By some strange coincidence, which I won’t bore you with, the decision to re-read some of the documents produced by the Church in response to 9/11 has led me to revisit Herbert Butterfield’s 1953 essay Christianity, Diplomacy and War.
For those with failing memories, Butterfield was one of Britain’s most eminent historians during the twentieth century.
For most of his working life Butterfield was based at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where he was Professor of Modern History from 1945 to 1963 and subsequently Regius Professor from 1963 to 1968. Prior to the war, however, he was a Methodist lay preacher and until as late as 1944 he taught ecclesiastical history on the side at Wesley College, the Methodist theological college at Cambridge.
Butterfield was no theologian and never considered himself a religious thinker, but his deep knowledge of the Bible allied to his extraordinary knowledge of human history meant that he was able to write with some authority on whether there was a distinctively Christian understanding of and approach to history.
Several of his essays after 1945 touch on many themes that pre-occupy us today – human nature and human culpability, aggression, power, diplomacy and international order. Central to his understanding of history was the belief that history is made by humans.
Re-reading Butterfield I was reminded that the role of the historian, like that of the ethicists, is to act as reconciler, by allowing oneself, when confronted with opposing views, to understand the problems of the protagonists from the inside out and to then discern the elements of truth in each position with a view to their reconciliation.
His method is in many ways dialectic. This methodology might have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, but it cautions against self-righteousness and the rush to moral judgment and indignation. Such elasticity in thought and imagination invites tolerance, compassion and charity.
Looking back over the decade since 9/11 it is clear how the international response to events that fateful day contributed to a harshly simplistic Manichean view of the world. We were told that the enemy’s wickedness demanded his utter destruction.
We allowed this moral indignation to carry us on wave of righteousness to commit acts of spoliation far greater than the ones that provoked our initial response to 9/11. In so doing we have learnt that a justifiable war of self-defence can be pushed too far such that we become the aggressor.
All of this serves as way of an introduction to a briefing I attended at the International Institute for Strategic Studies where James Dobbin and James Shinn explored what the guidelines for a peace process in Afghanistan might look like.
Both speakers are knowledgeable analysts and experienced practitioners. James Dobbins was the first American envoy for Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and now directs the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation. James Shinn was Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asia, responsible for Afghanistan during G.W Bush’s second term and is a lecturer at Princeton University.
Shinn and Dobbins argue that all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan now accept the objective of a negotiated peace and recognise that the Taliban must be both involved in negotiations and granted some role in the resulting government.
How one negotiates with insurgents who have been waging a Holy War is not going to be easy, it will require greater understanding as to what they want and what they fear. How one reconciles any peace process in Afghanistan with the interests of external parties like Iran, India and Pakistan will also be a challenge. Finding a suitable ringmaster or facilitator able to hold this multi-layered process together will itself be a challenge.
It is all too easy to be dismissive of the efforts of people like Shinn and Dobbins saying that their analysis constitutes a dangerous flight of fancy. Yet, perhaps we need such elasticity in thought and imagination to help those who find themselves in positions of power and responsibility to think through the presenting issues.