Integrating Religious Freedom into the U.S. National Security Strategy

March 6, 2018

The Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS) report at the end of last year. Unlike those of the previous administration, this National Security Strategy identifies the protection and promotion of religious freedom and religious minorities as a strategic priority of the United States.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, center, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff listen as President Donald J. Trump announces a new National Security Strategy, Dec. 18, 2017.Photo: Defense.Gov/Joyce N. Boghosian…

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, center, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff listen as President Donald J. Trump announces a new National Security Strategy, Dec. 18, 2017.
Photo: Defense.Gov/Joyce N. Boghosian
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

The U.S. National Security Strategy is released every few years. It provides an overview of an administration’s strategic priorities for enhancing our national security and outlines the ways the U.S. can employ its diplomatic, economic, and military resources to achieve these priorities. Religious freedom was first referenced in the National Security Strategy over 20 years ago under the Clinton administration.

This latest National Security Strategy calls religious freedom “a fundamental right for our flourishing society” and pledges U.S. support for “advancing religious freedom” and “working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks and preserve their cultural heritage.” These phrases are welcome.

But at present the NSS demonstrates only the Trump administration’s rhetorical support for the place of religious freedom in U.S. national security strategy. It remains to be seen whether this rhetorical commitment will translate into foreign policy directives and outcomes. The administration’s recent proposals to reduce the State Department’s operating budget suggest a general lack of emphasis on diplomacy, as opposed to military power.

But a new emphasis on religious freedom diplomacy could reduce the need for military force and the costs in American blood and treasure. There is mounting evidence that religious freedom undermines religion-based violence and terrorism.

The administration should commit more than words in a national security document. It should develop and implement a comprehensive religious freedom national security strategy.

Fortunately, the administration’s new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, has begun to emphasize the importance of religious freedom to American national security. Brownback’s 16-year record in Congress is replete with examples of bipartisan leadership to promote religious freedom for all. If he receives full support from U.S. national security agencies, including the State Department and the White House, Ambassador Brownback can integrate religious freedom into U.S. national security strategy.

In December, I testified before Congress on the importance of advancing religious freedom to combat extremism. In addition to describing how to integrate religious freedom into U.S. national security efforts, I recommended that U.S. foreign policy move beyond mere verbal support for religious freedom to employing religious freedom as a counter-terrorism strategy. This testimony echoed a policy brief released in early 2017 by the Religious Freedom Institute and the Institute for Global Engagement with our organization’s joint recommendations on international religious freedom policy for the Trump administration and Congress.

A White House-level commitment to prioritize religious freedom in our diplomacy could also have a substantial impact on behalf of persecuted minorities around the world. A more effective U.S. religious freedom diplomacy would help the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Tibetan Buddhists of China, or the Yezidis and Christians of Iraq. It would help stabilize struggling democracies such as Egypt or Pakistan.

What is the bottom line?  A systematic effort to improve our religious freedom diplomacy can increase religious freedom around the world, help the victims of persecution, and enhance American security at home.

Thomas Farr is President of the Religious Freedom Institute and Director of the International Religious Freedom Policy Action Team.