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11 July, 2008

'How to best assist America to play the global leadership role that has been thrust upon it as the world's only superpower' - a dialogue between Rajmohan Gandhi and Pakistan's Ambassador to the US.

289'How to best assist America to play the global leadership role that has been thrust upon it as the world's only superpower' was the theme of a fascinating dialogue between Rajmohan Gandhi and Pakistan's Ambassador to the US at a gathering attended by over 70 people at the McLean IofC center on March 23. Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, author of six books, and visiting professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, noted two weaknesses that characterize the US today: the fact that those who frame US policy on matters of importance often do not know the regions for which they create policy; and the fact that US policy is often perceived as not being evenhanded, especially with regard to the Middle East.

On the other hand, he continued, the US has two great strengths: 'Unlike the world powers that have preceded it, the country is composed of the people of the entire world. The US can take advantage of the knowledge and connections these people have both in shaping and carrying out its policy.' Secondly, 'Having assembled all these representatives of humanity, the US has persuaded them to obey the rule of law.'

The Pakistani Ambassador, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, who was Ambassador to Syria, the German Democratic Republic, the USSR, China, and India before coming to Washington, said, 'You have to understand the counter - narrative of the party with whom you have a conflict and respect the counter - narrative.' Later he said, 'Your power influences every individual who lives on this earth.' Commenting on some of the things said about other countries by figures in our government and the media, he said, 'The US is too great to be mean - spirited.'

The comments by these two prompted many thoughtful responses and questions from others present. Joseph Montville, a retired foreign service officer, currently working in the field of preventive diplomacy, commented on the role of symbols both in supporting extreme nationalism, or religious fanaticism, and in lifting up a wider identity, to which people can aspire. For example, he is working with Pakistani and Indian businessmen to reclaim the joint historical vision of the subcontinent, as reflected in the ancient Indus Valley civilization. 'Reclaiming history is a critical way of advancing public discourse,' he said.

Tariq Karim, a recent ambassador from Bangladesh to the US, played a part in helping India and Bangladesh to reach agreement on the use of the Ganges River waters. 'When two people talk across each other with different narratives,' he said, 'it is important for both sides to acknowledge that any results cannot be a zero sum game. Concessions from one must be met by some from the other.' 'The biggest prisons,' he concluded, 'are the prisons we set in our own minds.'

Ambassador John McDonald, who had established the Institute for Multi - Track Diplomacy after retiring from diplomatic service, told of a people to people initiative he was working on with the governments of India and Pakistan which, if it is accepted, would allow people whose families are divided to travel by bus between the capital cities of the two Kashmirs for day - long visits.

Dr Douglas Johnston, head of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, reflected, 'We have to learn to put on the other person's hat, to discover their legitimate aspirations.'

Responding to the sense of hopelessness expressed by one young American, Ambassador Qazi said that it is possible to organize to change things in America: study the problem well to become convinced that you are right in your views; find like - minded people to work with you; and bring the issue to the attention of others - at both the grassroots and leadership levels. He had seen this happen on issues of women's rights and the environment, which had been addressed by 'intelligent work.'

Responding to concerns voiced by some present about US policies, Gandhi suggested that Americans should hold President Bush accountable to his own assertion that 'God is the God of everyone and every human being on earth is of equal worth.'