A new book of essays published by the British Council in partnership with the think tank Global Strategy Forum looks at the power of dialogue in times of insecurity and conflict and suggests that engagement has never been more important.

The power of dialogue

Winston Churchill’s famous invocation that ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ has never been more apt. 

It may seem ironic that a man best remembered for his role as a war leader should advocate for the power of dialogue against the immediate attractions of military action. But perhaps it reflects the first-hand experience a statesman who had fought in several conflicts and seen the alternative at first hand. 

Events that could benefit from more ‘jawing’ and less ‘warring’ are rarely absent from our TV screens and newsfeeds – a depressing and apparently unbreakable cycle of violence across many parts of the world. The milestones of successful dialogue form more positive pages of history: President Obama’s visit to Cuba and the recent suspension of sanctions against Iran are two examples. Or, going back a bit further, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. 

Last month, in partnership with Global Strategy Forum, the British Council published a collection of essays by frontline dialogue-makers – people who spend their lives talking to terrorists or who are at the forefront of reducing tensions between nations.

Sometimes, just by sitting in a room and giving people an opportunity to have their say and feel understood, it is possible to change the world

‘The Value of Dialogue in Times of Hostility and Insecurity’ spells out the need for superhuman patience: for returning again and again to ‘talks’ at which no progress is made; and the need to engage with people whose views you may viscerally oppose. Above all it explains that sometimes, just by sitting in a room and giving people an opportunity to have their say and feel understood, it is possible to change the world. 


There is what might be called a science of dialogue: the three ‘tracks’ on which an issue can be engaged with, spelled out by Professor Rosemary Hollis in her essay in the collection. The first track is formal negotiation between official representatives of the protagonists. The second is less formal, exploratory talks that lay the groundwork for the formal negotiations. The third track, significantly, consists of people-to-people dialogue rather than negotiation between national representatives. Often all three are necessary. 

Progress, or non-progress, measured out in endless cups of tea taken with Martin McGuinness

Beneath and beyond this is the personal chemistry by which connections of trust are made. Jonathan Powell talks about this in the context of Northern Ireland negotiations – progress, or non-progress, measured out in endless cups of tea taken with Martin McGuinness. 

There is the power of physical context to provide the space for things to happen at their own pace, explained by Scilla Elworthy in her essay about nuclear weapons decision-makers. 

And there are what might be very appropriately called the Damascene moments: Ian Paisley deciding that he didn’t want to end his life as ‘Dr No’, or Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, terminally ill, reversing his long held support for FARC in Colombia. 

Above all the essays provide a sense that dialogue and peace-making are a process, and not an end in themselves. That is the way those who do it remain modest about their – often – truly heroic work, in which they played largely anonymous but vital roles in events of historic significance. 

These essays make it clear that there is a place for the UK as a significant convenor and dialogue-broker in global issues – should it wish to take up the challenge. 

The UK possesses one of the truly global languages; it has a hugely respected body of diplomats and institutional leaders; and it is connected to international networks like the Commonwealth, through which it might be possible to express our nation’s ‘conversational soft power’. 

The world is crying out for this kind of national leadership, especially in the context of violent extremism. 

At the same time there is growing space for the kind of oblique approaches at which cultural relations specialises: the offering of alternative futures, of education and opportunity, to young people at risk of radicalisation. Indeed, as Lord Howell points out in his essay, in the age of hyper-connectivity, ‘winning on a narrow diplomatic front, or with single groups of interlocutors, no longer suffices. Nor does military force…’. Instead numerous audiences have to be engaged on what could perhaps be called a ‘multilogue’. 

In his essay, Lord Lothian agrees that violent insurgency cannot always be defeated by military action. Instead multilateral dialogue is necessary: at first informal, exploratory, and without deadlines or pre-conditions. Ideally this should be done outside the glare of international publicity. The key lesson, however, is the need to talk to your enemies and not just your friends.

As Churchill knew, war cannot always be avoided, but ‘jaw-jaw’ is always preferable.