December 14, 2018

Religion in Global Diplomacy

By Israel Rafalovich.

Religion has helped since the beginning of times to shape the culture and civilization of the world and therefore it cannot be ignored in our globalised world especially when countries design their foreign policy and diplomatic strategies.

Faith-based diplomacy is only beginning, and it may be sowing the seeds for deeper, more lasting forms of social transformation. Religion and diplomacy have been soul mates all along, and are currently engaged in seeking the post modern connection. Diplomacy now takes place in cultural and religious context and 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.

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 opportunities for religious partner to be involved in diplomacy. One of the challenges facing global diplomacy is to fully understand and engage the great impact that a wide range of religions have on foreign affairs as there is far more to the religion and diplomacy agenda than just Islam and security.

As our society and culture have become less religious, and perhaps, even less spiritual in some ways, governments have become less attentive to religion. Sometimes deliberately so.
Religion was not taken seriously as it should have been and was not a priority in terms of international relations. Modern diplomacy’s dismissal of religion as a factor in world affairs was a huge mistake. Understanding of our contemporary world politics is not possible without including the religious element.

There is an interaction of diplomacy and religion. Hence, this interplay of religion and diplomacy has not always been a story with a happy end. The lack of sensibility for the religious dimension of people often makes diplomatic efforts unsuccessful. In the ongoing discussions on constructing the world order
many new approaches are being developed. One of the most discussed and controversial issue is the recognition of a religious dimension in international relations.

We need to understand religion as a backbone for cultural identity, social engagement and human development. Religious inspired claims can redefine identities to promote reconciliation opponents to a better image, like “God’s children”. To put it clear, religion is essential to identity as we cannot understand human beings and human behavior in purely economic and political terms.

In the current dynamic the politisation of religion in today’s environment means that religion increasingly plays a role in diplomacy both as an opportunity for engagement and as a way to inspire a variety of partners. In faith-based diplomacy, faith played, and is playing, a growing role in human affairs.  Human nature matters in general as do the vision and leadership of certain persons and at the same time it’s also recognizes the evil in the human soul.

Iran Shiite revolution in 1979, the September 11, 2001 attacks all underline what an important global force religion has become, as the twenty-first century will make full-scale return to wars of religion. Religion has advanced political reforms and human rights but also induced irrationality, persecution and terrorism. Almost all the great religions contain exhortation that can incite and provide internal legitimacy to violence against others. The presence of religion in the global arena highlights its bond to violence and peace. It has been used as the fuel to stoke the fire of war and the water to extinguish it.

In diplomacy today we should move towards a more syncretism stance that acknowledges the possibilities of religious diplomatic cooperation because of realization that religion is a large part of what motivates people and shapes their views. Religion informs the world views of both allies and adversaries. Do foreign policy makers undervalue or fail to understand the strategic importance of religion?

Yes. If religion can be the missing dimension of statecraft, it is the most underestimated tool in creative diplomacy. In order to be able to lead internationally policy makers should learn as much as possible about the basics of religious history and incorporate that knowledge in their strategies.This means, there is no universal rule about diplomatic religious cooperation across the dynamically changing world. Policy makers need to institutionalize religion in order to be part of mainstream diplomacy and so to be able, to move away from the usual thinking that religion is relevant to certain specialized functions such as the advancement of international religious freedom.

Many diplomats do not do not fully appreciate religion’s potential as a positive partner as many foreign policy officials have scant grounding in religious faith issues.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was shocked from the reaction he received when he lobbied the British labor government on behalf of the Christians of Iraq. His interlocutors had no idea that such people existed, or that their presence in the region predated Islam. A little bit religion and history education for the honorable diplomats could never harm them.

The significant part of the problem is that religion plays different roles at different times and different places. By recognizing the role of religion in affecting political behavior and for using spiritual tools to resolve conflicts faith-based diplomacy can be a useful tool of creative foreign policy taking into consideration the influential role that religious institutions around the world play around the globe on almost every issue in global affairs, from economic growth to terrorism.

What do religious based diplomats bring to the negotiating table that is different? They bring the motives for peace and reconciliation that are rooted in deep sense of religious identity and religious sensibility.
Faith-based diplomats are also efficient at operating in those areas where traditional diplomacy possesses limited or no tools and resources to deal with a conflict.

Faith-based diplomacy draws upon secular expertise in conflict resolution analysis, political science and philosophy, experience in national security and diplomacy. 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.

One example is the Vatican as a diplomatic organ of the Catholic Church. There is no similar organization at the level of effectiveness for any other religion. Catholicism’s impact today stems from tradition and doctrine in the Catholic Church as an institution. It is the only one that has diplomatic representation. The Vatican by its very existence challenges our common understanding of things like sovereignty and power in the international system, so its diplomacy shop is also the “tip” of the iceberg of what the Vatican can do, and has done in foreign relations.

  • The role of the Catholic Church in mediating the conflict in the Chiapas region between the Zapatista rebels and the Mexican government.
  • The Holy See intervening in Cuba, mediating in negotiations between then President Barak Obama and the Cuban President Raul Castro.
  • Vatican diplomats have been on the ground in Venezuela, attempting to
    mediate peace between the government of Nicolas Maduro and the opposition.
  • The Holy See has been also at the forefront of a big push at the United Nations on a new global treaty banning nuclear weapons.
  • In 2013 we find Vatican diplomats taking part in committee  meetings at the
    Geneva peace talks to end the Syrian war.

The internationally recognized power of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in the area of diplomacy is one of the biggest assets that make the Roman Catholic Church a global player. Given the role religion has played as a motivating force in foreign policy and the fact that religion looms as a factor in international politics the most important factor is the nature of diplomatic engagement with religion.

For many, religion does not sit comfortably alongside diplomats’ conventional focus on issues like political affairs, public diplomacy or international security and for other it is just impossible to imagine religion relevance to diplomacy, although faith bears in very important ways on all these issues. Furthermore, it is critical for diplomats to understand the special role religious leaders play in a dynamic world.
There is the desire for religious leaders to be more involved in politics. In certain situations faith-based diplomats are better positioned to become, trusted envoys and therefore they can be the right voice to be used in the call for tolerance and reconciliation and to promote mutual respect.

This position comes from their links and their prestige. On the other hand, individuals on the religious side of the equation would benefit from an understanding of diplomatic terms and analysis and a realistic understanding of the working elements of international relations. To truly understand faith religious issues requires that all levels of policy decision makers have some idea of what’s going on.

Religious diplomacy is a vital necessity, on which the future of humanity depends. It continues to be an important political phenomenon throughout the world. And, at its best it can reinforce the core values necessary for people from different cultures to live, to some degree, in harmony.

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About the author: Israel Rafalovich, is a journalist now based in Brussels who has 51 years of experience with international in Tel-Aviv, Brussels, Bonn and Washington, DC. He covers the Europe and the European institutions and writes a weekly column on international Relations.

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