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Diplomacy and Religion

Summary and Keywords

Religion has long been seen as an obstacle to diplomacy, especially in disputes and conflicts that seem to be related to or motivated by religion. The very nature of religion—its concerns for dogma, truth, and certainty— would seem to be contrary to the nature of successful diplomacy, with its emphasis on empathy, dialogue, understanding, negotiation, and compromise. However, religion and diplomacy have become more interrelated since the end of the twentieth century. Globalization and the changing nature of conflict have exposed the limits of conventional diplomacy in resolving these new conflicts in a global era, and this has opened up new opportunities for religious actors involved in diplomacy. A so-called “faith-based diplomacy” has emerged, which promotes dialogue within and between religious traditions. Particularly in the Islamic world, with a new generation of theologians and politicians, it is recognized that there is a key role for religious leaders and faith-based diplomacy in the Middle East. Faith-based diplomacy can be distinguished from the traditional models of peacemaking and conflict resolution by its holistic approach to the sociopolitical healing of a conflict that has taken place. In other words, the objective of faith-based diplomacy is not only conflict resolution but also the restoration of the political order that has suffered from war and injustice, and the reconciliation of individuals and social groups.

Keywords: religion, diplomacy, faith-based diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, conflict resolution


Until very recently the modern understanding of diplomacy as the practice of conducting the relations between states through their official representatives offered very little scope for religion. The main reason is the way the legacy of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a set of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War, and the Wars of Religion in Europe, shaped the practices of diplomacy and statecraft in early modern international society (more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Diplomacy” in the Compendium series).

The Peace of Westphalia was a victory of the national state over the Roman Catholic Church as a form of political authority. The settlement endorsed the state as a single locus of authority – the prince, and territorially based sovereign states as the polities that would form the basis of the new European society of states or international society. States became the main actors in international relations, and gained absolute sovereignty over their own territory (internal sovereignty), and the right to independence from outside control or interference (external sovereignty). Thus, the Holy See, the main religious actor for centuries in international relations, was no longer able to participate in diplomacy (Philpott 1999).

The Peace of Westphalia and the emerging Westphalian system replaced religion as a basis for foreign policy with “raison d’état,” i.e. a secular ethic and the calculation of the national interest, and so the transcendent was banished from politics (Windsor 1978). A corollary of this principle is that the Westphalian system established what is now called the non-intervention norm in international relations. The Protestant Reformation began in Germany. Princes, kings, nobles, the pope, and the emperor all tried to preserve and extend their faith with little respect for territorial limits, and an armed conflict spread throughout Europe as the Thirty Years War. It was thought at first that this chaotic and violent religious situation was resolved at the Peace of Augsburg (1555), where the principle cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the region, his the religion”) had established sovereignty in matters of faith. This settlement did not last, and the principle became a part of the settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).

After that time religion ceased to be a casus belli, i.e. a cause for war in Europe, until the religious and political struggles in Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. Religion caused only three wars in Europe in the period 1648–1713, immediately following Westphalia, all between Muslims and Europeans. Non-interference within the domain of another sovereign was now the norm: each prince would determine the religion practiced within his realm, and he would not take up arms to seek to change it in other states, although within states religious toleration – freedom of religion – was still a rare thing (Holsti 1991:46–59). This principle of mutual respect between sovereign princes in the sphere of religion was the starting point for further elaboration of the principle of non-intervention in international society.

Thus, these aspects of the Westphalian settlement established a new political theology of international relations. This doctrine prescribed what the role of religion and political authority should be in domestic and international politics, and this limited the role of religion in diplomacy for three hundred years (Philpott 2001).

Bringing Religion Back In

Religion and diplomacy have become more interrelated since the end of the twentieth century (Johnson and Sampson 1994; Thomas 2005; Albright 2006). Globalization and the changing nature of conflict have shown the limits of conventional diplomacy in resolving these new conflicts in a global era, and this has opened up new opportunities for religious actors involved in diplomacy. During the Cold War the superpowers suppressed many of the latent conflicts within their spheres of influence in developing countries, particularly in Central Europe and Central Asia (e.g. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Balkans), even though the Cold War intensified existing conflicts in Vietnam, the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, and Central America. Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War, new domestic sources of conflict are intersecting with globalization in ways that influence the conduct, motives, and goals of civil wars and internal wars, changing the way violence between individuals and ethnic or social groups is organized in a global era. Ethnicity and religion have intermixed with other class or regional factors to create identity conflicts within countries as well as between them (Kaldor 1999).

Globalization has changed diplomacy in ways that have opened up new opportunities for religious actors to become involved. The first way globalization has contributed to changes in diplomacy is related to the kinds of actors involved in diplomacy. We have seen that states since the origins of modern international society in the seventeenth century have had legitimate and authoritative control over war and violence in international relations. What is now called interstate or “track-one” diplomacy operated with an assumed hierarchy of power and violence in which states – really, the great powers – were the key to making war or peace, and they maintained the international order through the mechanisms of the balance of power – making alliances, demarcating spheres of influence, and holding multilateral conferences. It was also assumed that it was mainly military rather than other kinds of power, such as political, social, and cultural power, which determined war and peace, and so these other sources of power were subservient to military force in any conflict situation (Lederach 1997). However, the early English School also argued that as one of the “institutions” of international society, diplomacy when it is well executed is based to some extent on charity and sympathy toward others, and a humility about one’s own sense of righteousness regarding one’s foreign policy objectives (Schweizer and Sharp 2007).

Most conflicts today take place within states rather than between them – between ethnic, religious, or social groups or communities. States are only one of several types of actors, groups, or factions involved in conflicts. Thus, increasingly diplomacy is taking into account the changing actors – religious actors, and other actors in civil society – as well as the changing location of international conflict, linking domestic and international sources of conflict.

A second way globalization has contributed to changes in diplomacy relates to the nature and purpose of international conflict. Interstate or traditional diplomacy assumed that the purpose of armed conflict was to defend the national interest, and so diplomacy was about the dialogue, bargaining, and compromise associated with security and defending the tangible or objective national interests of the states that make up international society.

However, many conflicts today are identity conflicts, often driven by long-standing animosities rooted in a perceived threat to the identity and survival of the racial, ethnic, religious, or social group or community, or they are new animosities that have developed as a result of the way ethnic or religious differences have been exacerbated by globalization. Alongside the issues of civil society, democracy, and political representation are a host of interrelated issues, including the treatment of religious minorities; conflicting interpretations of religious freedom; force and nonviolence; religion, human rights, and the role of religion in public life; and the difficulties of coping with the aftermath of violence and conflict (Smock 2002).

The politics of identity is changing in our global era, creating new sources of international conflict. People are not, or are no longer, always tied to the citizenship of the state in which they reside, or their relationship to the state is in dispute. Identity is now perceived to be tied to regions, groups, or communities within states, or identity is seen as part of ethnic or religious diaspora communities, or larger transnational religious subcultures that globalization has facilitated (Goff and Dunn 2004).

The politics surrounding the umma, the transnational community of all Muslims, for example, is an increasingly important example of this sense of global identity – conflicts over Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Iraq, as well as a general desire to restore the caliphate by many moderate as well as radical Muslims. The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom was partly motivated by evangelicals concerned about the growing persecution of Christians in other parts of the world. The Jewish community in the United States used to criticize the former Soviet Union over the way it treated its Jewish population.

Thus, diplomacy is no longer, or is no longer only, concerned (if it ever was) with the rational calculation of the tangible interests of states. Cultural factors have always had a role in international negotiations even if diplomats have not always been aware of it (Cohen 2001). Diplomacy now takes place in a cultural and religious context, which social constructivists argue is concerned with the way identities are constructed as well as challenged by the interplay of a variety of factors in domestic and international politics.

The struggle for authenticity and development is now a part of diplomacy and international conflict. An individual, social group, or community has to have a sense of self – of the ethnic group, or of the nation, a secure sense of the national self or social self – before the social group can rationally calculate or determine what is in its interests. Thus, identity conflicts increasingly relate to the way the boundaries between the sacred and the profane in communities around the world are being defended and challenged in a global era (Robertson 2000; Thomas 2005).

Therefore, diplomacy is also now concerned with the subjective and experiential realities that shape the interests, objectives, and perspectives of diverse groups in society. The issues that are seemingly tangible or objective (such as territory or governance), and are open to rational calculation are now intimately rooted or connected to the cultural and psychological factors that are driving and sustaining the conflict (Cohen 1997).

Unfortunately, track-one diplomacy – states, leaders, diplomats, or top-level governmental actors, international organizations such as the United Nations, or regional organizations like the Arab League, the Organization of American States (OAS), or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – has not been very adept at stopping these new kinds of wars and forms of intrastate violence – civil wars, guerrilla wars, secessionist struggles, and religious or ethno-national conflicts – which have engulfed entire societies since the end of the Cold War: Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan, or Chechnya. It has also not been very successful in resolving the kind of cultural as well as security tensions that contributed to the Gulf War in 1990–1, and the war in Iraq that began in 2003.

Religion and Multi-track Diplomacy

The changing nature of diplomacy and international conflict has led to what is called multi-track diplomacy – the variety of methods of diplomacy that are outside the formal diplomatic or governmental system. Multi-track diplomacy refers to the informal, nongovernmental contacts that take place at the individual, state, and society levels of analysis, below the level of analysis of the international system (Monville 1991). It includes private citizens, social groups, and a wide range of nonstate actors, and, increasingly, religious groups in diplomacy. Some theorists consider religion to be the heart of the multi-track diplomacy system because it provides idealism, a spiritual impulse, and an ethical foundation which may be present elsewhere in the system, but is most publicly and acceptably articulated in religion, particularly in relation to bringing about world peace (Diamond and McDonald 1995). When the role of religion in multi-track diplomacy is described in this way it is not surprising that it is more narrowly linked to pacifism, sanctuary, and nonviolence. However, the rise of faith-based diplomacy requires a broader frame of reference than pacifism for multi-track diplomacy.

Faith-based Diplomacy

Religion is often seen as an obstacle to diplomacy, especially in disputes and conflicts that seem to be related to or motivated by religion. In addition, the very nature of religion, or at least some of the most commonly perceived aspects of religion – its concerns for dogma, truth, and certainty – would seem to be contrary to the nature of successful diplomacy, with its emphasis on empathy, dialogue, understanding, negotiation, and compromise. However, there is increasingly a greater role for religion in diplomacy because of the changing nature of diplomacy and the changing nature of international conflict.

Diplomacy increasingly involves a variety of actors, not only states and their official representatives, and the changing nature of international conflict, with most wars now within states rather than between them, has meant that diplomacy now often spills over into the areas of cultural diplomacy, reconciliation, and conflict resolution (Appleby 2000; Gopin 2000; Philpott 2006). What is now more recognized is that there may very well be indigenous knowledge and resources – cultural and religious resources – for diplomacy, peacemaking, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution, and this has given rise to faith-based diplomacy (Zartman 1999; Schirch 2005).

It is increasingly recognized, given the global religious resurgence, and the ethnic and religious contexts of many interstate conflicts, that what is increasingly called “faith-based diplomacy” can help promote dialogue within religious traditions and between religious traditions, in conflicts in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo (Johnson 2003). Particularly in the Islamic world, with a new generation of theologians and politicians such as Iran’s former president Muhammad Khatami and Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, it is recognized that there is a key role for religious leaders and faith-based diplomacy in the Middle East (Tayekh 2001; Gopin 2002). In other words, in this way faith-based diplomacy often spills over into a form of cultural diplomacy.

Although this type of multi-track diplomacy is rather new, to some extent it is already a part of the training of diplomats and related research in the United States. The US Foreign Service Institute – the training arm of the Department of State – now requires its students to study religion and international affairs. In Britain, although the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a training program in diversity awareness and multiculturalism, and the Department for International Development has commissioned research on faith-based organizations, there is no comparable program on the role of religion in the training of diplomats or development practitioners.

Faith-based diplomacy is more directly and clearly identified with matters of faith and religion than are the more indirect ways in which religious traditions have in the past influenced the fields of conflict resolution and peace studies. Faith-based diplomacy still operates from within a problem-solving approach to the theory of international relations. It focuses on integrating faith into the existing frameworks of diplomatic or political institutions, social relations, and social meaning, and does not, as in critical theory or postmodern theory in international relations, challenge the existing framework of social order in international relations, nor does it consider how it may be fundamentally transformed (Cox 1981).

This does not mean that faith-based diplomacy is only about dispute settlement or conflict amelioration, and is opposed to a more far-reaching or deeper social and political transformation. Faith-based diplomats, at least many of them, reject the secular rationalism upon which the project of progressive notions of emancipation are often predicated – critical theory, feminism, postmodernism, etc. – since from a faith-based perspective they are often not radical enough in their criticisms of secular liberalism.

Faith-based diplomacy is only beginning, and it may be sowing the seeds for deeper, more lasting forms of social transformation. Like aspects of Pentecostal Christianity or liberation theology, the whole basis of multi-track diplomacy, and the growing role of religious leaders and institutions in diplomacy, establish over the long term a less exclusive and hierarchical approach to politics and diplomacy. Faith-based diplomacy, like multi-track diplomacy more generally, greatly involves a variety of new actors, including religious groups and organizations, as a key part of civil society and diplomacy in international relations.

Faith-based diplomacy can be distinguished, however, from the traditional models of peacemaking and conflict resolution by its holistic approach to the sociopolitical healing of a conflict that has taken place (Cox and Philpott 2003; Johnson and Cox 2003). In other words, the objective of faith-based diplomacy is not only conflict resolution (the resolving of the issue or dispute in question). The objective is also the restoration of the political order that has suffered from war and injustice, and the reconciliation of individuals and social groups. Faith-based diplomacy is rooted in the transformation of individual lives and, over time, the social and political transformation of communities.

What do religious actors and faith-based diplomats bring to the negotiating table that is different? First, the motives for peace and reconciliation that are rooted in a deep sense of religious identity and a religious sensibility. Unfortunately, this can also include the sad legacy of historical events, whether it is the collective memory of Muslims regarding the crusades, or that of Greek Orthodox Christians who recall the fall of Constantinople and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

A second aspect of faith-based diplomacy is related to multi-track diplomacy more generally. Political and religious leaders, NGOs, and governments increasingly recognize that religious leaders and institutions, given their familiarity with local situations and close contacts with grassroots movements, are particularly well placed to play a role in multi-track diplomacy, in that they can (1) act as mediators, and (2) provide a “neutral” space for negotiations. They are, or can be (this is not always the case), well placed to act as mediators partly because of their apolitical reputation in support of constructive social change and reconciliation, and also because they represent a widely respected set of values in the community. They act at the grassroots level, involving local religious leaders, indigenous NGOs, and community groups to bring people from different religious communities together in a neutral space for mediation and cross-community dialogue in ways that nurture reconciliation and peacebuilding.

At this level faith-based diplomacy can be seen as a part of the social practice of community formation. The participants come from different religious traditions and, most likely, different communities. The participants, insofar as religion has been a main component of ethnic or communal identity, may not have a deep knowledge of the theology or history of their religious tradition.

A third aspect of faith-based diplomacy is the active use in the dialogue of diplomacy of rituals, symbols, practices, prayer, and sacred texts rooted in the diplomats’ religious traditions. A wide range of religious sensibilities recognize the role of ritual and symbol as an outward expression of an inward reality. It is this dual recognition that becomes a more formal aspect of the faith-based mode of diplomacy (Irani and Funk 2000; Said et al. 2001; USIP 2001; Gopin 2002; Said and Funk 2008). It is in this context that rituals and prayers for victims on both sides of a violent conflict, for example, become political acts in which participating in the social practice of remembering can be the beginning of healing and reconciliation. The use of religious precepts and rituals in mediation and conciliation were used to reach peace agreements, such as those promoted by the Inter-Religious Councils of Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Steele 2003). A fourth aspect of faith-based diplomacy is that religious actors simply have a unique leverage, given who they are, and what they represent – quite simply a deep spiritual or a transcendent authority – to reconcile conflicting groups and re-humanize relationships. It is also for this reason that they have a unique capacity to mobilize a local community in support of a peace process, and gain national and international support for it. The All Africa Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Buddhist peacemakers in Cambodia, the role of the Community Sant’Egidio in mediating the civil war in Mozambique, and the role of the Catholic Church in mediating the conflict in the Chapas region between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government are only a few of the growing examples of faith-based NGOs in mediating conflicts.


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