In the early 1980s, I became a professor at Georgetown University. My specialty was foreign policy, about which such icons as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. In their view, individuals and groups could be identified by the nations to which they belonged. Countries had governments. Governments acted to protect their nations' interests. Diplomacy consisted of reconciling different interests, at least to the point where wars did not break out and the world did not blow up. Foreign policy was commonly compared to a game of chess: cerebral, with both sides knowing the rules. This was a contest governed by logic; its players spoke in the manner of lawyers, not preachers. During my adult years, western leaders gained political advantage by deriding "godless communism"; otherwise, I cannot remember any leading American diplomat (even the born-again Christian Jimmy Carter) speaking in depth about the role of religion in shaping the world. Religion was not a respecter of national borders; it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.
This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state. My colleagues felt the same. When, in 1993, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard predicted that the era following the end of the cold war might well witness an interreligious "clash of civilizations," we did all we could to distance ourselves from that theory. We had in mind a future in which nations and regions would draw closer as democratic bonds grew stronger, not a world splitting apart along historic fault lines of culture and creed. When fighting broke out in the Balkans, we urged each side to focus on the rights of the individual, not the competing prerogatives of religious groups. In 1998, after U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by terrorists, we published posters seeking information and offering a reward; these posters had the heading, "This is not about religion. This is not about politics. This is about murder, plain and simple." During the administration's marathon effort to find a basis for peace in the Middle East, President Clinton and I were fully aware of the religious significance of Jerusalem's holy places. We hoped, nevertheless, to devise a legal formula clever enough to quiet the emotions generated by the past. We asked and expected both sides to be realistic and settle for the best deal they could get.
We were living, after all, in modern times. The wars between Catholics and Protestants that had claimed the lives of one-third the population of Christian Europe had been brought to a close in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia. Large-scale fighting between Christians and Muslims had ceased when, in 1683, the advance of the Ottoman Turks was halted at the gates of Vienna. I found it incredible, as the twenty-first century approached, that Catholics and Protestants were still quarreling in Northern Ireland and that Hindus and Muslims were still squaring off against each other in south Asia; surely, I thought, these rivalries were the echoes of earlier, less enlightened times, not a sign of battles still to come.