July 10, 2017

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination (LISD) at Princeton University convened the 10th annual colloquium for the Program on Religion, Diplomacy and International Relations (PORDIR) in Prague, Czech Republic, on June 8-10, 2017. This year’s program theme was “Religion and Empire.” Univerzita Karlova, the oldest extant Central European university, founded in 1348, hosted the meeting attended by PORDIR fellows, Princeton University resident scholars, and LISD associates. LISD Founding Director, Dr. Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, chaired the event. Key themes that captured participants’ interest, prompted by the student fellows’ written work, included (1) the force individual leaders and their unique visions play in shaping domestic and foreign policy, in historical and contemporary contexts; (2) the intertwining of ethnic and religious identity and its impact on conflict and transitional justice situations; (3) the role of distributable or performed art in shaping and/or justifying self-determination campaigns; and (4) the relationship between humor and diplomacy.

Student fellow Maya Aronoff’s paper comparing and contrasting the foreign policy activities of U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, both born again Christians, opened the discussion. Her work raised questions about the role of individual leaders in world politics that echoed throughout the colloquium talks. Several of the student papers—including Hammad Aslam’s paper on Theodor Herzl’s diplomatic ventures to create a Jewish State prior to 1948, and Jonathan Liebman’s work on religiously couched authoritarian legitimation in post-Communist Hungary and Russia—grappled with the conundrum of how an individual leader’s vision and ideology affect the fate of a nation. Colloquium participants debated whether or not a nation’s leader can single-handedly shape domestic and foreign policy, or if popular conceptions of so-called “great man statesmanship” are an outdated framework for analyzing both history and contemporary events.

Both days of discussion were also marked by a recurring dialogue on the intertwining of religious and ethnic identity in various geopolitical spheres, stretching from the Balkans to the Middle East, Africa, and China. Stefan Kondic’s work on Orthodoxy in Serbia pre- and post-Communism elicited a deliberation among members addressing whether scholars can convincingly distinguish ethnicity from religion in identity formation, and whether such distinctions would be useful. Kondic argued that his experience and research on this question in the Serbian context indicates that nominal religious identification is deeply intertwined with ethnic identity and a recent history of ethnic and political conflict in the region. The impact this dual religious-ethnic identification has on transitional justice in the Serbian sphere is still palpable, posited Kondic, and should not be overlooked. The entanglement of ethnic and religious identities, however, and its implications for politics, extends beyond the Balkan case. Miriam Friedman’s paper outlining the need for a more inclusive concept of “Israeliness” in Israel also emphasized the challenge of distinguishing ethnic from religious identity, particularly when a state’s constitution and legal framework are intertwined with a specific religion. Amma Prempeh discussed “primordial identity” in the African context, contending that the increased recognition of group and tribal affiliations, as well as structure preceding the restructuring impact of imperialism, would facilitate a greater understanding of transnational actors on the continent.

A discussion of the intersection between art and self-determination, and social behavior with diplomacy, also captured the attention of colloquium participants. A paper by Annabel Barry tracing the formative role of poetry in shaping the Irish Easter Revolution noted how art—particularly in distributable or performed mediums—can shape a movement for self-determination. Her paper focused both on a critical analysis of the poetic devices used to craft a notion of Irish identity preceding British colonization in early twentieth-century Irish poetry, and the impact of the Easter Revolution as establishing an image of the Irish self-determination campaign relevant to this day. One commentator extrapolated from the Irish case to theorize that art can aestheticize and thereby perhaps aid in the ethical justification of the violence sometimes utilized by self-determination movements. Danspeckgruber also noted that the impact of art on self-determination efforts may be enhanced in a modern world connected via the Internet and mobile devices. Samizdat, a Russian word referencing illegal political resistance material distributed covertly during the Iron Curtain period, has for example an infinitely large circulation potential in cyberspace. Images of political resistance—from art to informational pamphlets—are no longer simply handed out; they can go viral online within minutes.

Claire Ashmead’s paper on humor in relation to the sacred carried the discussion from art to social behavior, inspiring the group to investigate what constructive role humor can play in human relations. While Ashmead’s paper particularly examined the relationship between humor and the sacred—asking whether the two are compatible—group discourse turned to the benefits and drawbacks of humor in diplomacy. One participant noted that humor likely plays different roles in diplomatic affairs depending on cultural context. She emphasized that in her experience humor does not play a role in Middle Eastern diplomatic negotiations.

In closing the conference, Danspeckgruber noted that each theme that permeated the conference dialogue has been affected by the technological revolution. The creation of cyberspace has altered communication fundamentally. Whether we speak of humor, identity formation across borders, viral videos, or the linking of world leaders, technology plays a significant role in structuring human interaction in the personal and political realm. Accordingly, the PORDIR theme for 2018 will be Religion and the Cyber Realm.