Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik*

* Presentation to the Norwegian Chaplains Corps 50th Anniversary Conference on Conflict and Peace – Religion, the Missing Link?, Oslo Oct. 25, 2003.

Good morning. It is a particular pleasure for me to be with you on this, your 50th anniversary celebration, in this wonderful setting. More to the point, I feel privileged to be speaking in Norway, a country held in high regard by the entire world because of its active role in peacemaking around the globe.

I have been asked to speak to you this evening about a new concept called “faith-based diplomacy”, which, simply put, involves the incorporation of religious concerns into the practice of international politics. Operationally, it means making religion part of the solution to some of the intractable, identity-based conflicts that currently plague the geopolitical landscape.

Why is the important? Just about anywhere you turn these days, one finds a religious dimension to the conflict: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, the Sudan, Indonesia, Chechnya, Kosovo – the list goes on. Whether religion is a root cause of the conflict as it appears to be in the Middle East, where there are competing religious claims for the same piece of territory, or is merely a mobilizing vehicle for national or ethnic passions, as has typically been the case in the Balkans, it is nevertheless central to much of the strife that is taking place in the world today.

It is also the case that most of these conflicts have an Islamic interface. This should come as no surprise as the forces of globalization collide with traditional values, often embedded in religion. But there is another dynamic at play as well. If you think back to the beginning of the last millennium when Christianity and Islam were locked in mortal combat over their mutual claims to the Holy Lands and then fast-forward your thinking to the present, you get the uneasy feeling that not a whole lot has changed. One wonders why it is that these two world religions, which share so much in common theologically – and they do – either talk past one another at best, or, alternatively, resort to conflict to settle their differences. I submit that at least part of the reason has to do with the fact that they speak different languages. Muslims speak the language of integration, of religion and politics, as they seek to form a community on earth pleasing to Allah; while we in the West speak the language of separation – of church and state. Even the same words assume different meanings. We say “secular”; they hear “Godless”, when what was intended was “freedom to worship as you please”. They hear “Godless” in large part because of the cultural image that we project. Even in some of the more remote parts of the world, when I turn on the television set, more often than not, I will get the Jerry Springer show. Sadly, that is America to many who watch such programs – programs that are every bit as offensive to us as they are to them. Yet, we seem powerless to do anything about it. (Perhaps it is time for an amendment to the First Amendment?) In some respects, the events of September 11th are a recent manifestation of where all this can lead.

In the wake of those tragic attacks, the United States has been pursuing a dual-track strategy – a track of justice and retribution in Afghanistan and a track of pre-emption in Iraq. This response is understandable when one considers the fact that the leading vital interest of every nation-state is protecting the security of its citizens. However, unless we complement that response with an effective strategy of cultural engagement, all we will do in the final analysis is expand the pool of future terrorists and drive ourselves toward a police state, as we seek greater security in an increasingly insecure world.

Samuel Huntington has noted in his Clash of Civilizations that religion is the defining element of culture; and that is not good news for the West, which has neither the capability to deal with religious differences or to interact effectively with demagogues who manipulate religion for their own purposes. This is largely due to the fact the religion has long been absent from the Western policymaker’s calculus as a result of enlightenment prejudice and our subsequent commitment to the nation-state model as our paradigm for international relations (in which religion is all but totally neglected). In other words, we have let our rigorous separation of church and state become a crutch for not taking the time to understand how religious factors shape the perceptions and political aspirations of others who do not similarly separate the two.

The divisive influence of religion has long been recognized, but its helpful potential in resolving conflicts was not fully acknowledged until the publication in 1994 of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press)This book illustrates through a series of case studies how religious or spiritual factors can be helpful in preventing or resolving conflict, while at the same time advancing social change based on justice and reconciliation. Now in its 13th printing and second foreign language translation, it is required reading at the US Foreign Service Institute and in numerous college, university, and seminary curriculums. In addition, it was selected in 1999 by Sapio (Japan’s equivalent of Time Magazine) as one of the ten most important books to read in preparing for the 21st Century. In short, it struck a responsive chord around the world, largely because of the timing of its publication. Over the course of the seven years in which it was produced, the Berlin Wall came down and historic antagonisms previously suppressed by the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War reemerged as ethnic conflict and other forms of inter-communal hostilities. In this context, religious reconciliation juxtaposed with official or unofficial diplomacy seemed to offer greater potential than did traditional diplomacy by itself.

Because of the enthusiastic reception which the book received, some of us who were involved in its development felt inspired to walk the talk. It was out of this impulse that the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy was born in April 1999 to practice the faith-based diplomacy mentioned earlier. It does so by:

  • Serving as a bridge between the political and religious communities in support of peacemaking,
  • Deploying inter-religious action teams to trouble spots where conflict threatens or has already broken out,
  • Training religious clergy and laity in the tasks of peacemaking, and
  • Providing feedback to theologians and clergy on interpretations of their teachings that are contributing to strife and misunderstanding.

The approach taken is one that conveys respect for the role that religious faith plays in the lives of the protagonists. But respect in this context means more than mere tolerance. Tolerance is all too often little more than a thin veneer of accommodation to cover over that which divides. In contrast, respect speaks to our common humanity and celebration of the fact that each of us is imbued with a spark of the Creator. Where Muslims are concerned, for example, this means appreciating the fact that Islam is the glue that binds their societies spiritually, morally, politically, and economically.

How this form of diplomacy translates in reality varies from one dispute to the next, since every conflict is unique, driven as much by personalities as by circumstances. Thus, the Center’s practice of faith-based diplomacy in the Sudan has meant one thing, while in Kashmir quite another. In the Sudan, it has involved developing relationships of trust with the Islamic political and religious leadership in the North and inspiring them to take steps toward peace that they wouldn’t otherwise take. Among other gains, this approach has led to the recent establishment of an Inter-religious Council which, for the first time in that country’s history, provides a forum where key Muslim and Christian religious leaders can come together on a monthly basis to work out problems of concern to their respective communities and to harness inter-religious cooperation in securing a lasting peace. It also constitutes an important mechanism for protecting religious freedom. Already in the first two months of its existence, the Council has facilitated more equitable treatment for non-Muslims than the churches have been able to achieve in the last ten years.

In Kashmir, on the other hand, our practice of faith-based diplomacy has involved working with next-generation leaders across religious boundaries in order to transform the spiritual, social, and political dynamics of the region. A key ingredient here has been the development of faith-based reconciliation as an alternative paradigm to that of militant Islam or militant Hinduism. This paradigm, which is based on the reconciling principles of Jesus, is already breaking down deep-seated animosities between the Muslims and Hindus.

Suffice it to say, the Sudan and Kashmir initiatives represent only two forms of faith-based diplomacy. Another might involve a more effective use of our military chaplains. In Iraq and elsewhere, American and coalition military personnel are encountering religious environments with which they have little or no prior experience. In such situations, military chaplains are uniquely positioned to play an important role. With proper training and expanded rules of engagement, chaplains could actively enhance their commands’ ability to prevent or resolve conflict having religious content. In Algeria’s war of independence, for example, whenever French troops found themselves in difficult predicaments, they sent their chaplains out to negotiate with the Muslim rebels. As we are all aware, it was the French who brought us the Enlightenment, which in turn provided the impetus for secularism in the West. Yet, even they understand the need to deal with religious imperatives.

More specifically, chaplains can serve an invaluable early-warning function for their commands based on personal interactions with local (overseas) religious communities and with religious-based, non-governmental organizations. Not only are they able to develop a grassroots understanding of the religious and cultural nuances at play, they can also pass on the concerns of indigenous leaders about incipient threats to stability posed by ethnoreligious demagogues. At times, they may also be in positions where they can provide a reconciling influence in addressing misunderstandings or differences with these communities. Finally, they can advise their commanders on the cultural aspects of decisions that are being taken (or that should be taken). In other words, in addition to their normal function of addressing the human casualties after conflict has erupted, military chaplains can become an important tool in preventing its eruption in the first instance.

We have touched only briefly on the concept of faith-based diplomacy. It is examined at greater length in a recent book entitled Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, published a few months ago by Oxford University Press. Among other things, this sequel to the earlier book I mentioned examines how the peacemaking tenets of key world religions can effectively be brought to bear in addressing identity-based conflicts in which those religions are currently engaged. It also challenges the policymaking community to expand its definition of “realpolitik”.

Realpolitik, as commonly understood and referred to by most foreign policy experts, has been the term of art describing the practice of power politics based on a tough-minded, realistic view of the political, economic, and security factors that dominate any given situation. Typically, this concept has not included a sophisticated understanding of the larger religious and philosophic values that influence the actors, nor has it offered its disciples access to the kind of spiritual engagement that can sometimes be useful in the diplomatic search for solutions.

This purposeful exclusion of elements that clearly play a central role in some situations has left foreign policy practitioners with an inadequate frame of reference for dealing with problems of communal identity that manifest themselves in the form of ethnic conflict, tribal warfare, and religious hostilities. It is no small irony that this historical exclusion was never itself the product of rational analysis but rather a predictable outgrowth of dogmatic secularism. The question then becomes which of these two positions comes closest to the “real” meaning of realpolitik: dogmatic self-limitation or a rational willingness to see the world complete and whole?

In closing, I would note that the challenge of harnessing religion’s transcendent qualities in the cause of peace is formidable and not for the faint of heart. Not only is this work of faith-based diplomacy intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally draining, but it involves significant risks as well. Vested interests develop around every conflict that want to see that conflict continue, and a number of spiritually inspired peacemakers have paid the ultimate price for their efforts: Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, and Martin Luther King, Jr, to mention a few of the better known. Despite the risks, however, and as September 11, 2001 so powerfully illustrates, spiritual engagement is a challenge we ignore at our peril.

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