Christian Ethics, Actors, and Diplomacy: Mediating Universalist Pretentions

By Lynch, Cecelia | International Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Christian Ethics, Actors, and Diplomacy: Mediating Universalist Pretentions


Lynch, Cecelia, International Journal


While the theme of this issue of International Journal is the future of diplomacy, indicating new trends and the instantiation of new forms, actors, and issues, the relationship between Christianity and diplomacy is anything but new. Peeling back the secularist assumptions of international politics demonstrates the degree to which religious and in particular Christian actors, ignored for much of the 20th century, have always been and continue to be part and parcel of diplomatic practice/ Nevertheless, it is still extremely important to ask what types of religious diplomatic practices are occurring currently as opposed to the past.

Christianity's legacy forms a prominent, though relatively unexamined, component of the history of western diplomacy. It also has a historically complicated relationship with state sovereignty, the foundational international institution that makes modern diplomacy possible. Christian guidelines have long helped to construct the foundation for western understandings of the goals to be achieved in diplomatic practice, including the legitimate use of violence and forms of international intervention. Augustinian formulations shaped modern definitions of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, the laws of war and laws in war, respectively. Christian ethical debates, divisions, and actions shaped the creation of the nation-state system and the ideas of the United States's "founding fathers," as well as supranational and international forms of governance.2 In other words, Christian debates about the nature of sovereignty versus universalist projects address the essence of traditional diplomacy: the question of how "estrangement" - or the insideoutside problem of world politics - is mediated.3

Many features of this complicated relationship between Christianity and diplomacy are important to analyze, but in this article I examine the role of Christian actors in diplomatic struggles over the meaning of territoriality, representation, and governance during two periods: the 1930s and 1940s (from the end of the interwar years to just after World War II) and the postCold War era - the 1990s to the present. In each case, I focus on James Der Derian's understanding of diplomacy as "mediating estrangement" to ask what types of estrangement are mediated by Christian ethics and actors.4 I argue, first, that universalist pretensions are a recurring feature of Christian diplomatic interventions, and second, that these pretensions produce ethical tensions over the specifically Christian and global character of representation and governance.

I first look at the way in which Christian attempts to navigate the temporal and the spiritual played out in interwar ethics and promoted a secularized form of universalism, even while they justified the use of force by sovereign states. This form of universalism justified the consolidation of global governance from the League of Nations to the United Nations, but it also privileged the United States's role in the UN's leadership. As articulated by John Foster Dulles in the US, post- World War II great power universalism also owed much to, although it also differed from, the "dual morality" justification for states' use of force legitimized by Rienhold Niebuhr.

These universalist pretensions regarding territoriality and governance, along with statist justifications for the use of force, shaped diplomatic practice in "the west" throughout the Cold War. They also continue to exist, still frequently in tension, in the post-Cold War era. Examining "humanitarian diplomacy" in the post-Cold War era (see also Ole Jacob Sending's article in this issue) offers an opportunity to assess the content of Christian ethical struggles over representation within the universalist pretensions of global international organization. More specifically, some Christian humanitarians today argue that universal rights to religious freedom allow and even require proselytizing. This type of faith-based participation in tasks of "mediating estrangement" also is not new, as it has important antecedents in successive periods of Christian missionizing. …

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