Volume 17 Number 1
What's God Got to Do With Diplomacy?
01 February 2004
Former submarine commander Douglas Johnston believes that religion is 'the missing dimension of statecraft'. He tells his story to Bob Webb.
In the heat of the Cold War, Douglas M Johnston Jr served in the US nuclear submarine service. He sometimes pondered how he would react if ordered
to fire a missile signalling the start of World War III, without evidence that an enemy attack was imminent.
But all that's behind him now as he engages in what is perhaps the major challenge of his life: at age 65, when many men retire, Johnston is the founder and President of the Washington DC-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD). Quietly but assiduously, he works to bring peace in Sudan where two civil wars have taken two million lives and displaced countless others. Also quietly but assiduously, he works to help defuse the tensions in Kashmir with its associated threat of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. His commitment to peace spans the globe. His view is that religion-so often the trigger or presumed trigger of violence-can play a major role in averting conflict.
So how did a US Naval Academy graduate and hard-charging submarine officer come to establish a centre increasingly recognized for its contributions to peace?
'It was a combination of two things,' Johnston says. 'First was a thought I had near the end of the Cold War about the incongruity of both sides spending trillions of dollars on weapons systems, the sole purpose of which was to enhance deterrence-so that they would never be used-while much of the world continued to starve. Second was an awareness (born of an extended involvement with the National Prayer Breakfast movement) of the good that lay people operating on the basis of their personal faith were doing in various parts of the world, reconciling differences between people and factions-sometimes even bringing wars to a halt with no one the wiser as to how it took place.'
The National Prayer Breakfast movement annually attracts about 4,000 people-non-Christians as well as Christians-to Washington for an event widely heralded and extensively covered in the press. But the movement also includes weekly prayer breakfasts where people share their faith, seek spiritual help and reinforce one another in serving the disadvantaged. When Johnston shared the vision of his new centre at one such breakfast gathering in 1999, a former political advisor to the President of Sudan invited Johnston to visit Sudan to see if he could help the peace effort there.
That set off a chain of events leading to the birth of the Sudan Inter-Religious Council (SIRC), a monthly forum where Muslim and Christian religious leaders work out their problems and cooperate in securing a lasting peace. 'It took our centre two-and-a-half years to develop the relationships required to put this council in place,' says Johnston. In an interview last August, Al Tayib Zein Al Abdin, Secretary-General of the SIRC, defined the council as 'an independent, voluntary association of religious leaders'. He said it 'aims at contributing to religious coexistence and cooperation between different groups-Muslims, Christians and African religionists-for the purpose of bringing greater harmony and peace among them. Specifically, SIRC will focus on issues such as the protection of religious freedoms and places of worship; promoting reconciliation and peaceful resolution of conflict; and building a new social and political environment conducive to the building of peace and the maintenance and promotion of national unity.'
Small wonder the US peace envoy to Sudan, former US Senator Jack Danforth, met SIRC before he met the government on his first official trip there last year. Dr Al-Abdin said, 'We conveyed to Danforth the role of SIRC in addressing religious issues of a practical nature that concern different religious groups. We suggested to him that the prospective peace treaty should give a priority to religious freedom and the rehabilitation of places of worship destroyed during the war.'
Small wonder, too, that Johnston was one of a small group of Muslims, Jews and Christians who travelled to Iran last summer. This 'Abrahamic delegation' was headed by Cardinal Theodore E McCarrick, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, and included, among others, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Secaucus, NJ, and Imam Feisal Abdul al-Rauf, founder of the Asma Society. The delegation's aim was to begin a faith-based dialogue with Iran that might help avoid another Iraq.
Despite a crowded agenda that would seem to leave scant time for diversion, Johnston swims, sails and skis. His wife, Janean, is a lawyer who conducts ethics audits of law firms for the State Bar of Virginia. Between them, they have five grown-up sons and daughters.
What surprised Johnston on the first of his 14 trips to Sudan was to find Christians and women in high-level government positions in Khartoum. He also learned that three of the six commanders of the guerrilla forces in the South were Muslims. Most of what he'd seen in the press had painted a different picture. There was clearly more to the war than a struggle between Muslims in the North and Christians in the South. Johnston is confident the SIRC can become a major healing influence, complementing the peace efforts of Danforth and others at the official level.
Johnston and his small staff have also initiated peace efforts in Kashmir. Working with the Kashmir Foundation for Peace and Developmental Studies in Srinagar and the Kashmir Institute of International Relations in Muzaffarabad, they have organized and conducted faith-based reconciliation seminars on both sides of the LOC (Line of Control between India and Pakistan). In an address to an international conference on Kashmir in Washington last summer, Johnston said the ICRD is working with its partners to promote 'faith-based reconciliation among next-generation leaders... in an effort to change the spiritual and political dynamics of the region. Our basic strategy calls for developing a cooperative spirit on each side of the LOC and then bringing seminar graduates from both sides together in a neutral location to begin rebuilding a sense of community across the line or, stated differently, to restore the inclusive spirit of kashmiriyat that prevailed in earlier times.'
The director of ICRD's Kashmir project, Brian Cox, and ICRD Senior Associate Dan Philpott have established Institutes for Reconciliation in Srinagar and Jammu. Clearly this approach, embracing Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, is having an effect. Johnston says members of the core group 'have become committed to faith-based reconciliation to the point where several have been able to forgive those who have caused the deaths of immediate members of their families (including, in one instance, the death of a brother) and where all of them are strongly committed to facilitating the return of the Pandits, who fled the Kashmir Valley 13 years ago to escape the violence of a newly formed Islamic militant movement.'
As if all this weren't enough, in 2001 Johnston led a team to help equip US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard chaplains with conflict resolution skills, and to give them a broader vision of their potential role in helping their superiors and US diplomats understand the role of religion in delicate situations abroad. The team included former naval officer Richard Ruffin, then Executive-Director of Initiatives of Change in Washington; Joseph Montville, then Director of Preventive Diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Donald Shriver, President Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary. Johnston has since conducted related training for chaplains in the other military services.
Low key and soft-voiced, Johnston doesn't strike you as one who at 27 became the youngest US officer to qualify for command of a nuclear submarine. After his naval career, he taught international relations at Harvard University where he also founded and directed the Kennedy School's Executive Program in National and International Security. In between, he also held senior posts in business and government (where he was Director of Policy Planning and Management in the office of the Secretary of Defense and, later, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower). But Johnston is perhaps best known as former Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, considered by many to be the leading foreign relations think-tank in the world.
It was in that capacity that he initiated a project on religion and conflict resolution, which led to the publication of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1994). Co-editor (with researcher Cynthia Sampson) and principal author of this path-breaking book, Johnston enlisted leading scholars and foreign-policy practitioners to document a host of examples of the critical role religion played in preventing and resolving conflict in various parts of the world. He also edited and was principal author of Foreign Policy into the 21st Century: the US leadership challenge (CSIS, 1996) and Faith-based Diplomacy: trumping realpolitik (Oxford University Press, 2003). His experience convinces him that many US ambassadors need religion attaché's to help them understand and deal with the religious imperatives in their regions.