Non-formal Diplomacy

One manifestation of the Peace Testimony has been a commitment to build a peaceful world through Quaker ‘good offices’ at international level. One approach to this is 'non-formal diplomacy', facilitating constructive dialogue between diplomats and others

Until the early 20th century, such work mainly took the form of visits by prominent Quakers to leaders on one or both sides. In 1678, Robert Barclay addressed the ambassadors gathered at Nijmegen to negotiate the end of the Franco-Dutch War.   In 1854, Joseph Sturge led a Quaker mission to Tsar Nicholas in Russia in an attempt to avert the Crimean War.

In the 20th century this work became much more substantial, and took new forms, with the development of Quaker ‘embassies’ or ‘offices’. Quakers have acted as trusted hosts, allowing representatives of nations in disagreement or conflict to meet discreetly as their guests. They have organised conferences for diplomats and others, in order to enable discussion of key issues.

This work took off in 1917, towards the end of the First World War, at a Quaker Conference in Skipton, UK. Carl Heath presented a vision of a network of ‘Quaker Embassies’ around Europe:

We need now, after this vast disaster in Europe, true Quaker embassies in all the great centres for combined mission, service, study and international association.

Out of this vision came the Council for International Service (later the UK Friends Service Council), which, in the course of the 1920s, established Quaker centres in Berlin, Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Vienna, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow and Salonika.

In Berlin, conferences were run on Germany’s relations with France and Poland, and attempts were made to raise awareness of the impact on Germany’s economy of two things - the reparation clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, and the plight of victims of Nazi oppression.

The Paris centre was used for peace activities, the promotion of the rights of conscientious objectors and the care of refugees. In Geneva, the centre became the Liaison Office for the League of Nations, later the Quaker United Nations Office.

By 1938, only Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Geneva centres remained.  However, at the outbreak of the Second World War, centres were established in the Netherlands and Copenhagen.  One centre was established outside Europe, in Shanghai in 1939.

At the end of the war the UN was established, replacing the League of Nations, and QUNO was set up based in two 'Quaker Houses' in New York and Geneva. There, and at William Penn House in London, Friends have been able to hold private conversations and round table discussions with diplomats. Often those who would not meet together under any other auspices will accept invitations from Quakers that allow private, face-to-face conversations to take place.

During the Cold War (1947-90) between the US and Russia, and their allies, Friends sent delegations to Moscow, China and Warsaw to convey goodwill and discuss ways of achieving peace and understanding.  The ‘good offices’ of Friends such as Agatha Harrison were able to keep open channels to diplomats from the People’s Republic of China, who until 1971 had no seat at the UN.

Friends have also organised more prominent international gatherings.  In 1952, the American Friends Service Committee established the first Conference for Diplomats. These residential conferences (from eight to fourteen days long) brought diplomats together to:

  • Reinforce commitment to ethical principles
  • Discuss research findings from social science, peace studies etc
  • Raise issues of Quaker concern (such as refugees, disarmament, human rights)
  • Facilitate human contact across political divides

Between then and 1976, when the programme ended, a total of 92 conferences were run.  Canadian Friends Service Committee  ran a similar programme on Grindstone Island between 1963 and 1976.  Since then, shorter, ad hoc, conferences have been run out of the Quaker UN Offices in New York and Geneva.

In the 1970s it was estimated that 10% of the diplomatic community had met each other under Quaker-sponsored auspices. Such meetings can increase mutual understanding, and make it easier to find ways forward in formal negotiations. They provide opportunities to discuss issues, weaken stereotypes, listen to experts and be listened to. Underlying all is the Quaker stance of ‘balanced partiality’. Participants know their hosts will not take sides but will seek to help everyone equally.

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