A former ambassador finds much to like in Pope Francis’ diplomatic instincts

Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, sign documents during an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)   Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, sign documents during an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, Jr. is a legendary polyglot analyst of geopolitics with broad diplomatic experience, especially in China, the Middle East and Africa. He was President Richard Nixon’s principal translator for the epic 1972 meeting in Beijing with Mao Zedong and went on to serve in key government positions for decades. During the First Gulf War, he served as the ambassador to Saudi Arabia; two years later, he was appointed the assistant secretary of defense—evidence of the unusual respect both the diplomatic and military community have for him.

Mr. Freeman spoke about the dangers in the manner contemporary U.S. foreign policy is conducted, which in recent years seems more reliant on military intervention and regime change than diplomacy. Mr. Freeman refers specifically to his admiration for Jesuit principles, the provisional Vatican-Beijing agreement and Pope Francis’ engagement with moderate Islamic leaders. He even proposes a solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

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In your Foreign Service career, how were you introduced to the diplomacy of the Catholic Church?
During my first tour abroad in Chennai, India, I became very close to a group of Jesuit missionaries who I admired greatly for their intellect and the rigor of their thought. I became very respectful of the Catholic Church and the Jesuits, in particular. A lot of what they were trying to do was social work, listening, which was helpful.

At the highest form, Hinduism is monotheistic, but it is pantheistic overall. The Jesuits helped me try to understand it. The distinguishing mark of the Jesuits everywhere is attentiveness to local culture and theology and an effort to assimilate that theology into Catholicism, which gets them into trouble periodically. I think it is the correct approach.

You are aware of the dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing. In your view, did Pope Francis make a mistake by signing a provisional agreement last September with the Chinese government?
I do follow it quite closely for several reasons. First of all, it is historically important. When the Catholic Church repudiated the Jesuits’ efforts in China [in the 18th century], it made a great historical error. Pope Francis is obviously not a Dominican, so I think this is a return to an earlier strategy on the part of the church that makes sense—whether it can succeed or not is a different issue.

Surely allowing the development of an indigenous but Catholic church in China ought to be important, especially given the size and weight of China in world matters.

Is Francis making a mistake? I don’t think so. His papacy is marked by outreach to many religious and ethnic traditions. He has been quite courageous on some issues. His outreach to Islam is entirely appropriate and wise.

Surely allowing the development of an indigenous but Catholic church in China ought to be important, especially given the size and weight of China in world matters. Is Francis making a mistake? I don’t think so.

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In the case of China, if you don’t cooperate with the system, then you will get nowhere. I think the pope is thinking, probably, about saving souls in China and the entryway is through cooperation with the establishment. If you stand outside China, particularly if you ally with the alternative regime in Taipei, then you make yourself irrelevant or an enemy—which is worse.

It is always difficult to reconcile church and state, especially when the state is a Leninist state following an official ideology that justifies its intrusion into the issues that, in much of the world, are reserved for the spiritual rather than secular authorities. And I’m frankly appalled by the re-introduction of anti-religious efforts, most prominently against the Uighur community.

So I am aware of the compromises that have had to be made, but I think it is a promising opening.

In diplomatic terms, how would you describe the approach being used by the Holy See?
The approach is a combination of idealism and pragmatism. Idealism means the objective is broad and spiritual and ambitious. It doesn’t mean you are unrealistic, but you have aspirations for something better than the current situation.

Pragmatism means a willingness to develop concrete arrangements for advance, as long as they don’t violate principles.

From what I know about the secret compromise, neither the pope nor China have given up whatever authority they assert. They are trying to find a way to cooperate. That’s very good. It’s worth a try. If it fails, I don’t think the church has lost anything.

A priority area for Pope Francis is dialogue with Islam. You were ambassador to Saudi Arabia and director of an important think tank dedicated to the Middle East. In your view, what is the best strategy for minimizing or containing radical Islam?
I applaud Pope Francis’ outreach to the Islamic world. It is a reversal of a series of mistakes by his predecessor, who went out of his way to convert a Muslim in St. Peter’s Basilica, which was quite a provocation and truncated what had been a positive evolution with, for example, the late King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah had reasons of his own to promote an interfaith dialogue. He endowed and left behind an institution in Vienna devoted to it: the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.

One reason for doing it internationally was to normalize relations with the outside world because Saudi Arabia is the only country on the planet that was never penetrated by Western missionaries or militaries or even merchants for that matter.

Find allies in the Islamic world who share a vision of tolerance and openness and who recognize the concept of the Abrahamic religions as having a common core of beliefs.

Abdullah saw the interfaith dialogue internationally as part of an opening for interfaith dialogue within Islam and particularly between the Kingdom’s Salafi elements and its Shia minority. I discussed this with him. The two processes, the domestic national dialogue between Shia and Sunni, and the international interfaith dialogue, were closely related. He was a pious man. He believed in his religion and had enormous dislike for extremists.

What went wrong?
Unfortunately, the king’s initiative was met with strategic incomprehension and indifference. Its political theology was too complex for all but the most sophisticated non-Muslims to understand. This effort to flank and subvert the extremists deserved support, not an alliance perhaps, but some sort of limited partnership was possible, and we blew it.

When I say “we,” I mean the community beyond Islam, including the church and certainly the United States.

The best way to approach things is to find allies in the Islamic world who share a vision of tolerance and openness and who recognize the concept of the Abrahamic religions as having a common core of beliefs even though we differ in some ways, importantly, in some doctrine.

It seems to me that Pope Francis is very much now following that path and the question is—now that Abdullah is not there and King Salman is not well—who is there in the Islamic World who might pick this up and take it somewhere? I think the answer, unfortunately, is probably not Saudi Arabia under MBS [Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz], the crown prince, who may deserve to go to confession and be absolved of his sins, which are rather considerable.

Francis is pursuing a strategy of creative outreach across cultural differences typical of the Jesuits, fortunately. We need to have peace between religious entities. The consequences of allowing hatred to prevail are ruinous.

Francis has called the war in Ukraine a “fratricide,” not an invasion. Why do you think the Holy See privileges its rapport with Russia, rather than encouraging Ukraine’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO, as the United States wants?
This is entirely consistent with Pope Francis’ espousal of tolerance: that he would not take sides simply because there is a schism in the church, which is a matter of regret, and pride on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

It’s also sensible, geopolitically, in my view because the problem with Ukraine is not fundamentally external but internal. This is a society that has yet to establish itself as a viable state. It is highly corrupt. It is divided linguistically and religiously. There is no consensus on Ukraine joining the E.U. or NATO, quite the contrary.

I suppose the pope is concerned about the Catholic community in Ukraine and would like to see Ukraine emerge as a viable, prosperous, democratic, at least well-governed, state.

My own view is simple: Ukraine cannot be a member of either the European or Russian bloc. It must be both a bridge and a buffer between them. In order to do that, it needs to become a viable country. It needs to develop an economy that works. In fact, the Ukrainian economy is very closely tied to Russia, and that can’t be undone.

By not taking sides in the manner that he has done, the pope has not prejudiced the possibility of a prosperous, peaceful Ukraine.

Finally, there is an example we should be looking at: the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and the United States agreed to withdraw from Austria, enabling it to emerge, for the first time, as a German-dominated independent state. But they did it in such a way that allowed the ethnic minorities to be treated fairly and given a measure of autonomy. If we could do that at the height of the Cold War, why can’t we do something like that in Ukraine?

So by not taking sides in the manner that he has done, the pope has not prejudiced the possibility of a prosperous, peaceful Ukraine.

To Pope Francis diplomacy requires dialogue, encounter, respect for the other, accompaniment. What is diplomacy in your view?
Diplomacy rests on empathy more than received knowledge, texts or quantitative analysis. It demands insight beyond the purely intellectual into what makes foreigners do foreign things. Diplomacy is grounded in personal experience, apprenticeship and area knowledge. It is culture-specific, reliant on intuition, attuned to emotion as well as reason as a behavioral determinant and tested in daily professional interactions with counterparts.

Elaborate, please, on the importance of empathy.
Empathy is different from sympathy. Empathy is understanding. Sympathy is agreement. Go back to the Jesuits. I found them empathetic. I didn’t think they agreed with me at all about my religious beliefs, but we could have a respectful dialogue.

In diplomacy, empathy is everything because you are trying to persuade someone that what you want them to do is in their interests. So you have to know how they see the world. You have to be able to say: “If you do this, you will benefit.” To make that argument, which is the opposite of coercion, you have to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world as they see it.

You have publicly criticized the U.S. foreign policy establishment for emphasizing military rather than diplomatic solutions, and you have pointed to the political “spoils system”—ambassadorships given to big donors and the like—as weakening the U.S. capacity to understand the world. Are there signs of change coming?
Certainly not under this administration, I would not expect it. But I think it is beginning to dawn on people that amateurism in tasks that require great skill like diplomacy is costly and that we should be developing professionalism.

So, what would it take for the United States to change? Defeat of some sort?
I think, as a general proposition, one learns very little from success but a great deal from failure. So, it would take a series of failures that focus American attention on the need to improve, to innovate.

Exactly what those would be, I can’t say. I’m terribly sorry we might have to go through a series of defeats, debacles maybe, before we begin to clear the air.

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Gabriel Marcella
3 months ago

Ambassador Freeman is a great statesman. His views merit attention, especially at a time when the United States lacks effective global leadership and foreign policy. His comments on the cultural sensitivity of the Jesuits are verifiable throughout the world. For example, Jesuit research centers in Latin America are valuable sources of analysis on the socio-economic and political situation of each country. In Colombia, Jesuit Father Francisco de Roux once directed a research center and is currently deeply involved in the peace process.

J Cosgrove
2 months 4 weeks ago

I would not point to Jesuits and Latin America as examples of enlightenment. The current head of the Jesuits was a major cheer leader of Chavez in Venezuela. Latin America is one of the most Catholic and one of the most violent areas of the world. If one thinks Catholic involvement in socio economic policy had merit this is living proof of the opposite

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