A Discussion with Thomas Getman, Executive Director for International Relations, World Vision (retired)
May 22, 2011
Background: As part of the Future of Track-Two Diplomacy Undergraduate Fellows Seminar, in fall 2010 Ana Cenaj interviewed Thomas Getman, former executive director for international relations at World Vision, about the intersections of U.S. foreign policy, religion, and track-two diplomacy.
Please tell me about your current responsibilities and how you got to this position.
I have been retired for three years. I was with World Vision for 25 years before retirement, assigned for the UN as the coordinator of world affairs. I spent a lot of time doing partnership with various humanitarian communities, working with NGOs. Working with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies because of this position, I was on a team of travel—to help people understand the necessity of coordination of organizations that are doing humanitarian works, particularly relief. What happens is that in that role, I build partnerships among all the different parts of the humanitarian communities. I helped to get the UN country team leader to coordinate with all the different partners. I do that today pro bono; they simply pay for my expenses. That came from being first in government for 10 years with a U.S. senator and then being a senior executive particularly in government relations in Washington, D.C., Palestine, and Geneva. And that’s how it all came about that my larger responsibility developed.
What specific role is there for civil society and religious actors when it comes to diplomacy and peace building?
We keep in touch with more critical countries/regions (Middle East and South Africa), and we have to nurture relationships with people in government. We work with people we can mutually trust and keep in touch regularly (with people all over government), and we act as bridge builders, people who don’t have a bone to pick but try and keep people together. We have been able to sit enemies together so they could hold a conversation because they knew we could be trusted and allow them to work a certain way. People of faith need to be people of faith—people who work from a higher reality and understand prophetic literature like Jeremiah and Jesus. We need to be people of prayer to hold up our reality, and finally I would say that we need to be asking the question: what can I personally do? What am I being called to do? What should I do, and how can I mobilize people to do it?
Are there examples in your career when religious factors hindered or aided U.S. policy? What kinds of effects has a rigid adherence to separation of church and state had on U.S. foreign policy and initiatives?
I’ve seen it as a way in—people who are followers of Jesus know that there are things to be gained by learning from his example, and even in South Africa and Israel people have worked with the United States because they realized that aligning with faith could create a common cause. It will be harder in the Middle East, because most Jewish people don’t have a concept of understanding and reconciliation.
Do you think that others view the United States as highly religious or secular? What are the implications, from your perspective, of this view by other countries?
People have to have a moral center to do this sort of thing. To do this work, one has to have some sort of humanitarian principles we operate on. There are many people in secular organizations that have a faith orientation. I find them in all of the different aspects of the humanitarian community I have chaired with. They may not be evangelical, but they may have a strong faith orientation—Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. So people that have that find that they have a real common cause when they are working for people in need. You don’t have to be a person who pushes your religion to have your faith principles cohere or be highly coordinated in your activities as a humanitarian. I see no separation between organizations or individuals who have a faith base; I see no separation between that and doing that kind of work we are talking about. Rarely do they interfere—it’s just as in the church-state understanding in the U.S. Constitution. The church doesn’t control the state, and the state isn’t responsible for the church—the same is true in the international affairs.
Can you tell me about any ways that U.S. policy has done well when it comes to thinking about or engaging with religious people, ideas, or organizations? Can you think of any mistakes or errors in judgment that we can learn from?
Since George W. Bush there has been a formal faith initiative in the White House. Clinton had it in the executive office, George W. had it, and he followed suit in some pretty expensive ways in HIV and AIDS issues, and now Obama is continuing it with his faith initiative with Joshua DuBois. Joshua has a wide bread of people in the faith community involved in the steering community. Those people are available so the rest of us can get our point of view in the White House decision-making process. There are still issues in getting our point of views abroad in the Middle East issue. There is such a strong commitment to Israel that we don’t hold Israel responsible, but we still have access to faith-based processes. The mistakes are where [U.S. Agency for International Development] money is used in projects where there may be overt proselytizing. It’s very hard to separate it when people come and look at the part that’s overt Christian evangelism or Islamic evangelism from money that’s for land reclamation and emergency assistance like in Japan. Some people who are unethical in the religious communities would use the founding to convert people.
What do you see as the role of the churches/mosques/religious institutions in promoting reconciliation?
I think a better illustration is South Africa...also the same in Palestine. Whether there has been oppression based on a manifest destiny, that is an idolatry that puts land in front of God himself; whether land becomes the idolatrous substitute for God—you have all sorts of rationales for developing xenophobia. That allows you to do anything with the other, including kill them (the San people or the Bantu people or the Arab people in Palestine). We have to focus ourselves in reconciliation—how there is application here in South Africa in having people confess publicly and be forgiven. Those kinds of things help in the trauma that happens—public forgiveness. There has to be forgiveness and reconciliation and healing of the memories. How to apply the lessons here in other places? Now that we are in our feet in South Africa we should turn our eyes in Palestine.
Over your career, how has the U.S. government’s awareness and/or response to religious factors changed (or stayed the same)?
Religion has begun to play a more important role. Douglas Johnston’s work was able to get more in the mainstream, and as a result many diplomats felt more comfortable to inform or interrogate their diplomatic reconciliation work and the kind of work we did here in South Africa with our deep theology.
In your interactions with other countries, have you found certain methods to be useful which were not provided directly in your job training?
It’s all based on mutual trust and relationship. There is no substitute for a trusting relationship across an ideological barrier or gulf. No matter how severe the separation may appear because of commitments to ideologies or areas related to religions or political philosophy, if you become friends you can begin to build a base for peace building and reconciliation (that’s rooted in our Christian ideology). I was trained in that by working with a man like Mark Hatfield—the author for the Hatfield McGovern Amendment to stop the Vietnam War. I didn’t get trained in that in theological school, but it came as secondhand when working in the White House, because if you don’t have that you don’t have things to base on.
Do you consider the execution of diplomacy to be a strictly secular affair? How so?
The African community is also Christian, but they behave differently because of fear of being wiped out—between white fears and black aspirations. In the Middle East is Israel’s anxiety about being whipped and the anxiety of Jewish people if they are going to be wiped out—lines of partition among trust. The best illustration is South Africa. On the church-state issue, we are not talking about church specifically, but people of faith, so it’s not really comparing apples and oranges but to keep it on the context of church/state—the church ran a real risk here of becoming a substitute/an opposition of the political party. But the church is not a political organization; Desmond Tutu was great at reinforcing this. That would be disaster for both the church and politics.
Sometimes we get close to that in the United States. We think that the Republicans are more Christian than the Democrats, and the Democrats are not really believers. Sometimes it gets into campaign statements. Everyone with a common cause knows that the church can’t be a political organization because people of every wheel are in every political organization. In the time of Constantine the church was a part of power, as well as during the German rise. The Nationalist Party in South Africa became the nationalist party—the reformist church. And even the main national public radio here became a mouthpiece for the national party and for the reform church. It’s very dangerous and in Israel—the rabbis have become the mouthpiece for politics for Jewish government, and most of them are not even believers. The church or religious structure loses its powers as a spiritual force because politics is a messy business. If the church becomes political, the church ceases to be the church. The gospel no longer has the power to speak prophetically if it is corrupted: only the person whose final standard is not her or his reason, principles, consciousness, virtue, and who is ready to sacrifice all, who is called to be obedient and responsible in faith. You can’t do that if you’re a political person/aligned to a political party.
The people who are pastors and entered the Mandela and Mbeki government feel sorry because they had to do things that violated their principles as Christians. According to this, the diakonia model popularized by liberation theology, the church is called to be the beginning of human life in Christ—a dim vision of heaven on earth. And you can’t do that if you’re supporting a political party. The church can’t run the government, and the government can’t have a heavy hand over the heavy church. The church can give their best point of view.
What are some recommendations you would offer to better engage civil society in track-two diplomacy? Which kind(s) of approach(es) would you suggest in order to particularly target the youth to become more involved in this important process of building bridges between people?
It has to be nonviolent; we are seeing a lot of effective non-violent actions—people want freedom and inalienable rights. Whatever is done must be done after the model of Gandhi/Jesus/Mandela because the sword we use pierces our own efforts—those who live by the sword will die by the sword. You can’t have diplomacy decay through violence. For the youth, movements should be cross gender, national, racial [lines], and it has got to be with an understanding that the central transaction of the universe (political with the liberalization) should be done through love and healing. What happened is that [Athol] Fugard, who wrote liberation dramas, said the central transaction of the universe is the central transaction of one person helping another/caring/finding a friend. If you're a communist and don’t have a Christian friend, find one. If you’re old and don’t have a younger friend, find one. People in the early- to mid-1980s reached out across every barrier/wall, and peopled walked hand in hand. Non-violence, building relationships across every line of partition, honoring one another even when you have tremendous differences of opinion, learning how to listen in new ways.
We can do a lot better if we have peoples through different point of views—Hatfield and Sam Nunn (who was chairman of the defense committee) were very different and would go at each other with facts, and they’d walk arm in arm and they’d go to Bible study together and pray together. If you're a person of faith, it's wonderful to find people across lines of partitions to pray with. I asked the most well-known Muslim imam in Cape Town why he hung out with Christians. He responded, "Because we are brothers." If you see the pictures of the early 1980s where the clergy marched together, you will see a picture of the imam hanging out with the others, hand in hand. It’s a wonderful model of what can happen. It happened in Egypt this year, too—Christians and Muslims marched and protected one another and stood in front of the guns together. Those are the most important. It all has to do with fostering personal growth.
How do you define the new international political order? In this definition, do you see the rise of non-governmental players as crucial influences?
Obviously, it’s the result of the internet. And a lot of what has happened in the last months in the liberation struggle is part of that. Fatmire is a perfect demonstration—she was named one of the most outstanding people of the year two years ago. It’s a very thrilling thing for people like me because when I started my international work we had no internet. We had very expensive telephone calls and telex numbers. That means that I would go to a business center and a great big clunky machine, type out a long ticker tape, and punch holes in them and stick them into a machine, and it would go on into cyberspace, and maybe three days later I’d get a response back. Decisions on the run were made, and they were rather quick—couldn’t wait three days. Now, with World Vision and the UN I had to consult and cc 10 people. Then, I had to get consensus before a decision was made.
There is good and bad to it. The bad part of it is that it stifles quick response; the good part is that you can build quite a good solidarity movement if you can be patient. We have seen the social networking that has been phenomenal. Calling people to action is a fantastic thing and works across the line of action. We can connect people in the internet. So, I have to think more about that. But I’m very confident that if managed responsibly, it can have huge impact. The other thing is that psychologists tell us that there are consequences in brain function to being oppressed, and some of the healing that can take place can take place over the internet. Healing of the Memories Institute is run by a man named Michael Lapsy. He’s a man that the South African death squads tried to assassinate in the 1990s, even after Mandela was president. He has this beautiful spirit even though he lost one eye, lost both hands, near death, and has this incredible presence. It can be handled online.
The new international order is not a supersized government because there is too much scaring in the brain function—it’s also a chemical thing in how people were trained in racism. We have this intense psychological pain that people have and have a hard time relating to one another face-to-face. You can learn to forgive and move on through talking to one another. I have no idea how your people or my people hurt each other because we met online. Jim Baker was especially good at this—he wanted to talk to someone in one of the communist countries.
In your opinion, what characteristics make for an ideal negotiator?
A very patient attitude where you don’t feel like you have to get it all done today. The guys that did Bastir were guys who were willing to work for long hours in Africa, Usaka, and with great respect listened to one another. The most important thing is that every person has a right to have their narrative listened to. When Afrikaners could do that with the [African National Congress], they realized they were humans, not someone who wanted to kill them. When they started to meet with each other, each other’s wives, go fishing, long meetings in hotels, they really found that they found something to admire in each one. Great patience and ability to listen. I think a third thing is that people that have a transcendent understanding of what their role is: divinely called to be a person of healing. If you’re patient, listen to narratives. You’ll be much more effective. We want to get ourselves into a state where we don’t have killing rage. That stuff kills away at us and cause suicide bombings. If people are humiliated at work they start to take it out in their wives/children/employees.
Do you feel that the United States would be more effective in their interventions if they incorporated working more with religious and faith-based leaders from the countries they are trying to aid into their efforts? What would be the best way to do this?
I think it is already happening, just not done publicly because people would be upset about it. They think they are trying to be less than faithful to their faith. But in fact the people I’ve found more effective are those asking for help finding the faith-based agencies. That’s where the truth and reconciliation commission comes in. Most of the NGOs, whether they are overtly faith-based or not, most have a lot of faith-oriented people in them—even those that don’t purport to be faith-based. So that’s the quick answer. But of course they’d be more effective if they’d do it more, but you’d be surprised how many faithful people in the State Department reach out when they’re junior officers and when they’re ambassadors to people in the faith-based community.
Do you believe that the objectives of traditional diplomacy differ (or should differ) from the objectives of track-two diplomacy, and that the two thus should be utilized for different purposes?
I would say yes, yes, and yes. They are different, but they often intersect. Sometimes, a person like Richard Holbrooke (as much as I admired him) didn’t understand what we were talking about. I think finally the difference is that those of us who come at it from a faith-based perspective are really serving in the Lord’s name. In South Africa, the churches and Christian groups had a very clear purpose in not subordinating human life for the larger plan of God. Our calling is to love God, and we ought to have faith and seek understanding. Each of us have a role to play—I’ve worked with people like Richard Holbrooke both in South Africa and the Middle East who are hardliners. One shouldn’t self-promote but subsume themselves to the Lord.