While working to resolve the crises of today, we should spend a lot of time talking. Being able to listen to one another’s point of view is crucial in a world where traditional diplomacy often stumbles.

Being able to listen to one another’s point of view is crucial in a world where traditional diplomacy often stumbles.

This year saw the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute host its 15th Rhodes Forum, perhaps one of the most successful and dynamic in its history. Attended by some 300 guests and 60 high profile speakers, it earned hundreds of thousands of live views online. The Forum also secured a dozen new partnerships, with a strong focus on Africa, thanks to former Presidents Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Dioncounda Traore of Mali. Both have fought terrorism in their own countries and know what the practical dimensions of dialogue are.One of the most difficult steps however, is ensuring that discussion is as impactful in real life as it is when being debated. It is during this shift, from theory to action, when previously agreed upon plans suddenly face new obstacles. Diplomats know that what seemed possible in theory starts to appear impossible in practice. This is where civil society steps in.

This year saw the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute host its 15th Rhodes Forum, perhaps one of the most successful and dynamic in its history.

One of several new elements in this year’s forum, which will indeed grow to become a centerpiece in future events, was the Leaders’ Club Summit. This is a platform for experienced policymakers with a solid record at the head of a government, selected businesspeople, and policy advisors, to discuss and develop concrete approaches to solving particular problems.

This year’s inaugural session discussed the nature of connections between terrorism, migration, and education and was attended by the media, according to the ‘dialogue rule’ which presumes openness and transparency.

The discussion was both highly relevant to the challenges countries around the world face today, and profoundly significant as it highlighted the need for a greater role of civic forums in international policy-making processes.

The discussion was both highly relevant to the challenges countries around the world face today, and profoundly significant as it highlighted the need for a greater role of civic forums in international policy-making processes.

Being far from a conventional exchange of opinions, the Leaders’ Club Summit will contribute proceedings that will serve as a basis for recommendations for the UN and other international organizations in this regard.The Leaders’ Club Summit is an example of a new initiative to create an innovative network of high-level civic councils, which meet to develop policy recommendations on critical issues facing society.

In a number of cases, starting with Russia-US relations, the North Korean crisis, and Chinese-Indian tensions, this new network of civic councils will ensure that vital links between countries and with international organisations continue to exist at levels capable of shaping policy.

In a number of cases, starting with Russia-US relations, the North Korean crisis, and Chinese-Indian tensions, this new network of civic councils will ensure that vital links between countries and with international organisations continue to exist at levels capable of shaping policy.

These civic councils will pick up from where official diplomacy leaves off and will provide local, regional, and international platforms for debate and discussion. Most importantly, they will be entirely focused on developing practical policies that can be applied to real-life situations.In addition, the ever more crucial function of these councils would be to prevent the transformation of political tensions into inter-societal and interpersonal relations.

Due to their size and composition, civic councils will be flexible enough to respond to fast-changing events, yet will still have the gravitas required to push through solutions in highly sensitive areas. It is envisaged that they will be established around particular issues or conflicts, to achieve specific goals and can be disbanded once solutions have been found and/or applied.

Russia and France developed comparable platforms some time ago, for example, the Association of French-Russian dialogue and the new Trianon dialogue announced by Presidents Putin and Macron.

Civic councils can be as local or international as required, and their makeup would reflect this. For example, there would be a scant overlap between a civic council on al-Shabab and one on Russia-US relations.

Comprising highly respected individuals who have served at both national and international levels, civic councils will have the leverage needed to deliver results. When relations are strained and officials find that existing diplomatic channels offer a narrower scope for action than required, civic councils will ensure that a channel of communication is always open.

Civic councils can be set up to facilitate any issue, but as our studies prove, they would clearly be most suited for resolving longstanding border disputes, ethnic and religious tensions, and cultural issues. Not financed by any one state, they will draw their resources equitably from contributing parties, including non-governmental institutions and private donors that would in turn find themselves more involved than ever. This would secure a system of checks and balances, ensure transparency and civic control, and prevent the imposition of a single point of view.

Not financed by any one state, they will draw their resources equitably from contributing parties, including non-governmental institutions and private donors that would in turn find themselves more involved than ever.

Looking at the world today, there are so many fault lines that are crying out for just this kind of institution, from Kurdistan to Armenia-Azerbaijan, South Sudan to Libya, India-Pakistan, North and South Korea, and of course the US and Russia.Civic councils will function as a kind of institutional buffer to prevent disputes escalating into conflict, and to bring conflicts back into the realm of diplomacy.

The possibilities for this model of civic councils are considerable. The challenge will be ensuring that these councils are: A) able to address the challenges of ongoing or worsening disputes with few avenues for resolution in traditional diplomacy; and B) are able to agree on concrete goals in a meaningful way. This has made some impact in a number of cases already, as in the case of Sunni-Shi’ite and Israeli-Palestinian conferences we set up some time ago in Greece.

Work is underway to identify the first areas that will be most responsive to this new approach, and to invite respected former diplomats, heads of state and government officials, and entrepreneurs, activists, and religious leaders to contribute their knowledge and experience.

Work is underway to identify the first areas that will be most responsive to this new approach, and to invite respected former diplomats, heads of state and government officials, and entrepreneurs, activists, and religious leaders to contribute their knowledge and experience.

In an era of increased transparency – regarding communications, and in politics as well – a greater role of civic forums is inevitable.Success in this, as in any such undertaking, will be hard won. But everyone feels strongly that there is a very real need for increasing the power of societies to act as a lifeline in conflict resolution.

Walking away from traditional soft power or ideology-based NGOs, which often divide societies into allies and enemies, civic councils will represent more human-centered vehicles and will be driven by values-based decisions.

In an era of increased transparency – regarding communications, and in politics as well – a greater role of civic forums is inevitable.

Walking away from traditional soft power or ideology-based NGOs, which often divide societies into allies and enemies, civic councils will represent more human-centered vehicles and will be driven by values-based decisions.

In contrast to permanent councils that set up official channels and deal with a vast variety of bilateral or multilateral issues (and whose importance is hard to overestimate), civic councils will be built upon project-based principles, with a specific goal and terms for its achievement.

History demonstrates that the hardest crisis to bridge –  and yet the most rewarding one – is that between war and peace. Gunboat diplomacy is no longer effective, but the danger of an accidental nuclear conflict persists and is increasing.

Hence, civil society has to learn how to better employ their natural advantages – including that of the freedom of expression and the ability to influence governments – in order to achieve one of the most elusive goals of our time: ensuring the lives and well-being of future generations.

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Vladimir Yakunin
Russian business leader, philanthropist and Doctor of Political Sciences. Former President of Russian Railways. Head of the Department of State Politics of the Faculty of Political Science of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Doctor of Political Sciences, Visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, visiting professor at the Peking University, Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Vladimir Yakunin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics as a Mechanical Engineer in 1972. After completing military service he worked with the Administration of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Foreign Trade and as a department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. In 1985-1991, Vladimir Yakunin was Second and then First Secretary of the USSR’s Permanent Representative Office at the United Nations. Vladimir Yakunin served as Chairman of the Board at the International Centre for Business Cooperation, and was then nominated head of the North-Western Federal District Inspectorate of the Senior Control Department of the President of the Russian Federation. Yakunin was appointed Deputy Minister of Transport in October 2000 and first Deputy Minister of Railways in February 2002. In October 2003 the Board of Russian Railways JSC appointed Vladimir Yakunin First Vice President. In June 2005 he was promoted to President of Russian Railways JSC, a position he held until August 2015. Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of St Andrew the First-Called Foundation and Centre of National Glory, Founding President and Co-chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and Co-president of the Franco-Russian dialogue Association. He is Head of the State Policy Department, Political Sciences Faculty, Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2013 Vladimir Yakunin founded the Endowment for the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations aimed at supporting research in the sphere of political and social sciences, religion and culture, developing communication between countries on political and economic matters, and seeking compromise in cases of social unrest and international disputes. In 2016 together with the Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer and Professor Peter W. Schulze of the Georg-August University of Gőttingen, he founded the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Vladimir Yakunin was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute. Vladimir Yakunin has received around 30 state awards, both Russian and foreign.