With Friends Like These: Does American Soft Power Advance International Religious Freedom?

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The International Religious Freedom Act, passed by Congress in 1998, set international religious freedom promotion (IRF) as a core objective of American foreign policy. Although formally empowering the president to enact punitive sanctions in instances of extreme religious repression, IRF is primarily a soft power instrument, with the expressed intent to persuade rather than coerce states into greater respect for religious freedom. Nearly a quarter century since its enactment, however, religious discrimination has markedly increased worldwide. This paper therefore seeks to quantitatively evaluate the extent to which American soft power, measured via levels of popular approval for the United States in countries surveyed by various polling agencies from 2002 to 2014, has correlated with shifts in governmental religious discrimination (GRD) since 1998. We find that not only do higher levels of approval of the United States correlate with greater increases in GRD, but this effect is particularly robust in more democratic states, in which American soft power should presumably have a greater influence. These findings should be deeply troubling for IRF advocates, empirically validating prevalent concerns regarding the efficacy, priority, and viability of IRF as a foreign policy instrument.

Original languageEnglish
Article number502
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022

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  • governmental religious discrimination
  • international religious freedom
  • soft power


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