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Faith-Based Diplomacy

Sadly, the situation is likely to grow worse before it gets better as economic globalization continues to threaten traditional values, as the economic gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” continues to widen, and as secular governments in hard-pressed areas fail to meet the legitimate expectations of their constituents.  With people increasingly turning to religion in such situations, the West is ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.  Until very recently, U. S. diplomacy has placed religion outside its bounds of critical analysis, leaving most foreign policy practitioners incapable of dealing with religious differences or with demagogues who manipulate religion to their own purposes (as Slobodan Milosevic did in his ascendancy to power).

For more than two hundred years, Enlightenment prejudice effectively purged religion from the policymaker’s calculus, consistent with the assumption that religion was to have a declining influence in the affairs of state.  Indeed, Morganthau’s nation-state model, which has served as the paradigm for international relations for the last half century, makes only passing reference to religion.  Nowhere is credence given to the passions that religion arouses or the actions that flow from those passions.

In important respects, then, the neglect of religion in international politics stems from the vigorous separation of church and state that prevails in the West.  Indeed, most Westerners feel awkward, if not totally embarrassed, to speak about their personal spiritual convictions in any sort of professional context.  This discomfort has arguably led to an insensitivity among policymakers and citizens alike to the deep degree that religion influences politics in other parts of the world.  This, in turn, has led to a number of uninformed policy choices.  Iran and Lebanon are certainly two cases in point; but even in Vietnam, a failure to understand the religious dynamics at play in the South led to some rather unfortunate choices early in the game.

A more recent example of Western indifference to religious imperatives was the NATO decision to bomb Serbia on Orthodox Easter.  Although the issue was intensely debated at the time, the choice to bomb was apparently taken out of a concern that if the bombing were to stop even for a day, it might prove impossible to get the Allies to reengage the following day.  Whatever the rationale, it is a decision the Serbs will never forget.  As they were quick to point out, the only others to have bombed them on their holy day were the Germans in World War II.



To be sure, there are constitutional limits on how much the U. S. government can involve itself in religious affairs.  As a practical matter, though, if the United States is to develop a more effective preventive capability, it will require a much deeper understanding of how religion both contributes to and abates conflict.  For far too long, the United States has focused the bulk of its energy and resources on reacting to events, usually in the form of picking up the pieces following the outbreak of hostilities in some near or distant part of the globe.  That may be expected in a democracy where a crisis is often required to achieve the necessary political consensus for taking action.  In the world ahead, this sequencing will no longer suffice.  Other considerations aside, the potential marriage of religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction demands a proactive approach that gives overriding priority to the task of conflict prevention.  Achieving the latter will not be without its challenges.  In addition to overcoming the burden of a reactive mindset, there is also the problem of thinking beyond the crisis of the immediate – never easy under any circumstances –  and the difficulty of proving one’s effectiveness.  How do you prove conclusively that something didn’t happen because of something that you did?  

When Admiral William Owens was Commander of the U. S. Sixth Fleet a decade or so ago, he received a message from the then-President of the former Yugoslavia requesting more port visits by U.S. ships (to help keep the lid on as things were beginning to heat up).  The request was effectively vetoed by the State Department on the grounds that Yugoslavia was a European problem and ought not to involve the United States.  While it appears doubtful that the requested ship visits could have made a significant difference in view of the deeper issues at play, it nevertheless causes one to wonder what might have been, especially when one contrasts the minimal cost of doing what was requested with the $53 billion we have now spent in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Establishing a preventive mindset will not come easily. 


The divisive influence of religion has long been recognized; its more helpful aspects have not – a function of the Enlightenment prejudice mentioned earlier.  The utility of religion in peacemaking was first pioneered in a ground-breaking book published in 1994 entitled Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft.  Currently in its eleventh printing, this book illustrates through a series of case studies the positive role that religious or spiritual factors can play in preventing or resolving conflict while advancing social change based on justice and reconciliation.  

The book was written with two principal targets in mind:  the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, where it is now required reading, and colleges, universities, and seminaries, many of which have incorporated it into their curriculums.  It is currently going into its third foreign language translation and was cited in 1999 by Sapio (Japan’s equivalent of Time magazine) as one of the eight most important books to read in preparing for the 21st century.  More recently, the U.S. Navy has purchased a copy of the book for all Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard chaplains as part of an effort to develop a more effective preventive capability for the sea service commands.  

Why all the interest? In a turbulent world replete with wars of communal identity – as manifested in ethnic conflict, tribal warfare, and religious hostilities – people are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of traditional diplomacy in dealing with such challenges. They are beginning to see greater potential in a form of engagement that marries diplomacy with religious reconciliation in what might be termed “faith-based diplomacy”.


Traditional diplomacy normally involves relationships between sovereign states and their duly appointed representatives.  Faith-based diplomacy, on the other hand, seeks to integrate the dynamics of religious faith with the conduct of international statecraft.  The faith-based intermediary is one whose actions are informed by five characteristics.  First, there is a conscious dependency on spiritual principles and resources in the conduct of peacemaking.  This is perhaps the most significant way in which faith-based diplomacy departs from the rational actor model of decision-making.  The faith-based practitioner calls into play a range of spiritual tools that are unavailable to his secular counterpart: prayer, fasting, forgiveness, repentance, and a wealth of helpful and often inspiring references from sacred scriptures.  This is in contrast to intermediaries who embrace a religious faith, but for whom it plays no meaningful role in their practice of statecraft.  

Several years ago, a series of spiritual conversations about reconciliation and forgiveness with a group of Armenian political leaders who were attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. led them to sit down with a group of Turkish political leaders to begin an informal and, yet, painful process of bridgebuilding.  More recently, the Washington-based International Center for Religion & Diplomacy organized a meeting of Muslim and Christian religious leaders in Khartoum to address the religious aspects of the conflict in Sudan.  In a sense, it was a form of faith-based mediation.  Each day of the four-day meeting began with prayer as well as readings and meditations from the Bible and the Quran.  The facilitating team included three members who attended for the sole purpose of praying throughout for the success of the deliberations.  These activities served to inspire a breakthrough in communications between the Muslim and Christian communities.  As a result, seventeen consensus recommendations emerged that will increase inter-religious cooperation in the areas of human rights (including religious freedom), education, employment, and humanitarian assistance. 

The second characteristic of the faith-based practitioner is that he or she operates with a certain spiritual authority.  Every intermediary faces the issue of legitimacy. In other words, why should the parties to a conflict give an erstwhile mediator the time of day?  Why should they allow him or her to play a role in resolution of the conflict?  For faith-based intermediaries, legitimacy is derived in one of two ways:  either through one’s ties to a credible religious institution or through the trust evoked by one’s own spiritual charisma.  The intervention of Pope John Paul II in the 1978 confrontation between Chile and Argentina over their mutual claims to the Beagle Islands was an application of institutional authority in which the temporal power of the church was invoked to prevent these two Catholic countries from going to war.  On the other hand, the role played by Cardinal Jaime Sin in securing a peaceful transfer of power in the Philippines from the Marcos to the Aquino regime in 1986 was an illustration of charismatic authority.

The third quality is a pluralistic heart.  An intermediary with a pluralistic heart is one who is firmly rooted in his own religious tradition, but who understands and respects the essence of other traditions.  It is not in his heart to dominate or diminish other traditions, but rather to build bridges of friendship and understanding.  At the same time, he can provide a spirited apologetic on the integrity of his own tradition, should that prove necessary.  

An intermediary with a pluralistic heart does not seek common ground by reducing faith to its lowest common denominator, but by appealing to those from different traditions on the basis of the peacemaking warrants to be found in their respective theologies.  Hence, the Hindu peacemaker would need to engage a Muslim combatant on the basis of the Hindu’s understanding of the Abrahamic tradition.  Similarly, a Muslim intermediary dealing with Christians needs to understand and show respect for the Christian belief that Jesus was the Son of God; despite his own disbelief.  By the same token, faith-based intermediaries can lose their credibility if they fail to appreciate the profound and irreconcilable differences between religious traditions.  The intermediary who adopts an approach that all religious traditions are fundamentally the same will make mistakes and risk offending the adherents of other faiths.

The fourth characteristic is a transcendent approach to conflict resolution.  This, once again, is where religious faith introduces a logic that is absent in secular diplomacy.  Faith-based intermediaries may be well-trained in the disciplines of conflict analysis, negotiation, mediation, and diplomatic communications, but they recognize perhaps more fully than their secular counterparts that there are limits to human understanding.  Accordingly, they look to their sacred texts to inform them not only about human nature and behavior but about the spiritual dimensions of the human heart and how they can be tapped where all else fails.  This same sensitivity also enables them to discern the religious subtext underlying many identity-based conflicts, something frequently missed by secular-minded policymakers and diplomats.  For example, the unfamiliarity of secular western policymakers with the theological concept of God’s sovereignty has at times led to policy proposals or actions that are inherently offensive to Muslims.

The final quality of faith-based intermediaries is their ability to persevere against overwhelming odds.  Their motivation to be reconcilers and peacemakers stems from a deep sense of religious calling.  Christian peacemakers, for example, take seriously Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Muslim peacemakers are reminded in the Holy Quran that the heart or essence of the Abrahamic tradition is not jihad or holy war, but peace, social justice and reconciliation.  Because the faith-based peacemaker’s perseverance is divinely inspired, it tends to be more lasting in nature than that of those who pursue peace strictly as a vocation.  It is this same inspiration that has led these religious intermediaries to put their lives on the line in such places as Nicaragua, Mozambique, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Kashmir.


Faith-based diplomacy is more about reconciliation than it is conflict resolution.  The peace that it pursues is not the mere absence of conflict, but rather a restoration of healthy and respectful relationships between the parties.  While faith-based intermediaries believe that diplomacy and the international system should be morally grounded, they also see a need for pragmatic idealism in their pursuit of reconciliation. The reconciliation that they seek encompasses a range of considerations.  First, the pluralistic nature of God’s creation in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and culture pushes them to seek unity in diversity.  Second, they seek the inclusion of all people in a society, including an embrace of one’s enemies.  Third, they are committed to the peaceful resolution of conflict between individuals and groups.  Fourth, they consider forgiveness to be a prerequisite for restoring healthy relationships.  Finally, they see social justice as the appropriate basis for a right ordering of relationships and structures in a society.  

Just as there are five dimensions to the reconciliation that the faith-based diplomat seeks, so are there five modes of intervention that he or she pursues.  First, there is the imparting of a new vision in which the diplomat encourages the parties to embrace a new reality and a new relationship with one another.  Each of the major world religions contains a set of moral principles to govern human relationships.  Sometimes an appeal to those principles which are held in common can create a transcendent dynamic for overcoming the secular obstacles and moving toward reconciliation.  Professor Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School speculates that one reason Jesus’ words touched Mahatma Gandhi so deeply may be that they evoked associations with his very Hindu conviction that even the bitterest enemies can be reconciled if they can be led to see the situation differently.1

Reconciliation itself can constitute a key element in the moral vision of a particular community or nation-state, quite apart from whether or not it is embroiled in conflict.  In deeply divided societies emerging from violent conflict, it is particularly important that the concept of reconciliation become firmly anchored and constitute a permanent center of gravity on all sides. Without a fresh moral vision, the past remains unhealed and can cause even greater harm in the future.  Imparting such a vision becomes particularly important when intervening with heads of state or leaders of ethnic communities, since a key aspect of leadership is the articulation of vision.  A good illustration of this approach is the initiative taken by the Moral Rearmament Movement in bringing French and German leaders together following World War II in order to reconcile their differences on a personal level.  This process effectively prepared the way for the later establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community.

A second mode of intervention is building bridges, a task that involves the development of tangible and intangible connections among diverse groups so that they can live together in peace and seek a common good for the entire community.  Bridgebuilding assumes a pluralistic vision for a community and provides the framework for forging unity out of diversity.  When bringing people together in this manner, faith-based intermediaries look to spiritual principles and traditions as a basis for establishing common ground between people.  The Quakers are among the best at building such bridges.

A third mode of intervention is healing conflict, usually through mediation.  Here the goals are threefold:  to bring an end to the hostilities, to resolve the issues underlying the conflict, and to restore the relationships.  People of faith place as much, if not more, value on relationships as they do on negotiating a successful settlement.  Through spiritual conversations with the parties to a conflict, a faith-based intermediary can penetrate the heart and uncover the deeper interests, values, and fears that can form the basis for a lasting settlement of the conflict.  The Mennonite role and that of the Moravian Church in securing peace between the Sandinista regime and the East Coast Indians of Nicaragua in 1988 is a good example of this kind of intervention. 

Yet another mode of intervention focuses on healing the wounds of history.  These are normally the result of events in the collective institutional memory of an identity-based community, the recollection of which brings a sense of pain and suffering and inhibits the healthy development of that community.  Until these wounds are effectively addressed, they inevitably give rise to stereotyping and the demonization of those who caused the wounds.

This, in turn, can adversely affect relationships into future generations.  So long as one or both parties remain captive to a wounded history, they will be unable to reach beyond their bitterness and sense of injustice.  Faith-based intermediaries are among the best equipped to deal with such situations.  There are resources within religious traditions that can enable adherents to (1) reflect on their history in a redemptive manner, (2) to bring meaning and dignity to the suffering , and (3) hold out the promise of genuine healing.

The fifth mode of intervention is advocacy for social justice.  Faith-based social justice relates to the fact that religious values provide a moral framework upon which human relationships and structures can be based.  These are embodied in such concepts as human rights, religious freedom, and other forms of democratic expression.  Social justice, in turn, is a prerequisite to reconciliation.  To a large extent, this is the kind of justice that has been taking root in South Africa in the wake of apartheid.


In which specific situations is faith-based diplomacy appropriate?  Whether or not one agrees with Huntington’s thesis that future conflict will take place at the fault lines between cultures and civilizations, there are any number of scenarios in which faith-based intervention could work in the opposite direction. 

The first such possibility is a conflict in which religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or both communities.  The long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is representative.  The tensions in Kashmir have stubbornly endured half a century and three major wars.  Of even a greater concern, the situation is seen by most geopolitical strategists as the most likely flash point for the world’s first nuclear exchange.  To what extent does religion play a role in this conflict?  For openers, religious persuasion is a key ingredient in the nationalist identities of the Kashmiri Muslims, the Hindu Dogras of Jammu, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Buddhists of Ladakh, and the Sikhs.  In general, Kashmiri Muslims envision an independent Kashmir or accession by Pakistan; whereas Dogras, Sikhs, and Buddhists insist on remaining with India.  To what extent can religion play a role in the resolution of this conflict?  Because faith and politics are inseparable in Islam, a secular approach to peacemaking, which might work for the Indian Hindus, is all but inconceivable to a practicing Muslim. Hence, intermediaries who operate within a religious framework or who can integrate political and theological concepts may be the best equipped to develop creative options for a settlement.

The second possibility is a conflict situation in which religious leaders can be mobilized to facilitate peace.  One such conflict is Sudan’s bitter civil war, which while multidimensional in nature, includes religion as a major factor in the dispute.  While the Sudanese constitution speaks of being a “nation under God” and avoids any reference to being an Islamic state, the practice on the ground is quite different.  Christians experience distinct discrimination in the sharing of power and distribution of resources.  Further, they are made to feel like second class citizens under shari’a (Islamic law).  As mentioned earlier, a meeting of religious leaders and scholars was convened last November to address the religious aspects of the conflict.  The meeting was devoted to building relationships, establishing common ground, discussing perceptions of the conflict, and developing creative options for consideration by the government and appropriate opposition groups.  Of the seventeen recommendations that emerged, three of the more far-reaching are currently being implemented:  (1) joint reconciliation training for Christian and Muslim leaders, (2) formation of an independent inter-religious council to help resolve differences between the two communities and to facilitate inter-religious cooperation in the cause of peace, and (3) establishment of an independent human rights center to monitor and promote human rights throughout Sudan.  All of this has taken place at a time when the traditional diplomatic relations between Sudan and the United States have for all intents and purposes been nonexistent.  

A third possibility involves a protracted estrangement between two major religious traditions that transcends national borders.  The concept of a “civilizational dialogue” was first suggested by President Khatami of Iran in 1997 and has since gained some currency in the minds of many international relations scholars and practitioners.  President Khatami appeared to be thinking particularly about establishing such a dialogue between the Islamic world and the Christian west.  Most of today’s conflicts that include a religious dimension involve a confrontation between these two missionary faiths.  Indeed, there are innumerable historical and contemporary examples of hostility, misunderstanding, and disrespect between these traditions.  At the beginning of the last millennium, Christianity and Islam were locked in combat over their mutual claims to the Holy lands.  A thousand years later, one has the uneasy feeling that little has changed.  Why is it that these two religions which share more in common with one another than any other two, either talk past one another at best or, alternatively, resort to conflict to settle their differences?  The spiritual core of both traditions, if called into account, would definitely support strong inter-religious cooperation.  Faith-based intermediaries will provide a valuable contribution to international peace and conflict prevention if they can find a way to capitalize on this spirit as a way of building bridges between practicing Muslims and Christians. 

Finally, religious peacemakers can become involved as third party mediators in conflicts where there is no particular religious dimension present.  The role played by the lay Catholic community of St. Egidio in settling the long-running civil war in Mozambique is an excellent example of this kind of involvement.  The Quakers and Mennonites often get called upon to play this kind of role as well because of their respective track records as peacemakers and the trust which that conveys.  They bring with them no political agenda; only their concern for the human suffering involved.


In today’s world of ethnic strife and high-technology weaponry, old concepts of security based on a competition of armaments will no longer suffice.  Increasingly, security will be a function of the strength and durability of national, super-national, and most particularly sub-national relationships.  This suggests a need to move toward new mechanisms for international relations that reach beyond the normal methods and channels of diplomacy to uncover and deal with the deeper sources of conflict, to rebuild relationships, and to make the necessary concessionary adjustments wherever possible.  With wisdom and discernment, the reconciling potential of religious faith could prove to be one of the more effective mechanisms for dealing with the challenges of a highly turbulent and interdependent world. 


Douglas Johnston is President and Brian Cox is Vice President for Dispute Resolution Training of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, D. C. 

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