In conversation: Soft power, geopolitics and religion 

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Today, the International Studies Association hosted another event in their IR Book Talk Series, which sees scholars and experts from various universities and backgrounds discuss both their work and the broader field of international relations. 

The event focused specifically on the subjects of geopolitics, religion and soft power within the context of recent historical events. In essence, the scholars sought to highlight the importance and validity of religion in modern relations across the globe. 

Speakers came prepared with presentations or statements on studies, papers and research they had conducted on various topics related to the subject.  

Jeffrey Haynes, professor emeritus of politics at London Metropolitan University, was the first to present. With over 40 published books and many years of experience in the field, Haynes focused primarily on Turkey-Ghana relations. 

Haynes began by discussing the construction of the National Mosque of Ghana — a momentous effort funded by the Turkish government — in addition to the subtleties of religious influence upon education and government cooperation. Expressing that soft power – the non-coercive, non-militaristic cooperation of nations – was particularly fueled by religion in the relations between Turkey and Ghana. Haynes defined Turkey’s actions as a blend of both soft and hard power, defined as “smart power.” The next presenter was associate professor Peter Henne from the University of Vermont, whose contributions to the discussion centered around the difficulties present in researching and measuring the effects of soft power, along with its use.  

Unlike a concrete and countable action such as a treaty or diplomatic move, soft power and religious influence are hard to scale as they are often ever-changing and usually out of the public eye. This topic was later revisited by other speakers, who added the notion that perhaps soft power was on a spectrum, not necessarily easily measurable, but at least definable. 

Henne also used historical context to discuss the controversies and downsides of soft power backed by religion. Highlighting both Barack Obama’s response to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 to attempt to rally pro-Ukranian sentiment, as well as Vladimir Putin’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church, Henne sought to uncover the presence of soft power in the modern world stage. In both instances, non-violent, subtle pressure was in play, swaying the decisions of nations and the minds of civilians.  

Next, speaker Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, professor of international relations and politics at London Metropolitan University, had a unique viewpoint on Turkey’s use of soft power in particular.  

Due to its influence in countries such as the aforementioned connection with Ghana, Turkey has a form of religious soft power it employs on surrounding nations. In addition, the Turkish government under President Erdogan uses soft power derived from religious values in order to better manage the country’s development and political scene. Thus, due to this internal and external use of soft power, Öztürk argued that Turkey follows an ambiguous path — one that is achieved through the use of religious soft power. 

Lastly, speaker Peter Mandaville, a former official, academic and now leader of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power Project at the Berkeley Center, championed an approach to soft power which emphasized its use and recent discovery in reshaping the modern understanding of international relations and religious boundaries.  

Later discussing the role of Buddhism in China in order to appeal to traditional values, as well as the connection between Christians and Muslims across the world due to their power in influencing a nation’s actions, Mandaville articulated that the field of international relations has many components which all “cross-fertilize” into the modern era of political interactions. To conclude, Mandaville referenced a University of Georgetown article which discussed the topic of Buddhist soft power in China in more detail. 

With thanks to all speakers: Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Mandaville, Peter Henne, Ahmet Öztürk and Jocelyne Cesari, the International Studies Association plans to have another Book Talk event in February focusing around Sikh nationalism and other topics. 

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