The first decades of the twenty-first century have demonstrated that it is more important than ever that we are able not only to address immediate crises as they arise, but that we are able to look beyond them, to the world we want to see. Our response to these crises can, we believe, be part of building a new architecture of international relations – one that stands upon the conviction that democratic, technological, and economic advances are compatible with mutually respectful and inclusive societies, and that civic institutions can play a more meaningful role in shaping these possible futures.
The challenges seem greater than ever before. And in many ways, they are. But they are not entirely new. Fifteen years ago we recognised that if we were to be able to solve these problems, we would need an approach that enabled interaction to take place outside the ever-present shadow of mutual suspicion – one that allowed people with radically different worldviews to come together and work for the common good.
The concept of the ‘dialogue of civilizations’ came into being at the turn of the twenty-first century, under UN auspices. This was soon followed by the establishment of the World Public Forum by a circle of like-minded people including the late Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, the American businessman Nicholas Papanicolaou, and myself. Jagadish Kapur, an Indian entrepreneur and visionary, argued then that attempts to harmonise diverse cultures and religious traditions are hindered by an unsustainable global power structure that aims for a single universalist approach. This quest for ways to apply the concept of dialogue to the major areas of human activity – politics, society, and economy – gave rise to the first Forum on the Greek island of Rhodes, an ancient cradle of democracy and a crossroads of world cultures.
So much has changed since those early days. Our Dialogue in Universities initiatives (Diaversity) offer a practical introduction to the principles of dialogue, and are based in many educational institutions worldwide. Our annual Rhodes Forum, which some have compared to Davos, has developed over its fifteen-year history into a strong platform where world scholars, businessmen, policy-makers, and heads of government debate the most pressing issues of the day. The distinguished collection of recipients of the Dialogue Award – in recognition of their major contributions to the cause of peace and reconciliation between peoples – now includes the Presidents of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, and of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev; the former Federal Chancellor of Austria, Alfred Gusenbauer; the late President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov; and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
This year’s 15th Anniversary Rhodes Forum ‘Multipolarity and Dialogue in Regional and Global Developments: Imagining Possible Futures’, as in previous years, is focused not only on a discussion of the problems we face but on the development of applicable solutions founded in our shared core values of equality, mutual respect, and understanding. This year, the decision-makers, business people, civil society representatives, and thought leaders attending the forum will also take part in two focal events: The Summit on Globalisation and the Future of Democracy, and the Summit on Global Infrastructure Development Scenarios. There may be questions as to how the former is tied to the latter – but our research shows that infrastructure development can be used to reduce inequality and is therefore instrumental in efforts to foster the wellbeing of any nation or region. A newly introduced platform, the Leaders Club Summit, will bring together a dozen former heads of state and government, alongside other world-renowned experts, in an attempt to develop concrete recommendations for the UN over the role of NGOs in conflict resolution.
Thus, through our expert endeavours, we help open up paths to decisions that are otherwise obscured.
New technologies mean that we hear about new confrontations within seconds of them occurring. With social media and the 24-hour news cycle, our responses and reactions are also increasingly immediate. A recent example: a rocket is fired from North Korea, and the Twittersphere discussion happens within seconds of the Japanese warning sirens being sounded.
It is only natural for the initial reaction to be one of worry, trepidation, or concern. Amplified by traditional media as well as social media, we are all too often pushed into knee-jerk responses. Public fear and outrage have become powerful parts of the political discourse. Yet another sign of how new media are important is that the catchment of our Institute’s social networks is accruing several thousand followers weekly.
Dialogue of Civilizations means disengaging with this rhetoric of clash and conflict, and instead focusing on cooperation to respond to existing, new, and emerging challenges. The more alarmist the public discourse – for example the way we see Islam discussed in the context of terrorism – the greater the need for the ‘still small voice of calm’, i.e., the greater the need for dialogue.
The Dialogue of Civilizations has come to be an intellectual and practical response to theories of a ‘clash of civilizations’ as proposed by Samuel Huntington a quarter of a century ago. While we take up his definitions of key terms such as ‘clash’ and ‘civilization’, we disagree with his fundamental conclusions. We are not government funded – though many of us have worked at senior levels in national governments and taken leading roles in business circles or public life – and it is not our role to take sides in internal political issues in particular countries.
Our role is much more specific – we exist as an affirmation that, as the frequency of conflicts has steadily risen over the past century and a half, there is almost always a path for civil society to ensure responses rooted in an understanding of our common humanity. For however simple it may sound – ‘a common response to common threats’ – this is founded upon a meticulously developed methodology, the ‘dialogue index’, which helps us measure the depth of a conflict and estimate the chances of easing it. It has worked on numerous occasions, as in 2013 when a Sunni-Shia conference we hosted on Rhodes brought tangible results in relations between the two arms of Islam widely believed to be fundamentally opposed. In fact, the basic rule of dialogue has always been simple: neither the World Public Forum nor its successor, the DOC Research Institute, has ever taken an ideological approach to membership or participation, the sole criterion has always been, and will remain, the ability to listen. Not surprisingly, the Forum is now more frequently approached by entrepreneurs and policy-makers – the capability to understand the nature of tensions and to extend unbiased expertise is an important factor in the increasingly intense spheres of business and trade relations.
In all areas of our operations, we are continuing to develop. We do not claim to have solutions to all the mounting problems humanity faces. What we do offer, though, is a tried and tested approach to engaging multiple parties in work to find these solutions, in work to bridge the divides that weaken our societies, and in work to reinforce an international agenda of positive and respectful interaction that builds a fairer and more prosperous world.