Krista's Journal: Transitioning from Cold War Politics to "Faith-Based Diplomacy"

January 3, 2008

I've been following Doug Johnston's work for a decade, ever since I read his 1994 book, Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Remember, this was well before 9/11 thrust religion to the fore of international relations at the highest level. In the mid-1990s I attended a regional Council on Foreign Relations meeting at which Johnston spoke about his findings. Many of the attendees, raised in a Cold War world dominated by secular power politics between nation-states, were openly scornful of the idea that religion should have any place at all in a legitimate foreign policy discussion. But Johnston was COO and executive vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the top foreign policy think tanks in Washington, D.C. And he presciently saw that as the Cold War division of the world unraveled, potential conflicts would again be ethnically and regionally driven, with religious dynamics front and center. He also saw that understanding and working with religious people and passions could be key to what he calls "preventive diplomacy." His book documented case studies around the world where religion helped mediate and end conflicts that traditional diplomacy could not. In 1999, he left CSIS to create and run the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. History has borne out Johnston's sense of religion's centrality in the foreign affairs of the future in ways he would never have wished for. Johnston is taken seriously in corridors of power by way of classic military and strategic credentials — a graduate of Annapolis, he was the youngest person ever qualified to command a nuclear submarine. He's worked in the office of the Secretary of Defense and the President's Office for Emergency Preparedness. His case studies have been used in the instruction of new American military and diplomatic leaders. Douglas Johnston's primary and most active contribution to world affairs in recent years has come through the work he describes in this program — initiatives of Track-II, or unofficial diplomacy, which are deeply consonant with the urgent recommendations of the December report of the Iraq Study Group. He has helped foster religious openings with deep humanitarian and political implications between the governing Islamic regime of Sudan and its Christian south. This is an aspect of the complex and tortured recent past and present of Sudan that simply does not make the news. Johnston has also orchestrated some of the highest level contacts that have taken place between religious and political leaders in Iran and the United States in recent years, in an era of hostile impasse in the official diplomatic relationship between the two countries. I decided that it was finally time to interview him when I read a thought-provoking and helpful memo he crafted last year titled, "What Iranians Want Americans to Know About Iran." Douglas Johnston is not easy to classify in the handy categories of America's culture wars. He is not a liberal, nor is he a hawk. He is an evangelical Protestant who has created a center with a multi-religious staff; personally he's most involved these days in crises with an Islamic interface. He is quick to note that his kind of faith-based, preventive diplomacy cannot negate the fact that sometimes "brutality must be met by brutality." He is a staunch advocate of the U.S. tradition of separation of church and state, and yet he says that we have used it as a crutch not to do our homework on the different role religion has in cultures with which we must learn, as a matter of self-interest, to relate respectfully. Among the most hopeful images Douglas Johnston leaves me with, perhaps, are his stories of the unprecedented work he and his center are doing in Pakistan to help reform and modernize madrassas — religious schools which U.S. officials have cited as frequent breeding grounds for terrorism. His pictures from that project, posted on our Web site, are astonishing in themselves. Pakistani religious and educational leaders — including "hard-line" Wahhabi and Deobandi sects — have taken him as a trusted partner because of his expertise and his respectful, faith-based approach to cultural engagement and diplomacy. At the very least, he says, this is a worthwhile investment in the children of Pakistan. And this effort at the source of current global violence, Johnston argues, is as pragmatic a use of resources as the money we're spending upping security at airports to catch the symptoms of full-blown militancy. In that sense Doug Johnston's work is an investment in the future of all of our children, one I'll keep following.

Recommended Reading

Image of Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik
Author: Douglas Johnston
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2003)
Binding: Hardcover, 270 pages

This most recent book of Douglas Johnston provides an introduction to the paradigm shift he sees as necessary — and is pioneering — for the world we inhabit now. On our Web site you'll also find his center's occasional updates on work in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere — to which you can also subscribe.

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is president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. He's the co-editor of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft.