By Vladimir Yakunin of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute October 6, 2017
This year the Rhodes Forum turns 15 years. Ordinarily, one would not consider the mid-teenage years as an age of great maturity. But then, the Rhodes Forum is not an ordinary forum, and the 21st century – itself only in late adolescence at 18 years old – is no ordinary century.
Those 15 years have already shown that it is more important than ever to address challenges as they arise, and to seek solutions rooted in dialogue and cooperation. We believe that our response to these challenges can help construct a new architecture of international relations built on 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.
When we first conceived the Rhodes Forum, we recognised that to tackle these challenges we would need an approach that enabled interaction to take place outside the ever-present shadow of mutual suspicion – one that allowed people with diverse world views to come together and work for the common good.
Much has changed since those early days. The geographical reach of the forum is now bigger than ever before. This year we welcome our first African heads of state, with Presidents Goodluck Jonathan (Nigeria 2010-15) and Dioncounda Traoré (Mali 2012-13) among the headline speakers. Both men steered their countries through exceedingly difficult periods and made significant contributions to stability and security at home and across the African continent more broadly.
But as the title of the Forum reads – “Multi-polarity and dialogue in regional and global developments” – the event is to focus on all global power poles, President of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus (2003-2013) and Prime Minister of France Dominique de Villepin (2005-2007) representing the voice of the ever important part of humankind which is Europe. Distinguished speakers and participants from Asia (China and India, for instance) and USA are no less a crucial party of this diversity of views, as well as the delegates from Russia and CIS – like the friend of the Forum, Prime Minister of Kirghizistan Djoomart Otorbaev (2014-2015).
Our focus on practical solutions is stronger than ever before, with the inauguration of the Leaders’ Club Summit. This is a session, open to the public and media, for heads of state and other world-renowned experts to explore and develop concrete practical recommendations for the UN over the role of NGOs in conflict resolution. We hope that the Leaders’ Club Summit will mark the start of a new movement to respond to regional and international conflicts at the highest level.
A comparable role is with the responsibility of the media: the media should keep in mind that the influence they have on societies and governments can be both enlightening and devastating.
For these reasons, we also introduced practice-based sessions, bringing together people working at ground level for a discussion of Europe’s refugee crisis to propose a concrete agenda for change that will inform policymakers and improve the responses currently available.
The Forum embodies the idea of dialogue, which is also reflected in the name of the non-partisan Berlin-based think tank that organises the event. This idea came about in the early 2000s as an intellectual and practical response to the theories of clash of civilizations and of the end of history, suggesting instead that diversity and inclusiveness are compatible with the technological and social evolution, that collaboration of nations is achievable and is the only way to successfully cope with pressing issues like terrorism, inequality and risks of war.
This kind of dialogue means disengaging with the prevailing rhetoric of clash and conflict, and instead focusing on cooperation. The more alarmist the public discourse – for example, the way we see Islam discussed almost solely in the context of terrorism – the greater the need for dialogue.
Our role is quite specific. Dialogue of Civilizations exists as an affirmation that there is almost always a path for civil society to ensure responses rooted in an understanding of our common humanity. The sole criterion for membership and participation has always been, and will remain, the ability to listen.
We do not claim to have solutions to all the problems humanity faces. What we do offer, though, is a tried and tested approach to engaging multiple parties in work to find these solutions, to bridge the divides that weaken our societies, and to reinforce an international agenda of positive and respectful interaction that ultimately builds a fairer and more prosperous world.
Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Head of the Department of State Politics of the Faculty of Political Science, MSU, and the former head of Russian Railways.