God on Our Side: Religion in International Affairs

  • Published

God on Our Side: Religion in International Affairs, by Shireen T. Hunter. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 259 pp.

Never discuss politics or religion in the workplace, cautions the popular adage. The book God on Our Side: Religion in International Affairs—by Shireen T. Hunter, research professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University—endeavors to do both but will invariably disappoint many readers in the process. While this treatise on religion in foreign policy is lacking, the book does offer an excellent treatment of both Russian and Turkish involvement in the Bosnian War, as well as a chapter on Turkey’s quest to join the European Union (EU). Thus, while this work is of less interest to the student of religion and foreign affairs, it delivers thought-provoking insight to those interested in the role of international affairs in the 1992-1995 conflicts of former Yugoslavia and the subsequent Turkish struggle to define itself as a western nation.   

Professor Hunter sets out to design an introductory text with a comprehensive view of the role of religion as a determinant in the behaviors of international actors (p. xi). The book begins with a discussion of the range of international actors, including states, nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and violent extremist groups. It then proceeds to delineate the many determinants and motivations of those actors, such as self-preservation, ideology, economy, geography, and religion. Chapters 3 and 4, respectively, address Russian and Turkish foreign policy vis-à-vis the Bosnian War, and the book concludes with an analysis of the European Union’s rejection of Turkey as a member nation. Hunter’s work is suffused with a realist perspective on foreign policy, which views security and materialistic concerns as the primary motivators of international affairs; religion by contrast serves a limited role, more often as a tool to justify a predetermined course of action. Paradoxically, the overarching thesis of God on Our Side is that religion plays a very small role in international affairs.

The book may disappoint the theologically minded reader who seeks a better understanding of the religions that shape today’s global landscape. There is no elucidation on the beliefs or value systems held by the three religions most addressed in the text: Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam. There is also no discussion on any of the religions native to Africa, Latin America, or the Far East. Conversely, the politically minded reader will seek a greater discussion of religion’s role in international affairs than offered by the text, as the underlying theme of the book is that religion plays a limited role therein. The Orthodox Church played a negligible part in Russia’s policy toward the Balkans (p. 125), Turkey was “motivated by political considerations rather than by religious sympathies” in its foreign policy toward the Bosnian War (p. 159), and culture serves as a far greater factor than religion among Europeans who oppose Turkey’s membership in the EU (p. 211). The politically minded reader may also find the scope of the text lacking, as it primarily focuses on only two international issues: foreign relations regarding the former Yugoslavia and admission of Turkey into the EU. In other words, the book’s title—which builds the anticipation of a grand unified theory of religion in global foreign affairs—sets forth expectations that are not met by its text.

Students of the Bosnian War will undoubtedly appreciate the author’s treatment of the topic. Hunter, the first woman in the Iranian Foreign Service and an incontrovertible expert on International affairs, skillfully compares and contrasts the motivations of Russian and Turkish involvement in the conflicts throughout the Former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995. Hunter illustrates how both countries arose as multiethnic, geographically disparate empires that had theretofore never developed a national identity or ideology. Moreover, both nations were vying to reposition their respective reputations among the global community, necessitating a precarious balance between the will of its citizenry and a long-term global stratagem. The book offers critical insight into the definitions of “religion” and “nation” while enticing the reader to consider what constitutes “Europe” and whether membership in the EU must be restricted to those very European nations. Chapter 4 of the book is especially enlightening. Hunter traces the 700-year-old ties between Turkey and the Balkans, Turkey’s efforts to secularize and “Europeanize” itself in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, its longstanding quest to join the European community beginning with an association agreement between the European Economic Council (EEC) and Turkey in 1963 to the application and rejection of the latter as an EU member nation in effect today, and to the recent growing disillusionment with the EU among Turkish citizens over the past decade. The text also offers insight into the cultural, geographical, economic, and religious factors that play into both EU member states and Turkish citizens’ compatibility to enter into a joint union.   

This well-written treatise suffers from a poor title that sets improper and unmet expectations. Students seeking to learn about religion’s role in international affairs may emerge disappointed at the dearth of religious information and its role in foreign affairs. Conversely, readers interested in a global theory of foreign affairs will bemoan the lack of breadth offered by the text, which focuses almost exclusively on two issues in Europe. There is scant discussion of American foreign policy and insufficient discussion on religion’s role as a motivator for extremist groups, a topic that many would expect to be addressed at length in a book of this title. Fortunately, Hunter’s work offers excellent insight into identity struggles of two Eurasian countries trying to regain a semblance of former prestige among the international community. God on Our Side: Religion in International Affairs is a must read for anyone willing to learn more about Turkish national identity and a recommended read for anyone seeking a better understanding of international relations in the Balkan War. Readers of a theological bent, or those seeking a unified theory of religion’s role in foreign affairs, are less apt to benefit from this text.                                          

Capt Mark Edelstein, USAF, PhD


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."