent and systematic cooperation between governments and religious institutions, and the projection of those partnerships into the global political arena.
In one notable effort to think theoretically about this phenomenon, international relations scholar Gregorio Bettiza has suggested that we need to take account of the ways in which certain states, by virtue of their unique historical and institutional relationship with specific religious traditions, possess repositories of what he terms “sacred capitalGregorio Bettiza, « States, Religions, and Power: Highlighting the role of sacred capital in world politics”, online : States, Religions, and Power: Highlighting the Role of Sacred Capital in … Continue reading”—akin to the notion of social capital in political science and sociology—which can then be deployed strategically in the international arena. However, as Bettiza notes, “[t]he possession and cultivation of sacred capital does not automatically translate into desired outcomes, whether a state actively or not seeks to mobilize it for particular purposes.” Some of the examples of states co-opting religion for geopolitical purposes that we review below also highlight Bettiza’s insightful observation to the effect that “religious assets and dynamics which are productive of different types of sacred capital can also generate unintended or negative consequencesIbid.”.
This next section will provide a tour of the horizon with respect to religion’s role in the foreign policy and external relations of various countries frequently identified as rising powers or as great power rivals. The diversity—geographic, historical, and cultural—represented here helps to drive home the point that the adoption of religion as an instrument of statecraft is not a phenomenon limited to a single part of the world or uniquely present in one faith tradition. It is found across many regions and across the full gamut of world religions.
New modalities of geopolitical religion: Russia, China, India, and the GCC
It is worth starting with a case that has already received a fair amount of media coverageOleg Kuznetsov, “Orthodoxy and Russian foreign policy: A story of rise and fall”, Politics today, 12 avril 2021. [Online] Orthodoxy and Russian Foreign Policy: A Story of Rise and Fall - … Continue reading and scholarly analysisAlicja Curanović, The Religious Factor in Russia's Foreign Policy, London, New-York, Routledge, 2012., namely the close political alliance that has emerged over the past two decades between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—especially its primate, Patriarch Kirill. While the Kremlin undoubtedly has the upper hand in this relationship, it is still one of symbiosis whereby the Russian state provides backing and resources for the Church to mobilize transnationally in the name of conservative religious values and in return provides Moscow with new conduits for projecting political influence into the teeming cauldron of ethnoreligious identity politics in the Western Balkans and other areas in Russia’s near abroad. Religion is also at the heart of Putin’s guiding foreign policy doctrineMark Trevelyan and Alistair Bell, “Putin approves new foreign policy doctrine based on 'Russian World'”, Reuters, 5 septembre 2022. [Online] Putin approves new foreign policy doctrine based on … Continue reading, Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”), that seeks to consolidate and defend an ethnolinguistic and civilizational construct that views a particular reading of Eurasian history, ethnicity, language, and the Orthodox Church as constitutive of a Russian identity that is both cultural and geopolitical in nature.
When it comes to Russia’s current war in Ukraine, the discourse of Russia World has played multiple roles. Prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and support for separatist agitation in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, Moscow deployed Russkiy Mir in more of a religious soft power register designed to pull a recalcitrant Kyiv away from its increasingly pro-European orientation in the name of pan-Orthodox brotherhood. As this strategy faltered, the Kremlin pivoted and began to use the tendrils of influence that connect the Russian Orthodox Church with its subordinate affiliate in Ukraine (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate) in order to sharpen divisions within Ukrainian society and sow disunity—a religious “sharp power”Peter Mandaville, “How Putin turned religion’s “sharp power” against Urkaine, United States Institute of Peace, 9 février 2022. [Online] How Putin Turned Religion’s ‘Sharp Power’ … Continue reading strategy that also, broadly-speaking, has failed to deliver the desired results. In what might perhaps be regarded as an example of the kind of unintended consequences associated with the use of sacred capital alluded to above by Gregorio Bettiza, the Putin-Kirill religious strategy for Ukraine seems to have accomplished little more than alienating the branch of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine previously aligned with Moscow. On May 27, 2022 its General Council issued a statement emphasizing its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and indicating a willingness to enter into dialogue with its local rival, the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
The Putin-Kirill partnership has, however, proven more successful on other fronts. In the Western BalkansHarun Karčić, “Russia’s influence in the Balkans: the interplay of religion, politics and history”, Berkley forum, 2022. [Online] Russia's Influence in the Balkans: The Interplay of … Continue reading, for example, transnational agitation emanating from structures tied to the Serbian Orthodox Church—backed by the Moscow Patriarchate—has been a driving factor in recent resurgent nationalist sentiment and rising intercommunal tensions in places like Bosnia and Montenegro. Perhaps the broadest and arguably most effective domain in which the Kremlin’s embrace of the ROC can be seen is the contested space of human rights. In Moscow’s narrative, Russia, undergirded by the ROC, is the world’s leading defender of “traditional” and “family” values in the face of what it portrays as a Western (that is, North American and European) project to export feminist ideology and to compel recognition of LGBTQI rights and same sex marriage. Beyond representing a transnationalization of the what are often termed the “culture wars,” Russia’s portrayal of itself as the vanguard of what Kristina Stoeckl and Dmitry Uzlaner evocatively label a “Moralist InternationalKristina Stoeckl, The moralist international Russia in the global culture wars, Frodham university press, 2022.” should also be seen as part of a strategy designed to pull countries previously aligned with the United States and Western Europe into Russia’s orbit. While Moscow has certainly emphasized the protection of conservative (and especially Christian) values in its engagement with more conservative countries in the Global South—including in Sub-Saharan Africa and, more recently, the Middle EastMohammad Hanafi, “Russian Orthodox Church builds on links with Egyptian Copts”, Al-Monitor, 5 août 2022 ; [online] … Continue reading—it views this effort as global in scope. Indeed, one of the more successful and potentially geopolitically disruptive axes to emerge out of Russia’s entry into the global culture wars is the increasingly warm relationship between the Moscow-backed family values movement and conservative evangelical as well as white nationalist groups in the United StatesBethany Moreton, “The U.S. Christians Who Pray for Putin”, Boston review, 11 mars 2022, [online] The U.S. Christians Who Pray for Putin - Boston Review.. While Russian efforts to infiltrate American social media platforms in order to exacerbate political polarization and manipulate political campaigns are well known by now, the religious dimensions of Moscow’s sharp power operationsNational Endowment for democracy, “Sharp power: rising authoritarian influence”, forum report, 5 décembre 2017. [Online] “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”: New Forum Report - … Continue reading in the United States have remained relatively low profile.
Let’s turn now to a more counterintuitive case, that of China. Beijing is, of course, broadly viewed as being opposed to religion—so when thinking about China and religion it is far more commonplace to focus on the country’s systematic suppression of religious freedom. More recently, Beijing has been accused of genocide in relation to the mass atrocities committed against Uyghur Muslims in its Western Provinces. And while China has found some strategic utility in embracing the securitization of Islam associated with global policy discourses of counterterrorism (CT) and preventing violent extremism (PVE), this is something very different from deploying a country’s religious history and identity as a geopolitical asset. And yet, against the odds, Beijing is doing just that. The work of scholars Yoshiko Ashiwa and David Wank has shown how China has invoked the country’s Buddhist heritage as a soft power assetYoshiko Ashiwa et David Wank, “The Chinese state’s global promotion of Buddhism”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 11 novembre 2020. [Online] The Chinese State's Global … Continue reading as part of its public diplomacy outreach in strategically significant nations with Buddhist majority or minority populations. In Asia, these efforts are focused on countries already economically integrated with China such as Laos, Cambodia, and Mongolia. Outside Asia, China’s export of Buddhist heritage has proven useful for exerting influence in countries with an active commitment to multiculturalism such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. More directly relevant to geopolitics, Beijing’s narratives of “Chinese Buddhism” can also be seen as a cultural layer within Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)Gregory V. Raymond, “Religion as a tool of influence”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 42 (3), 2020, pp. 346-371., with religious soft power activities also focused on lynchpin BRI locales such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Indonesia offers a useful segue for considering the case of another rising power that has occasionally employed religion and religious discourse in its foreign policy. India, particularly under the leadership of Narendra Modi, has embraced a form of nationalism that places Hinduism at its core. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other forces of the political right in India, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement and other elements within the Sangh Parivar umbrella alliance, have embraced the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva as their guiding doctrine. In the domestic sphere the growing prominence of Hindutva discourse has been associated with rising anti-Muslim sentiment and intercommunal tensions. Externally, while some manifestations of religion in India’s foreign policy—such as Modi’s championing of the International Day of YogaSumit Ganguly, “The possibilities and limits of India’s new religious soft power”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 14 juillet 2020, [online] The Possibilities and Limits … Continue reading—have been relatively benign, others have involved more worrying trends that mirror India’s domestic agitation. For example, in what appears to be a case of indirect Indian religious sharp power, the recent uptick in tensions between the majority Hindu population of Bali, Indonesia and the island’s Muslim minority have been driven in part by the growing influence of Indian Sangh Parivar activists on Bali-focused social media pages and groups. These activities are not confined to Indonesia with pro-BJP, RSS-aligned Facebook and Telegram groups targeting Hindu communities in Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka as well as within Indian diaspora communities in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Finally, while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations are not generally thought of as rising great powers, countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have emerged in recent years as key regional power brokers with a growing global network for exerting commercial, cultural, and political influence. For them, as well as for their regional powerhouse neighbor Saudi Arabia (sometimes a close ally, in other respects a competitor), religion has emerged as an important facet of their geopolitical portfolio in recent years. We can identify a couple distinct facets to this trend. First, and in some ways very similar to the role played by JordanMackenzie R. Poust, “’Made in Jordan’: Assessing the legacy of the Amman message”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 15 septembre 2022, [online] "Made" in Jordan: … Continue reading in the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to position themselves as global centers of excellence for the production and dissemination of counter-terrorist and counter-extremist communications via a discourse of “moderate IslamAnnelle Sheline, “More moderate than Thou: How the U.S. and Arab States Manipulate Religious Authority to Maintain their Power”, Quincy institude for responsible statecraft, 16 mars 2021, … Continue reading.” This approach has the dual effect of allowing these countries to earn credit as important allies in the U.S.-led effort to counter threats from groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, even as it also helps their governments—and royal families—to consolidate their grip on power by suppressing and criminalizing any politicized expression of Islam (including non-violent Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood) as a potential terrorism risk.
Related, but also somewhat distinct from this, is the trend in recent years for GCC nations to regularly host international summits and conferences focused on themes such as interfaith harmony, tolerance, and coexistence. The standard formula for these affairs involves a high-profile convening of international religious leaders that culminates in the issuing of a statement expressing the participants’ collective commitment to promoting peaceful relations between peoples of different faiths, emphasizing the common values shared by various religions, or protecting the rights of religious minorities. Certainly there is much to be welcomed in these developments, with Saudi Arabia—long viewed as a bastion of antisemitism and religious intolerance—welcoming prominent Jewish and Shi’i voices at events such as the May 2022 Forum on Common Values Among Religious Followers in RiyadhLigue musulmane internationale, “World faith leaders convene in Saudi Arabia for first time in ground-breaking conference to build bridges with Muslim leaders”, RNS Press releases, 12 mai 2022, … Continue reading. This flurry of tolerance diplomacy also holds practical utility as a public affairs accompaniment to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s grand Vision 2030 project. Given the kingdom’s reputation for rigid religious conservatism, the success of his plan to establish Saudi Arabia as a major player in the global culture and entertainment sector and to develop new cross-regional commercial and investment portfolios depends on getting the message out that Saudi Arabia welcomes people of diverse cultures and faiths. However, some observers are more cynical, seeing in this GCC “declaration proliferationAnnelle R. Sheline, “Declaration proliferation : the international politics of religious tolerance”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 11 juillet 2019. [Online] Declaration … Continue reading” an effort to create a virtuous smokescreen to distract from and whitewash the various ways in which the policies of these same countries in places such as Yemen, Libya, and Syria have actually exacerbated conflict and violence. By the same token, there is also in this new GCC religious diplomacy, as in Russia’s, the risk of unintended and negative consequences. For example, in many cases the governments in question—whose own religious credentials are weak or nonexistent—have relied on partnerships with prominent Islamic scholars to serve as the figureheads of their religious outreach work. In aligning themselves with and accepting patronage from GCC governments that remain controversial in the region, however, these same religious scholars risk compromising their reputation and independence.
Repercussions of religion in the new geopolitics
While it is clear from the examples cited above that religion has become a consistent facet of rising and great power conduct in contemporary geopolitics, how should we think about the longer-term significance of this trend and its implications for international relations? By way of conclusion, we can point to three aspects of the new geopolitics of religion worth bearing in mind. Two of these relate very directly to classic concepts and themes in international affairs: the structure of international alliances, and the dynamics of conflict, war, and peace. First, perhaps most clearly in the case of Russia’s religious diplomacy, we see clear evidence of an effort to weaponize a specific conception of human rights, religious freedom, and culture wars in order to drive a wedge between the United States, Western Europe, and more socially conservative countries—particularly in the Global South—that have traditionally found themselves strategically aligned. Here we see Russia using shared religious values in much the same way that China has previously sought to leverage its lack of colonial history and anti-imperialist credentials to build solidarity with Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps even more fascinating to observe is the growing network of transnational cooperation that links far right nationalists from different world regions and faith traditions into something like a global coalition of committed “monoculturalists”—even uniting, in the case of certain American conservatives and their Russian counterparts—the citizens of countries traditionally opposed to each other in the conventional geopolitical realm. Second, the new geopolitics of religion has clear implications for the security and stability of some countries and regions. In settings where the external projection of religious influence and power is more “sharp” in nature, latent or simmering identity politics and intercommunal tensions can easily boil over into open and sometimes violent conflict with little warning. The Western Balkans—whose conflicts of the 1990s are now viewed by many as a thing of the past—could easily reignite, with transnational religious mobilization serving as a key catalyzing factor. There is a third and final valence to religion in the new geopolitics worth bearing in mind, although its implications are not so easily expressed through the standard categories and concepts of international relations. The point here is that periods of world political time marked by a global order in flux—its formations, norms, and organizing thematics highly uncertain—represent moments in which narratives offering meaning, purpose, and vision tend to gain currency. If as many observers claim we are today shifting away from a liberal international order (never perfectly formed and very far from perfectly liberal) and towards an unclear but very likely post-WesternOlivier Stuenkel, Post-Western world: how emerging powers are remaking global order, Oxford, Wiley, 2016. world order, religion will continue to feature prominently in the evolving geopolitical landscape.
|Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power, the means to success in world politics, Public affairs, 2019.
|Jeffrey Haynes, Religious Transnational Actors and Soft Power, Routledge, 2016.
|See Ying Zhou et Sabrina Luk, « Establishing Confucius Institutes : a tool for promoting China’s soft power ? » Journal of Contemporary China, 100 (25), 2016, pp. 628-642.
|Voir Jana Jabbour, « Winning Hearts and minds through soft power: the case of tukish soap operas in the Middle East”, in Nele Lenze, Charlotte Schriwer, Zubaidah Abdul Jalil (eds), Media in the Middle East. activism, politics, and culture, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 145-163.
|Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century, Resurgent religion and global politics, New-York, London, Norton, 2011.
|Peter Mandaville (ed.), Wahhabism and the world, understanding Saudi Arabia’s global influence on Islam, New-York, Oxford University Press, 2022.
|Gregorio Bettiza, « States, Religions, and Power: Highlighting the role of sacred capital in world politics”, online : States, Religions, and Power: Highlighting the Role of Sacred Capital in World Politics (georgetown.edu)
|Oleg Kuznetsov, “Orthodoxy and Russian foreign policy: A story of rise and fall”, Politics today, 12 avril 2021. [Online] Orthodoxy and Russian Foreign Policy: A Story of Rise and Fall - Politics Today
|Alicja Curanović, The Religious Factor in Russia's Foreign Policy, London, New-York, Routledge, 2012.
|Mark Trevelyan and Alistair Bell, “Putin approves new foreign policy doctrine based on 'Russian World'”, Reuters, 5 septembre 2022. [Online] Putin approves new foreign policy doctrine based on 'Russian World' | Reuters
|Peter Mandaville, “How Putin turned religion’s “sharp power” against Urkaine, United States Institute of Peace, 9 février 2022. [Online] How Putin Turned Religion’s ‘Sharp Power’ Against Ukraine | United States Institute of Peace (usip.org).
|Harun Karčić, “Russia’s influence in the Balkans: the interplay of religion, politics and history”, Berkley forum, 2022. [Online] Russia's Influence in the Balkans: The Interplay of Religion, Politics, and History (georgetown.edu).
|Kristina Stoeckl, The moralist international Russia in the global culture wars, Frodham university press, 2022.
|Mohammad Hanafi, “Russian Orthodox Church builds on links with Egyptian Copts”, Al-Monitor, 5 août 2022 ; [online] https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/07/russian-orthodox-church-builds-links-egyptian-copts#ixzz7fzqVJtRX
|Bethany Moreton, “The U.S. Christians Who Pray for Putin”, Boston review, 11 mars 2022, [online] The U.S. Christians Who Pray for Putin - Boston Review.
|National Endowment for democracy, “Sharp power: rising authoritarian influence”, forum report, 5 décembre 2017. [Online] “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”: New Forum Report - NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY (ned.org)
|Yoshiko Ashiwa et David Wank, “The Chinese state’s global promotion of Buddhism”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 11 novembre 2020. [Online] The Chinese State's Global Promotion of Buddhism (georgetown.edu).
|Gregory V. Raymond, “Religion as a tool of influence”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 42 (3), 2020, pp. 346-371.
|Sumit Ganguly, “The possibilities and limits of India’s new religious soft power”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 14 juillet 2020, [online] The Possibilities and Limits of India's New Religious Soft Power (georgetown.edu)
|Mackenzie R. Poust, “’Made in Jordan’: Assessing the legacy of the Amman message”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 15 septembre 2022, [online] "Made" in Jordan: Assessing the Legacy of the Amman Message (georgetown.edu).
|Annelle Sheline, “More moderate than Thou: How the U.S. and Arab States Manipulate Religious Authority to Maintain their Power”, Quincy institude for responsible statecraft, 16 mars 2021, [online] More Moderate Than Thou: How the U.S. and Arab States Manipulate Religious Authority to Maintain their Power - Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
|Ligue musulmane internationale, “World faith leaders convene in Saudi Arabia for first time in ground-breaking conference to build bridges with Muslim leaders”, RNS Press releases, 12 mai 2022, [online] World faith leaders convene in Saudi Arabia for first time in ground-breaking conference to build bridges with Muslim leaders (religionnews.com).
|Annelle R. Sheline, “Declaration proliferation : the international politics of religious tolerance”, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, 11 juillet 2019. [Online] Declaration Proliferation: The International Politics of Religious Tolerance (georgetown.edu)
|Olivier Stuenkel, Post-Western world: how emerging powers are remaking global order, Oxford, Wiley, 2016.
Peter Mandaville, "The Growing Role of Religion in Great Power Rivalry – English version". Bulletin de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°39 [en ligne], septembre 2022. https://obsreligion.cnrs.fr/bulletin/the-growing-role-of-religion-in-great-power-rivalry-english-version/
Peter Mandaville, United States Institute of Peace