Dialogue and Mutual Understanding: Three Perspectives

During 2013, the year of the Ikeda Center's 20th anniversary, we invited friends of the Center to comment on their choice of our seven core convictions. Joseph Nye, Gonzalo Obelleiro, and Ved Nanda chose to reflect on our first core conviction: "Dialogue and Mutual Understanding and Inseparable and Needed Now More than Ever."

Joseph Nye:
Dialogue as Soft Power

In the past, I have written about the importance of soft power, the ability to get what one wants through attraction and persuasion than coercion or payment. Soft power is a "two way street." It depends on what is going on in one's own mind as well as the minds of others. To be effective with soft power, one must listen and engage in dialogue, not merely give commands. To be credible in a century where power is diffusing from states to non-state actors, government efforts to project soft power will have to accept that power is less hierarchical in an information age, and social networks become more important.

To succeed in a networked world requires leaders to think in terms of attraction and co-option rather than command. Leaders need to think of themselves as being in a circle rather than atop a mountain. That means that two way communications are more effective than commands. As a young Czech participant at a Salzberg Seminar once observed “this is the best propaganda because it’s not propaganda.” In other words,  dialogue is essential.

Soft power is generated only in part by what the government does through its policies and public diplomacy. The generation of soft power is also affected in positive ways by a host of non-state actors within and outside a country. Those actors affect both the general public and governing elites in other countries, and create an enabling or disabling environment for government policies. In some cases, soft power will enhance the probability of other elites adopting policies that allow us to achieve our preferred outcomes. Even in instances where governments have strained relations, the interactions of civil societies and non-state actors may help to further general milieu goals such as democracy, liberty, and development. Dialogue and mutual understanding are needed now more than ever.

Gonazalo Obelleiro:
Dialogue for Vulnerability, Dialogue for Justice

I see two kinds of dialogue as especially important for our time: dialogue for vulnerability and dialogue for justice. In genuine dialogical encounters, we become vulnerable. To genuinely engage someone in dialogue across differences (cultural, religious, socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender, among others) means to allow the normative demands of their condition to enter my moral life. This is a destabilizing, yet potentially empowering experience, in that it enables growth.

Vulnerability is a power when we can count on one another. Its power lies in its ability to humanize others. The many artificial walls we erect to separate ourselves from one another come down as we become vulnerable together in dialogue; we come to recognize humanity in one another, and this recognition of a shared humanity presupposes some degree of equality.

Under conditions of oppression, however, when the humanity of the weak fails to be recognized, the creative potential of dialogue for vulnerability approaches its limit and vulnerability becomes what we normally think of it: a source of weakness (Could it be that this is the common sense view of vulnerability because oppression is so pervasive in our societies?). When dialogue for vulnerability reaches its limit, we need dialogue for justice.

As the expression suggests, dialogue for justice is about power. Such dialogue seeks to challenge abuses of power and empower the weak; it finds expression in political action and political association. We are all too familiar with modes of political life that fall short of the dialogical ideal. Manipulation, intimidation, and deceit seem ever-present in the political toolkit of many leaders, even those who nominally or sincerely pursue justice. But a commitment to the pursuit of justice through dialogue forbids reverting to the logic of “defeating the enemy by any means available.”

Ultimately, both kinds of dialogue are interdependent. We need a minimum guarantee of justice to open ourselves to others in vulnerability, and justice can only be established on the basis of trust and mutual understanding. In his published dialogues and activities for peace, culture, and education, Mr. Ikeda exemplifies the art and patient labor of dialogue for vulnerability and justice. Over the two decades since its founding, the Ikeda Center has unerringly pursued this same path of dialogue.

When I try to picture a vision of the kind of public that Dewey described as sustaining a creative democracy, I imagine a society where the kinds of dialogue for vulnerability and for justice that the Ikeda Center promotes would be the norm, rather than the exception. Such a vision might still appear far away, but a great source of meaning is to be found in the work that lies ahead. 

Ved Nanda:
An Alternative to the Use of Force

President Ikeda’s reflections in the aftermath of 9/11 on the power of dialogue above all and his sage advice to listen and learn from those different from us should resonate with all who aspire for global peace. Today’s world, torn by ethnic and religious conflicts, suffers from mistrust and hatred, leading to widespread death and destruction. This has led to humanitarian crises in several countries. Take for instance the Republic of Congo, where 6 million people have died and precious minerals fuel internal conflict. Look at Syria — 125,000 people dead and six million displaced, including two million refugees. We are indeed compelled to find alternatives to the use of force in resolving disputes.

The UN was established for just this purpose — to create a neutral setting where world leaders could enter into dialogue, exchange ideas, and create a climate of mutual understanding, which would eventually lead to stable and lasting peace. We have to live up to these ideals and, along with President Ikeda, believe in the power of dialogue above all.

In Peace,

Ved Nanda

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Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard University. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In 2004, he published Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics; and Understanding International Conflict (5th edition). In 2008 he published The Powers to Lead and his latest book, published in 2011, is The Future of Power.

Gonzalo Obelleiro, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a doctoral student of philosophy and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research is intended, he says, “to introduce the perspective of Soka education into the already serious, dynamic, and diverse conversations on cosmopolitanism and education. More broadly, I hope with this to help revitalize humanistic approaches to education both in theory and practice.”

Dr. Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law at Denver University. His focus is international law. Among many positions of international service, he is Past President of the World Jurist Association and now its Honorary President, former honorary Vice President of the American Society of International Law and now its counselor, and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.

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