Religious beliefs have profound implications for policies such as Israel’s present policy of isolating Palestinians; and of America’s efforts to isolate Iran as punishment for its sins.
I’ll couch my observations in something that former president Richard Nixon told me and my colleagues in 1982 when, as White House Fellows, we met with him in a four-hour session of questions and answers. We asked him about his very controversial decision to open diplomatic relations with communist China in 1972. I recorded his response in my journal.
From my study of the history of America’s foreign relations, I had concluded that whenever America’s posture towards a totalitarian nation had been to isolate it, the effect of that policy was to strengthen the very country we were trying to weaken. Isolation gave the totalitarian government the privilege of controlling what their people could know, and of blaming America for all the problems that their mis-management of their economy had caused.
Conversely, whenever America’s posture has been to open up relations with a totalitarian government – first to diplomatic relations, and then to educational and economic interaction, that openness always had weakened the totalitarian government. I just looked at the effect that our policy of isolating China from 1949 to 1972 had had – year after year it had strengthened Mao’s government. I just decided that we needed to stop going down that track, and we needed to weaken communism in China.
The result has been astounding – as President Nixon predicted. We destroyed China as an enemy without shooting a bullet or losing a life. And the nations where totalitarian communism persists – Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar – are those where our policy continues to be isolation. Did isolation bring Saddam Hussein to his knees in contrition for his sins? He thrived under it and turned it to his every advantage. And yet we continue to believe that isolating Iran or Gaza will somehow rid their governments of their rogue tendencies and inspire them to accept our will. History’s voice is muffled but very clear: Isolation might prevent short-term bloodshed. But it will strengthen their hatred of us and their resolve to avenge.
Jesus Christ taught, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (New Testament | Matthew 5:44) Believing Christians accept this counsel as pertaining to their interpersonal relationships. I believe, however, that in this statement Christ articulated a principle of promise with over-arching insight into the cause of and cure for adversarial relationships of all sorts – including those amongst nations.
As the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith counseled, sometimes we must punish even those that we love, “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 121:43). But over the long term if Israel’s posture to Gaza and America’s posture to Cuba, North Korea and Iran were as counter-intuitively Christian as was Nixon’s initiative to China, we would transform these seemingly intransigent enemies into friends as well.
Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The views expressed here are his own, and are not necessarily those of his employer or his church.