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How Could Forgiveness Play a Role in Foreign Policy? Does There Need to Be a Congruent Worldview?

The question posed itself acutely on September 11, 2001.  People in the United States had experienced the outrage of terrorist attacks on sites of important symbolic value, deaths by the thousands, assault on national honor, ruthless brutality.  How were we to respond?

Government clearly had a duty to protect its citizens.  Such things could not be allowed.  There was not much more could be done to the nineteen individuals who had thrown away their own lives to carry them out.  But who had enabled or supported them?  Their costs were small.  The hijackers had needed only airplane tickets and box cutters to turn the instruments and technology of the powerful against them.  Those who had responsibility, though, for providing the minimal expense or for moral and ideological support had to be held accountable, in proportion to their responsibility.

Yet there was a third element besides the perpetrators and their backers.  Americans faced a sea of anger, not only from within the Arab or Muslim world but from the countless deprived and dispossessed masses throughout the two-thirds world.  Although many nations responded to the attacks with condolences to the United States and condemnation of the attacks, there was no doubt that the attacks indicated that Americans already faced that anger on many accounts.  This was a novel situation for us.  The United States had been viewed for most of our history, when we deserved it and when we did not, as the great beacon of hope for the world, of justice, of liberty.  Now this was not so.  We were seen instead as the monopolists of the world’s good, as exploiters, coercive in our dealings with weaker countries, manipulators of their interests in favor of our own.  If we did not address the grievances of those who saw themselves as oppressed we would be unfaithful to our own highest principles.

I expressed this on the very night of 9/11, sitting on a television panel discussing the traumas of the day.  Another member of the panel, a professor, responded: “If anyone feels that way about us, we must make them fear us!”  Without much thought I retorted: “I believe those 19 blokes were trying to do that to us today.  Do you care to join them?”

This of course did not please the man who had so suddenly become my adversary.  He replied: “For all these years they have told us we should respond to these things by diplomatic means, and look where it got us!”  My return: “Our diplomacy must not have been very good.”

Our national response was in fact an effort to make them – all those of whom we asked: “Why do they hate us?” – to make them fear us.  Over the years since, it has cost us many more deaths, vast wealth and indebtedness, tremendous limitations of our freedoms, loss of respect even from our allies and the confirmed enmity of much of the deprived world.  Many people had hoped that the new Administration might definitively change that, but the world has been much disappointed by us even since.

Would a wiser policy have served us better?  Accountability, yes, there must be, but it need not necessarily involve exclusively military means, and we should always explore any possible alternatives.  I submit that a policy that regarded the humanity of our adversaries, heard their grievances and addressed them, sought always to assess and honor their human aspirations and treated them with the full respect that they were denying to us would have brought us to a better place in our relation to the world.

Many years of working with every party to the Northern Ireland conflict confirmed me in believing in such a policy – for my own conduct, for the various governments and the protest movements, many of them violently militant, which were involved.  From the start – for me in 1972 – I made a supposition that I would be dealing, not with psychopaths, but with persons who put their own lives at risk for the sake of their communities, however wrong-minded they might be.  I had to respect them even when they were a danger to myself.  Over the course of the hunger strikes of 1980-81, I represented the view that these hunger strikers, men who were using their own bodies as weapons against the powerful, were winning over all efforts to repress them.  In subsequent years, in frequent visits to all the politically segregated H-Blocks of the Long Kesh prison, I argued always that none of the Northern Ireland communities really had a life before them if they did not learn to accommodate one another.  That sounded like a low level of reconciliation but it was the essential.  My mantra in these conversations was that they all needed to become the guarantors of one another’s difference.  I firmly believe that the initiatives for the ceasefires and negotiations came from the militant organizations; that their leadership had to make the decisions but that the serious thinking and planning took place in the prison – as it had in South Africa, as one may hope it is happening now among Palestinian prisoners.  Prisons are wonderful places for planning wars.  But once the resolves are taken, or even adumbrated, they are also wonderful places for planning peace.

In the Balkan wars I found it hard to get a finger-hold on any ways of peace until the tide of war turned, in 1995, with the NATO bombings, against the Serbs.  Then I argued that it was the Catholic moment, that the whole climate of the war could change if the Catholic Croats would make it clear to the Serbs, of the Krajina and other areas, that they would be welcome to live safely in peace.  Seeking a way to appeal, quickly, to Croatian and Bosnian Catholics, as such, I wrote to the Holy See in the hope that the Pope would rally Croatian bishops to that cause.  I made similar appeal to Croatian Muslim and Serbian leadership.  Later, during the Kosovo stage of those wars, I traveled with Rev. Jesse Jackson to persuade Milosevic to release three American prisoners he held, hoping it would reopen a way of diplomacy in a situation where there was none, but only bombing.  I have urged comparable things in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Lebanon and with the Kurds of Iraq and of Turkey.

For major-power policy of the United States, we should observe how the Cold War with the Soviet Union was brought to a close, with large measures of wisdom and forbearance from both sides.  For decades on end the world lived with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction that the end could come at any time.  We used to be told how many times over our weapons could destroy all life on earth – I was always more worried about the first time.  We spoke of deterrence and of containment.  But the better angels of both sides kept telling us that we could not do such destruction to one another.

Eventually, it was the humanizing of one another that worked the magic.  We had such ploys as Peaceful Co-Existence, which could mean ping-pong, could mean opera and ballet.  A Kennedy and a Kruschev, a Reagan and a Gorbachev discovered one another as their colleagues in bringing about a safer world.  The United States outspent the Soviets, but more important was that each discovered the other as part of a world that they must share.  We could all breathe easier, and for the decade of the ’90s forgiveness and reconciliation seemed reasonable topics to engage our thought, until, with 9/11, the climate changed again and the dominant theme became revenge.

What does it demand in our humanity to activate such activities, such responses?  It would be discouraging if it required that we all become models of generous response, but leadership counts.  A Gandhi among millions of people, a few of whom imbibed his spirit as far as they could, worked wonders and won the freedom of India.  Nelson Mandela, from his prison, inspired a country and a people to search for a peace that is still incomplete.  In Northern Ireland’s prisons, a Gusty Spence became the catalyst, not only educating his Protestant fellow prisoners to understand the resources of their own history but to open the dialogue across the barbed wire with the Catholic prisoners as well.

To forgive an adversary means to realize that what he is saying and doing makes sense to him, and that I need to understand what is behind it, in his experience, in his culture.  Ignatius Loyola, founder of my Jesuit religious order, speaks of saving the proposition of the other, of taking him seriously enough to wrestle with his proposition: not to convince him to abandon it, but so that “understanding his proposition rightly he may save it.”

If I am to dedicate my life to winning all the arguments, my mind has closed and I will never again learn anything of value.  If I struggle with the adversary in this way, that understanding his proposition rightly he may save it, both he and I will have learned enormously and have created a relation of mutual respect, recognition of one another’s full humanity, that will be the making of the peace.

Questions for Discussion:
1. Is it necessary for both parties to make the effort to understand, but not necessarily agree with, the other’s world view?

2. Is there a difference between forgiveness and acknowledging the reality, (if not the validity) of an adversary’s point of view?

3. In what ways, if any, does forgiveness differ on a personal scale vs.  international level?

4. Can forgiveness ever co-exist with military action?

Discussion Summary

Since the question was in two parts, I assumed most readers would rather favor the idea of forgiveness, but would be more interested in the second part.  How could we make such a thing possible?

The discussion pointed to two other questions.  Several respondents  wanted to know how you deal with the hard cases: a Hitler, or a Stalin or his hard-line ideological successors, a Pol Pot or an Al Qaeda.  Someone even threw in Mr. Ahmedinejad.  They seemed quite beyond the pale.  That’s a could-we? question.  The other is a should-we? question.  Ought we really go this extra mile, or is it better to show our determination and get the victory we would like, particularly on critical questions that still lie before us.

Could we?  I’m not convinced that World War II, “the good war,” was truly necessary.  Surely, once it actually came to the final crisis, there was no way out, but the Appeasement history of the previous years, even from the initial march into the Saarland, was poor response to the threat Hitler posed to Europe.  Firm insistence on law at those points might well have halted the course toward hostilities.  That may not sound very conciliatory, but it ought to have been a way to have stopped the rush to more and more provocations.

Much more important, though, was to recognize the injustice of the vengeful policies that were adopted at Versailles.  The same kind of punitive treatment of Germany was seriously proposed to Truman after the Second World War.  Surely his establishment of the Marshall Plan was a better alternative then, and something on those lines after World War I would have spared us the tragedy of the ’30s and ’40s.  Even after the advent of Hitler, recognition of the wrongs being done to Germany and an offer to reverse them in response to an abandonment of his lawlessness might well have sunken the Führer in his tracks.  Hitler had to have a following.  If his people’s true grievances were being met, he would not have had it.  Surely, in dealing with any conflict, it is better that the true rights and interests of all parties be met and preserved rather than that any one should triumph and be able to reduce the other to subjection.  Most of us are tempted often to want to see the adversary prone beneath our feet, but those are not our better angels speaking.

In my essay I made much of the effort to understand the mind of the adversary, to find what was valid in his viewpoint and learn how to address it, even going so far as to appeal to the Praesupponendum of Jesuit Founder Ignatius Loyola, making it our aim to “save the proposition” of the other rather than condemn it as false.

Releasing our adversaries or offenders from accountability will never serve our purpose, as this is an abandonment of justice.  Yet the very system of justice is open to modification in the direction of restorative justice, a justice that concerns itself with the restoration of relations rather than merely with the determination of guilt and the assignment of punishment.

Taking this in terms of our actual experience, we did much better with the Soviets, who were surely as much a threat as Hitler.  Our long Cold War with its policy of containment was unforgiving enough, but did maintain our restraint in face of the overwhelming threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.  The eventual solution did come in the form of mutual understanding – Kennedy and Kruschev, Reagan and Gorbachev – with real respect.  We had our hot-heads who wanted to describe it as “we won,” much like those in Northern Ireland who wanted to describe the degree of reconciliation they achieved in those terms.  What was at work was in fact forgiveness.  For the decade after that we remained aware of this, through all the turmoil of Ruanda and the Balkan wars, until 9/11, when the craze against Muslims turned our society back to revenge.

Turning to the should-we question, what difference would a worldview attuned to a culture of forgiveness make in our current foreign policy?  We are all deeply committed to the safety and welfare of Israel, this because we know we have need of forgiveness ourselves for our failure to do more for Jews during the Holocaust.  That is to our credit, and an index of the necessity of Justice is in any such culture.  Have we a comparable commitment to justice in the case of Palestinians?  Our commitment to Israel is merely self-indulgence to ourselves if we assist Israeli governments in policies of injustice that are ultimately suicidal for themselves.  We have insistent voices that want to prohibit any talk of containment, the policy that brought such ultimate success in the Cold War, in the case of Iran, but prefer that we should deliver ultimatum after ultimatum, one more unacceptable than the other, until we have developed excuses that seem to us adequate to knock them over.

We like to think of ourselves as Realists in our foreign policy, a course that sets us inevitably on a quest for power.  For a country as powerful as ours, that is effectively a quest for Empire.  Empires all fall.  If we are truly solicitous for the good of the United States, a policy of forgiveness would serve us much better.

New Big Questions:

1. Has it become the habit of American policy to refuse negotiation or a search for understanding with a threatening country or force?

2. Has American security been damaged by our insisting on military confrontation with a threatening force rather than seeking negotiation or searching for understanding?