Wisdom-based Foreign Relations

The following article began its life in late-2008 as a Wisdom Project Special Paper that I had been asked to write for a senior political official in Britain. He was curious as to what the agency of wisdom might practically offer political and religious leaders and their advisers working in the field of Western – Middle East relations. I later revised and expanded the Paper into this article for a wider audience. 

If it seems like a lengthy piece, it’s not, when compared to all the regional and global issues and intersections involved. I was selective, and specialists in the field will understand this. For visitors to this page who may like more about the wisdom-based way of reasoning that informs this article, see: a summary review of the historic wisdom tradition and its literature, which looks with fresh eyes at the tradition and its relevance for today.

Seeing International Relations and
Foreign Policy through Different Eyes

Five Norms of Wisdom for Thinking about More Cooperative Relations

between the United States and the Muslim Middle East

by Charles Strohmer

A reflection from the sage Qoheleth:

“I came to see this as wisdom under the sun and it
appeared great to me. There was a small city with few
men in it, and a great king came to it, surrounded it,
and constructed large siegeworks against it. Now
there was found in the city a poor but wise man,
and he saved the city from war by his wisdom. Yet
afterward no one remembered that poor man or his
words. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war.”

War and Peace. We have lived with both since the earliest days of our history, when brother first slew brother and third-party intervention set forth the terms of a settlement meant to prevent its escalation. Fat chance of that. If history is testimony to anything, it reveals a race of people whose preference for solving its differences through nonviolence stretches just so far and then snaps. There are of course many and varied reasons for this, and we don’t have to look any further than the vast literature of international relations and foreign policy to find these reasons explained and subjected to analyses of all sorts. Despite this expanding universe of commentary, however, the surge from peace to war remains an enduringly lamentable history of human affairs. War cannot be explained away.

In our day, political ideology can be implicated in the causes of war, and my goal in this essay is to offer some ideas salient of the historic wisdom tradition as a way for our national leaders and their policymakers to avoid sectarian ideological interests that can not only lead to war but impede or obstruct human flourishing on the international scene. I see this way ahead as particularly urgent when the political leadership of the United States and Iran, for instance, in their dependence on ideologically driven attempts to make nice with each other, seem to be bringing the world closer to a war over Iran’s nuclear program. Before that threshold is crossed, it might be wise if everyone paused, took some deep breaths, counted to ten, and then reasoned together about the alternative way of wisdom.

In short, the wisdom way is a non-ideological way for enabling human flourishing across boundaries. After years of research into the international aspects of the historic wisdom tradition, I’ve become convinced that it is a missing jewel in today’s bilateral and multilateral relations. For it offers world leaders and foreign policy advisors a way to transcend, so to speak, ideological sticking points that may contribute to war while helping them to find reasonable and responsible approaches to defuse adversarial relations and to build more cooperative international arrangements. This seems particularly important given the absolutized ideological interests that came to dominate the practice of U.S. foreign policy for much of the first decade of the new millennium.

The following material has been adapted from a book I am writing about wisdom-based approaches to relations between the United States and countries of the Muslim Middle East. It enters an energetic foreign policy conversation about those relations that has been taking place in the halls of power, think tanks, universities, and across dinner tables ever since powerful jet engines traveling five hundred miles an hour disappeared with a burr into the Twin Towers. I believe wisdom-based approaches will help national leaders and their policymakers search out and find ways wiser than war for Western–Mideast relations.

To readers in the foreign policy community, I apologize for ignoring many aspects and nuances of the conversation that you may be interested in. To other readers, I apologize for taking you into the middle of a foreign policy conversation whose antecedents you may be not be familiar with. I hope to cover these sufficiently for all of you in the book, but you are also welcome to contact me about them in the meantime. (My sincere thanks to numerous  political and religious leaders and advisors – Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secularists — in America and elsewhere — who have taken time from their busy schedules to comment on various stages in this material’s development and encourage me to “keep going.” Any errors, however, are mine.)

What I hope to accomplish, in what follows, is to briefly introduce some basic features surrounding five norms of wisdom for international relations and foreign policy in the context of U.S.–Middle East relations. In the inescapable drama that is human life and death, wisdom cries both in the halls of power and in the street for us to listen to what she has to say about building more cooperative arrangements between peoples who are different. As noted international relations theorist Jonathan Schell has said in his remarkable book The Unconquerable World, it is time that we addressed the larger and more fundamental questions about war and peace and greatly de-emphasize the war system and institute more peaceable paths. “Force can only lead to more force, not to peace,” Schell writes. “Only a turn to structures of cooperative power can offer hope.”

There has been a lot of political dislocation, internationally, in recent years, as a result of the national worldview crises that America and countries of the Muslim Middle East have been faced with since the attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing responses. New ways of reasoning are desperately needed. Leaderships need new ideas and we all need to be discussing them. The following is not scientific formulae but some wisdom-based possibilities for fresh thought, creativity, and action.


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