AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Analysts have debated for decades about the relative influence of the various factors that shape American foreign policy. National interests, domestic politics, economic interests, and liberal ideology have each been nominated as the major source of the peculiarities of American conduct in foreign affairs. But although numerous scholars stress the importance of realism, idealism, capitalism, or liberalism, almost no one has thought that Protestantism - the dominant religion in the United States - is worthy of consideration. Certainly in the twentieth century it has seemed abundantly clear that one can (and should) write the history of American foreign policy with no reference to Protestantism whatsoever.
This essay will present the alternative view. It will argue that American foreign policy has been, and continues to be, shaped by the Protestant origins of the United States, but with a twist. For the Protestantism that has shaped foreign policy over two centuries has not been the original religion but a series of successive departures from it down the scale of what might be called the Protestant declension. We are now at the end point of this declension, and the Protestantism that shapes foreign policy today is a peculiar heresy of the original religion, not from the Protestant Reformation but rather what might be called the Deformation. Today, with the United States left as the sole superpower, this deformation enjoys its greatest global influence. But because it is such a peculiar religion, and indeed is correctly perceived by all the other religions as a fundamental and fatal threat, its pervasive sway is generating intense resistance and even international conflict.
Protestantism and International Politics in History
The Protestant religion was an enormous force shaping international politics in the early modern era. Together with the Italian Renaissance, the commercial revolution, and the European discovery of the New World, the Reformation was one of the four major movements that initiated the modern era itself during the early sixteenth century.
The long struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation - the Wars of Religion - culminated in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). That war was concluded with the Peace of Westphalia and the establishment of what scholars of international relations have termed "the Westphalian system" of independent sates. Most analysts of international politics consider the Treaty of Westphalia to be the beginning of the modern sate system and of international politics as we have known it down until recent times.
Prior to the Thirty Years' War, central Europe had been dominated by the Habsburgs of Austria, who were Roman Catholic and who ordered the region within the elaborate and hierarchical framework of the Holy Roman Empire, a legacy from the medieval era. The four major movements of the modern era were bringing about the development of nation-states in western Europe, especially in the Protestant countries of the Netherlands and England, but within the structure of the Holy Roman Empire the nation-sate did not yet exist.
The Thirty Years' War resulted in a substantial decline in the power of the Habsburgs, and the Treaty of Westphalia ratified a comparable decline in the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. An international structure composed of a hierarchy of emperor, kings, princes, and cities was replaced with one composed of many formally independent and formally equal states. Some of these sates, of course, were more independent, "more equal," than others, and these would later become known as great powers. The Treaty of Westphalia was the recognition that Europe was no longer one empire but a system of many powers - a multipolar system.
In the view of some international relations analysts, the Westphalian multipolar system was replaced after 1945 with the cold war bipolar system, which in turn was replaced after 1991 with the post-cold war unipolar system. But although the number of truly great powers has decreased, the number of formally independent states has increased. In this sense, the Westphalian sate system remains the one we still live in today. And that system was one of the great consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion.
The leading powers during the Wars of Religion and later in the early Westphalian state system included ones that were Catholic (Habsburg Spain, Habsburg Austria, France, and Poland), Protestant (the Netherlands, England, Sweden, and Brandenburg-Prussia), Eastern Orthodox (Russia), and even Muslim (Ottoman Turkey). Among these powers, however, the Protestant ones had a distinctive character. The first such was the Netherlands, followed soon after by England. They became great powers because they boasted the leading commercial economies and navies of the time, and they clearly illustrate the connection between the Protestant ethic and the capitalist spirit, which Max Weber analyzed so acutely. To be sure, the Netherlands and England were rather small countries, in terms of territory and land forces, but they were superior in their ability to organize their limited resources with maximum effectiveness. This implicit connection between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of social mobilization was also illustrated by the two leading Protestant land powers, first Sweden in the seventeenth century and then Prussia in the eighteenth century. Each was unusual in its ability to organize limited resources with maximum effectiveness in ways that astonished the other (and Catholic) land powers.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Westphalian state system thus developed into the classical balance-of-power system composed of several great powers. The Protestant powers were better organized than their Catholic (and Orthodox and Muslim) rivals, but the non-Protestant powers possessed large territories and armies, and some had begun to develop their own ways of improving administrative efficiency. The result was a rough equivalence in the resources that the powers actually deployed in the arena of international politics, and in the weight that they threw into the balance of power.
By 1700, the objectives that the Protestant powers pursued in international politics were not substantially different from those pursued by non-Protestant powers, and they were almost wholly confined to the secular goals of territory, wealth, and power. One can thus write (as almost all scholars have done) the history of European international politics in the eighteenth century without reference to the Protestant religion.
For the most part, this is true of the history of European international politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well, with a couple of important exceptions. In the 1880s and 1890s, Protestantism helped to inspire the expansion of empire, especially in tropical Africa, where British rule was extended into certain areas in order to protect Protestant missionaries even when few other reasons existed to do so.
Much more significantly, in the 1860s and 1870s, Protestantism shaped the way Prussia expanded as it established the new German empire. After Prussia defeated Austria in the war of 1866, many German nationalists advocated Prussia's annexation of the Germans living in Habsburg domains, thereby unifying virtually all Germans into a single Grossdeutschland. However, since the Germans in Austria were Catholic, that would have made Catholics a majority in the new German national state and was unacceptable to Bismarck and the Prussian Protestants. The way that unification eventually came about in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War (annexation of some Catholic South German states, but not Catholic Austria) insured that Protestants would enjoy a two-thirds majority in the new German empire.
Although Germany would not annex Austria for religious reasons, it could ally with Austria-Hungary for strategic ones. This it did in 1879, and that alliance would have fateful, and fatal, consequences in 1914. By then, however, it appeared that Protestant religion had ceased to have any effect upon European international politics. A certain degree of shared Protestantism between Britain and Germany did not inhibit them from fighting each other in the First World War for four terrible years.
Looking back over several centuries, then, one might sum up the impact of the Protestant religion upon the foreign policies of the European powers as …