The 11th Biannual Meeting

The 11th Biannual Meeting

Oxford, England - April 04 2015 - April 09 2014

The Eleventh Biannual Meeting of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was held in Oxford, England from April 6 to April 9, 2014. The IDI was hosted at Harris Manchester College, home of the new Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC), of which Lord Alderdice is a principal. This was the IDI’s first meeting in Oxford.

IDI members structured their eleventh biannual meeting around country presentations and process discussions, with particular focus on recent elections in Turkey, member work in Northern Ireland, and events in Ukraine and Iran. Day two of the meeting evolved into a discussion on IDI processes, future tasks and entry points.

The IDI welcomed guest participant Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner of the Vienna-based strategic consulting firm Atieh International. The IDI was also joined for its eleventh biannual meeting by two other guest contributors: Dr. Eugen Koh, a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist who serves as director of the DAX Centre in Melbourne, Australia, and Dr. Gabrielle Rifkind, group analyst, specialist in conflict resolution and director of the Middle East program at the Oxford Research Group. Dr. Koh’s work focuses in part on fostering a greater understanding of mental health issues through art and creativity. During his visit at Harris Manchester College, he presented a workshop discussion entitled “Art and Healing in Aboriginal Australia.” Dr. Rifkind, in turn, is an accomplished conflict resolution professional with particular experience and interest in the psychology of the Middle East peace process. Her latest book is entitled “The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Peacemaking.”

What follows herein is NOT a full report of IDI discussions, but rather a synopsis of key observations.


Reconvening after several months, IDI members began by briefing one another on their individual political and personal circumstances. Funding issues were discussed and the group confirmed that its funding continues to be from non-partisan, non-governmental sources. Ford Rowan briefed members on the formal incorporation of the IDI as a U.S. 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Absent members were inquired after and membership commitments discussed.

The Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College (CRIC)
Lord Alderdice discussed the formation of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College. With increasing polarization in conflict regions around the world, Lord Alderdice and others saw the need for a center of study that combined research, direct engagement and – critically – a supervision component in conflict resolution work. Such a center required an academic home offering a compatible culture, institutional ethic and focus, while simultaneously providing accessibility, standing and a sense of permanence. In 2013 the center found that home at Harris Manchester College, which has a tradition of academic rigor dating from the mid-1700s.

Harris Manchester College affords CRIC access to the substantial research and scholarship components of Oxford University, which CRIC will use to engage in classic social science research on conflict. CRIC will in turn utilize that research in direct conflict resolution engagements while also providing supervision on third-party engagements.


IDI member Dr. Robi Friedman then chaired a discussion about recent events in Turkey, including the municipal elections in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere. Members discussed the growing schism between the Erdoğan government and supporters of the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fetullah Gülen. Members also discussed the competing uses and effects of social media campaigns on public perceptions.

With regard to the recent municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere, the ruling AK Party’s triumphs suggested to members a strongly “statist” electorate, which had rallied around PM Erdoğan when he portrayed his critics as engaged in attacks on the Turkish state. Questions about the legitimacy and mandate of the municipal election results and the effect on national elections scheduled for next year were also discussed.

A lengthy discussion ensued, in which members discussed the concept of “political Islam.” One member suggested that when a large-group finds itself in a situation of identity change or confusion (due to various reasons ranging from going through a revolution to being subjected to a political leader’s personalized “new” visions) and ask “who are we now?” they can either look forward or look back, and the direction depends on the leader they have at the time. Another member noted that part of the explanation for Turkey’s pivot away from the European Union and internal focus had to do with the poor treatment Turkey had received from the European Union, which has tantalized Turkey while failing to embrace it. This member suggested that certain EU member states would resist the expansion of the EU to include Turkey no matter how many hoops Turkey jumped through in its application process. That resistance and rejection informed Turkish international and internal politics, pushing Turkey away from Europe and into the mindset of a Middle Eastern power broker. Turkey’s recent troubles with its neighbours in Syria, Israel, Kurdistan and elsewhere suggested that the transition has not been an easy one.

This member went on to encourage IDI members to step back and consider the possibility that certain institutions intended to guard against nationalism, institutions like democracy and education, were not capable of doing so, perhaps because democracy can be understood as simply the will of the majority and that majority might well institutionalize procedures that look, from the outside, like anti-democratic processes. An IDI guest asked whether a people could cultivate the imagination to look towards the future, and how a populace might extend such a collective imagination.

One IDI member observed that in Iran, secular progressives and modern Islamists joined together to bloc vote, while it appeared that in Turkey the opposite was occurring – secular progressives and modern Islamists getting farther apart. IDI members discussed scenarios for how this dynamic might play out, especially against the internal Islamic schism between the governing political party, AKP, and Gülen supporters.

Israel and Palestine

The IDI turned to a discussion on the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the apparent collapse of the Kerry Initiative, and the frustrating intractability of a dispute in which the major negotiating details appear to be known and potentially manageable. A private intervention by certain IDI members was discussed. One IDI member remarked that it felt to him like Israel’s demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state” was new and potentially problematic. It was one thing, he observed, to demand recognition of “the State of Israel,” and something else to demand recognition of “the Jewish and Democratic State of Israel.” Were those terms in fact contradictory? Can a state identify as both “Jewish” and “democratic”? Another IDI member wondered whether an effort to build both an identity and a democracy was sustainable.

One member spoke about an Israeli perspective that Iran and Saudi Arabia were assuming new power roles in the Middle East, and that Israel might look to one to balance out the other. Other IDI members expressed concern with this perspective. The concept of a “threshold anxiety” was raised as a potential factor in Israel’s negotiation mindset – as the threshold for peace and resolution approaches, anxiety rises. This member suggested that Israel, after years of holding out hope, might desire to “see things as they are.” He suggested that Israel might become tired of “only talking with the ‘good ones’” and look to historically problematic partners to achieve its security goals.

An IDI guest described the situation in the Middle East as one of “strategic confusion.” This guest suggested that Israeli hopes for Saudi assistance, directly or indirectly, reflect such confusion. He suggested that the Sunni/Shia divide exists primarily at a political level rather than a social one, and that Saudi Arabia’s own strategic goals are unlikely to align with Israel’s. Saudi Arabia, an unstable gerontocracy in which almost all oil was under the control of the Shia minority, was the most dangerous country in the Middle East. He discouraged Israeli consideration of military action against Iran, noting that Iran, despite its divisions, was more than capable of a generational war.

One IDI member noted that Israel was suggesting that one irresolvable conflict might be solved by shifting to another irresolvable conflict. If this were true, what was it about the Sunni/Shia conflict that could hold such weight? Another member, picking up on this thread, recounted an experience with a paranoid airplane passenger. By going along with this passenger’s paranoia, this member had resolved the immediate crisis, but had not ensured any sort of freedom for the passenger. He suggested that Israel, by going along with a sort of national paranoia, was creating the exact circumstances it feared most. In effect, by saying “never again,” it was setting up a circumstance where a second holocaust was plausible. He further suggested that the only people who would want a two-state solution at this point were Israelis committed to a “Jewish and Democratic” Israel.

Russia & Ukraine – Sasha Obolonsky

IDI member Sasha Obolonsky led a group discussion on events in Russia and Ukraine. After a brief primer on Russia’s historical relationship and involvement with Crimea, an IDI member suggested that Russia, and in particular President Putin, was engaged in a return to the logic of realpolitik, seizing on symbols of post-Soviet traumas. This member suggested that this was a costly delusion, an unfortunate template that reduced the world to a chessboard. Was Russia’s Crimea gambit likely to pathologize and spread, or to become an isolated event, soon forgotten by the wider world? Another member remarked that, while Crimea had long been neglected by the Ukrainian government, Russia was using it as a way to project itself as a global power intent on filling perceived power gaps (such as those in Syria, Iran and Iraq).

Another IDI member noted that, for Russia, the end of the Soviet Union was a psychological trauma that President Putin was trying to reactivate. He suggested that sometimes the illusion of empire becomes an ambition of empire. He cautioned that President Putin was unlikely to stop with Crimea, or with Ukraine, and would continue to probe for ways to position Russia as a global rival to the West. The IDI remained concerned about the West’s ability to react and the fantasy among some liberals that “wars are over”. Are people still prepared to face the reality of human aggression? To this member, Crimea suggests not. At the same time, Russia’s actions in Crimea are likely to mobilize NATO and other Western organizations. One question is whether the world is now so financially and technologically interconnected that relatively isolated conflicts such as Crimea still have the power to become global flashpoints. Russia, for example, has significant financial and industrial ties with Western Europe, and London in particular. Do these ties reduce the chance that a conflict like the one in Crimea spreads across Eastern Europe?

Northern Ireland

Lord Alderdice briefed the group on his work in Northern Ireland. Not only has the peace process there stalled, but old problems have begun re-emerging. The IDI intervention performed in 2013 has taken a back seat to formal negotiations led by the American Richard Haas over three issues: flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles as embodied in former combatants. These negotiations were proceeding.

Lord Alderdice discussed the demographic and educational shifts within the Catholic and Protestant communities which were fuelling some of the current tensions, as Protestants – long the dominant demographic community in Northern Ireland – lost ground on educational and employment fronts. Lord Alderdice noted that the educational performance within the young Loyalist community of Northern Ireland was lower than that of the Roma community. He discussed the difficulties of taking such a community forward, and of fostering symmetry between the antagonists such that negotiations are possible. The Protestant community, he suggested, ran the real risk of disempowering itself to the point where it could no longer engage in meaningful peacemaking efforts.

One IDI member noted the paradox of the Protestant community’s active rejection of the educational involvement that would both prepare them for new employment and help their children have a better future. Similar self-defeating processes have occurred in other locations where a dominant industry or governmental system – on which a group has relied for support and status – has moved on. Collective depression occurs in relation to this multi-level loss, along with bitterness and an angry rejection of help, which is seen as an acceptance of the hated change. How do large groups re-join society after feeling betrayed by the industrial or governmental leaders on whom they have depended and with whom they have identified?

Members analyzed the process lessons of the IDI engagement at Corrymeela, including the difficulty of fostering a candid exchange and participant buy-in within a short timeframe. Members also contrasted their own enthusiasm for the Corrymeela engagement with that of the participants, whose scepticism about such interventions grew out of the frequency with which they were attempted.

New Areas of Work

The IDI discussed possible new areas of work in Iran, Israel and Northern Ireland. An IDI guest discussed entry points in Iran and possible resetting of US-Iran relations stemming from the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013. A member discussed Israeli concerns and hopes regarding such entry points, noting that despite its concerns the last thing Israel should do is interfere.

Process and Progress

The IDI discussed how to compress group relations work into a shorter timeframe, and how to work across generations within one side of a conflict, rather than just bringing two mirroring sides of a conflict together, in order to address the “loyalty crisis” felt by younger generations in negotiating the conflicts of their older generations. Dr. Volkan stressed the importance of a diagnostic approach to large group trauma. Dr. Shapiro urged the group to see the phenomena that arise during IDI discussions – fantasy, intergenerational anxiety, large-group identity – and use them. What, he asked, is the question that the IDI wants to ask that the large group intervention would be designed to answer?

The Eleventh Biannual Meeting closed with a call to take the IDI’s work from concept to engagement, either in large group settings or in individual or small team consultations.