Faith Opens New Avenues for International Diplomacy

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, February 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

Faith Opens New Avenues for International Diplomacy


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


At a time when nations have increasingly divergent interests, independent mediators -- often motivated by religious beliefs -- are stepping forward to negotiate peace in trouble spots worldwide.

Mexican Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, thin from a fast for peace, M walked into the Lacadbib jungle last week to restart talks between armed rebels and the government.

Since June, former President Carter has eased tensions in North Korea, Haiti and, perhaps, Bosnia.

And last year, Norwegian researcher Mary Anne Heiberg lived in the West Bank to study the living conditions of Arabs and Jews -- and helped start a historic peace process.

All three were on a sort of mission that has started attracting interest in the post-cold War era, when so many regional conflicts are caught in grueling -- or deadly -- stalemates. Motivated by religion and their work for peace, they became mediators when governments could find no process that worked.

"As the world sees more and more intractable conflicts, these kinds of activities are going to get more attention " says Gail Presberg, Washington director of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish group promoting Middle East peace.

This quiet and often invisible realm of international affairs has long been known as conflict resolution, an art that includes special institutes, training and techniques for persuading enemies to talk rather than fight. In foreign-policy theory, it is called Track II diplomacy -- Track I diplomacy being government-to-government.

The largely unknown story of Heiberg, an academic with the Norwegian peace institute known as FAFO, is perhaps one of the more dramatic recent examples of how an unofficial Track II led to a formal Track I. During her stint on the West Bank, she and a coworker became part of a network with two Haifa University professors that persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to meet secretly in a Norwegian country mansion in late 1993. By that point, the stakes were so high that the Norwegian government stepped in as mediator. A month later in Oslo, Rabin and Arafat announced a peace accord.

Such grassroots mediation has long been a part of world affairs, says Douglas Johnston, executive vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, and head of its Religion and Conflict Resolution Project. But it has gone unnoticed -- and uncredited -- because, for the most part, the players were lowkey and operated confidentially.

The big minds of international affairs, who pay more attention to political and military clout, hardly imagine that local mediation can rattle the world order. "Now it's time to take a hard look at other aspects in life and in international affairs," says Johnston. "What we are doing is no less than making a case for a new paradigm for international relations."

Seven years ago, Johnston, who has worked for the Navy, Harvard University and the Pentagon, was offered the job of chief operating officer of CSIS. He accepted on the condition that he be allowed to launch a project documenting the "positive role that religious or spiritual factors can play in actually pacifying or resolving conflict, while advancing positive social change."

It has taken since then to focus the idea; recruit funding; assemble a steering committee of world-class scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines; and complete the case studies in nations as disparate as East Germany, South Africa and Nicaragua. The project also produced a set of principles and a book titled Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, published in August by Oxford University Press and already in its third printing -- its success due in part to its association with the hard-nosed, military-minded CSIS.

"That was the angle that was rather innovative," says David Little, a religion and human-rights expert at the U. …

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Faith Opens New Avenues for International Diplomacy
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