Pope Francis’ diplomatic style and strategy is about to be put to the test — the pontiff is set for a highly anticipated appearance at the United Nations as part of his US tour.
The world reacted with surprise in December when the United States and Cuba, foes for more than 50 years, signed a deal to renew diplomatic relations. A second surprise came when the Vatican piped up, announcing it was none other than Pope Francis who secured the historic agreement.
The Argentine pontiff wrote to the two countries’ leaders last fall, and the Holy See said it hosted their diplomatic delegations in October to further smooth negotiations. A South American septuagenarian had succeeded where scores of politicians had failed for decades, raising questions of what else the pope-turned-diplomat could achieve.
But some played down the pontiff’s diplomatic coup. Negotiations were already well underway and signing a deal would prove politically beneficial for both countries, with or without Francis’ backing.
His role, however, was seen as significant enough to warrant a trip to Cuba, where the pontiff arrives on Saturday, before traveling on to the States. The upcoming journey has taken on a clear political dimension, particularly in the States, where he will address Congress and speak to world leaders at the UN General Assembly.
In a rare move for a papal tour, the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has been invited along for the ride. The Vatican noted that while the pope is meeting the Cuban leader, Raul Castro, and President Obama, his staff will hold diplomatic meetings with their counterparts in each country.
The trip will be a key test for the pope’s diplomatic clout, which Colum de Sales Murphy, president of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, said is constantly maturing with his papacy.
“I’m told by people around His Holiness that he’s very open to be told that (he’s made) a mistake, that he must adjust his thinking,” he said. “But his central message of compassion and of St. Francis is actually very sophisticated and he’s very knowledgeable; he’s not in the least bit naive …. I think he has a natural diplomatic skill and it’s going to be developing.”
The pontiff is well-known for calling for peace and dialogue between communities, deploring the persecution of Christians and conflicts around the world. But his statements can be criticized for lacking substance, as Francis rarely takes sides in a dispute or specifies concrete actions that should be taken.
Raffaele Marchetti, assistant professor of international relations at Rome’s Luiss University, however, said that this is a marker of the pope’s diplomatic strategy. “If you start looking at specific resolutions, it really restricts the margins for maneuver for discussion. He leaves the possibility to open up for dialogue,” he said. The pope may not publicly put forward his opinions, but the Vatican’s views on dispute resolution are made clear in private negotiations.
The pope also has a distinct advantage over world leaders whose fragile power base hangs on the will of the electorate — he can’t be kicked out of office.
As Marchetti explained, this allows the pope to respond in a more straightforward manner than other leaders: “Yes he has been elected, but he cannot be forced to resign. So in that sense there is an insurmountable difference to all the different leaders; their political career can end at any moment. (With the pope) it’s an election for life and that gives him more freedom.”
Marchetti described the pope’s moment under the spotlight as “one of the most important speeches at the General Assembly,” agreeing that Francis would be well-received by world leaders.
He noted China, Russia, and Turkey as some of the states that have not had “particularly positive” relations with the Vatican, although he added that there have been signs of diplomatic progress with each country. “Few leaders can afford to have a tense relationship with the Vatican,” Marchetti said.
With the US-Cuba deal secured, there is speculation about where the pontiff could intervene next. Last month Colombia’s FARC rebel group said they had requested a meeting with the pope in Cuba, where negotiations have been held with the Colombian government. The Vatican at the time said there was no scheduled meeting between FARC and the pontiff, although Francis is known to make last-minute changes to his agenda.
Earlier this year, the Vatican signed its first legal treaty with Palestine, calling for a two-state solution with Israel, but the Israeli government swiftly rejected the move as a damaging “hasty step.”
Francis has repeatedly voiced his concern for Christian groups facing persecution in the Middle East, while also calling for peace in the region, Syria in particular. While the pope will not be able to end conflicts single-handedly, Murphy said Francis at least offers an alternative approach to those “who rely on military might.”
This failure of the world’s politicians to reach solutions without resorting to weapons provides greater room for papal diplomacy. “He’s going to be seen as an increasingly universal figure,” said Murphy. “The pope told diplomats to be builders of bridges, and that will become increasingly evident.”