Diplomacy and Faith

July 8th, 2011

Diplomacy in the News

During the past few months, the United States lost two highly respected diplomats. Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, died June 4 and was honored for his many years in diplomatic service. He served the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations; and he worked with Hillary Rodham Clinton as she prepared for her current position as secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Another diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, died last December. Holbrooke had served in ambassador or envoy roles, often in war zones and crucial peace talks, for every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy. “He’s a bulldog for the globe,” said Tim Worth, president of the United Nations Foundation.

About the same time as Holbrooke’s death, the release of over 250,000 diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks.org caused many leaders to worry about how this would impact American policy in the Middle East as well as in Pakistan and other hot spots. News events such as these remind us that international diplomacy is an ongoing process between nations.

Diplomats on Diplomacy

The word diplomat comes from the French word diplomatie, which in turn derives from the Latin word diploma (as in English, an official document that confers a privilege). A diplomatie had the privileged ability to speak on behalf of the nation.

What are some of the duties and responsibilities of diplomats? B. S. Prakash, who served as India’s consul general in San Francisco, says that explaining a diplomat’s duties is not as easy as explaining those of a doctor or architect. Peacemaking, conflict resolution, and safeguarding national interests are all aspects of the job, as are facilitating cooperation and communication between two countries (the diplomat’s home country and the one in which he or she serves). He recalls the challenges of being a younger diplomat in Germany, as he tried to facilitate communication between the seriousness and efficiency of certain Germans and the more amiable, interpersonal style of Indian delegations. Years later, he facilitated cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia concerning oil trade. “Not to rush, not to fuss, not to insist on contracts, but to build trust” characterized his role in that setting. In addition to his role changes, as Prakash’s own culture changed over the years, he also had to change his own “paradigms” and approaches.

Juan E. Dayang, Jr., a blogger and Filipino diplomat, writes that a good, basic definition of diplomacy is “the conduct of foreign relations by sovereign states through peaceful means.” Diplomacy could also be described as a system of communication channels and protocol among members of nations, a system of peaceful conduct among nations, or a way to achieve goals of vital interest to nations through peaceful ways and through established procedures by trained diplomatic experts. Dayang notes that the modern system of diplomacy dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which was also the beginning of our modern system of nation-states.

Doug Holland, a Canadian foreign service officer, notes that diplomatic responsibilities are usually divided into political, trade, and consular services. Political service includes reporting on local situations, advocating for the interests of the diplomat’s home country within the host country, and even writing speeches for a politician visiting from the home country. Trade-related diplomacy includes promoting economic interests of the home country, introducing home companies to economic opportunities, and helping companies land contracts. Consular duties include contacting family members if a traveler is sick or hurt and helping travelers with lost passports.

Learning From Diplomats

One challenge of diplomacy is the tension between altruism and self-interest. Self-interest is more straightforward than altruism, because the former is defined by what is good for that individual. Altruism, however, extends among individuals and groups (who can be self-interested), complicating decision-making as well as possible outcomes of decisions. By representing the goals and interests of the home country, a diplomat walks the balance of upholding his or her country’s values while respecting the interests, culture, and assumptions of other countries.

We can learn from diplomacy about the importance of mutual respect. Many people have a sense that they have to “stand their ground” on topics, and to “give in” is a sign of weakness. The work of diplomats teaches us that this is a one-sided perception of disagreements. Karl Gruber, an Austrian foreign minister and ambassador, notes that the best ambassadors have empathy for other people and are not overly cautious. He also stresses that two-way communication is crucial for diplomats: To gain information, you have to be willing to convey it. In his experience, the less-effective diplomats were those who were too cautious and wanted information without being willing to give any in return. Gruber also notes the importance of a having a sense of humor, communicating with precision, and being willing to work hard to lay the groundwork for mutual trust prior to negotiations.

Many people are already “diplomatic” in their everyday dealings. Being diplomatic involves being tactful and sensitive to other people and their needs. A leader who does not have strong diplomatic skills can destroy relationships, which can take a long time to repair and rebuild. But a leader who is good at diplomacy can help build relationships that benefit the organization or the nation. Diplomacy works in family relationships, too. Being diplomatic when dealing with extended family members such as in-laws and cousins as well as with close family members contributes to the well-being and peace of the family.

Biblical Values

The Hebrew word for “covenant” is berith and is used nearly 300 times in the Old Testament. Scholars note that covenants took the following form: a statement of agreed-upon ideas, an agreement validated with an oath, a curse upon anyone who broke the covenant, and ratification of the covenant through a ritual or other action. We see examples in Genesis 26:28-31; 31:48-54;and Deuteronomy 27:15-26. Covenants were not only between God and people but also among persons for religious or nonreligious reasons.

In addition to this issue’s core Scriptures, we find numerous biblical examples of diplomacy. We read about the relationship of Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-24; 26:26-31), Solomon’s relationship with Hiram (1 Kings 5:1-12), ambassadors from Ben-hadad visiting Ahab (1 Kings 20:31-34), Ahaz’s assistance from the king of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-9), Paul’s placation of Jewish believers (Acts 21:20-25), and Paul’s strategy with the Sadducees and Pharisees (Acts 23:6-10). Paul’s circumcision of Timothy (Acts 16:3) was also a kind of diplomatic strategy, as well as his well-worded sermon in which he respected and used ideas of the local culture (Acts 17:22-31).

Some of the key biblical values concerning diplomacy have to do with the way we treat one another and our concerns for the needs of others. Romans 12:19–13:8  provides a few examples: doing good to our enemies, overcoming evil with good, living in harmony, avoiding conceit and haughtiness, refusing to repay evil with evil, being honorable and respectful, and loving one another.

Diplomacy and Religious Values

Douglas Johnston, president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, believes religion is “a bit of a blind spot” for many diplomats but that “religious reconciliation can be an antidote to religious extremism.” Understanding the religion (and the concomitant identity issues) of other people can help in the resolution of conflicts. For instance, in his own travels in the Muslim world, taking breaks for prayer became a powerful reconciliatory tool, as did his own knowledge of the Qur’an’s passages concerning openness to other people.

John D. Stempel, a senior professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy, agrees that diplomacy is strengthened by religious values, and diplomacy informed by religion can help resolve or ease religious conflicts. In fact, religious values and diplomacy have an ancient connection, as emissaries of kings possessing “divine rights” entered into negotiations. Likewise, missionaries have traditionally served a diplomatic function in the sense of bridging cultures. Of course, religion is a divisive as well as potentially unifying force, but all the more reason for diplomacy to be informed by understanding different religious doctrines and values. Stempel disagrees that religious conflicts are necessarily clashes of civilizations, considering the very pluralistic and geographically widespread nature of religion in our contemporary world.

In whatever setting it is practiced, diplomacy is certainly not a weak response to an opponent or a failure of principles. It is a powerful way to lead people as well as to respect people who have different goals, cultures, and interests. It reflects biblical values of respect, love, and concern even for one’s enemies.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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