Mark Muller: 'For diplomacy to work you need to understand the different perspectives that global and local players have'

Mark Muller: 'For diplomacy to work you need to understand the different perspectives that global and local players have'

As Beyond Borders returns this month, Muller reasserts the importance of diplomacy amidst unprecedented global uncertainty

As the Beyond Borders International Festival heads into its eighth year, the stakes are seemingly higher than ever. The annual festival sees cultural and political leaders from across the world descending upon the historic Traquair House in the Scottish Borders for a weekend of exchanging ideas and promoting understanding as a means of reducing conflict. But the world is a much different place than it was eight years ago; now festival organisers and delegates must advocate for cooperation in the face rising isolationism and xenophobic nationalism the world over.

Despite this climate of anxious uncertainty, Beyond Borders' founder and international human rights advocate Mark Muller is steadfast in his belief that international diplomacy is now more vital than ever – and of Scotland's unique contribution to the peacebuilding process: 'Scotland has a strong separate identity, which exercises a powerful hold over the world's collective imagination,' says Muller. 'It's perceived as a proud, independent, small nation which has managed to preserve its culture and identity, despite the presence of a much more powerful neighbour. This gives it real traction with smaller nations and others fighting for greater autonomy.'

Indeed, as Muller points out, Scotland has achieved a devolved settlement and transitioned the UK into a decentralised democracy, despite an oft-fraught relationship with England – something that does not happen often, and not nearly so peacefully in recent times. Over the years the festival has attracted delegates from the likes of Georgia, Kurdistan and the Basque Country for this very reason, as well as those drawn to Scotland's gender-balanced politics and referendum process. Having such conversations in the context of Scotland's recent political history, Muller insists, not only provides a useful template for other smaller countries in a similar position, but also 'offer[s] a platform and forum for debate and dialogue on issues that are often central to political transition.'

Beyond Borders' 2018 programme is brimming with perspectives from those in the thick of some of the world's most intractable conflicts. These include a panel discussion with UN Special Representative Michael Keating and former UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman; a talk about the push for Catalan independence with the President of the Government of Catalonia, Quim Torra; and the vital importance of photojournalism in bearing witness to political events with the New York Times' Associate Managing Editor Jodi Rudoren.

Unlike other politically-minded conferences, however, Beyond Borders particularly recognises the role of art and culture in the peacebuilding process. Their Walled Garden programme – named after the green enclosure on the grounds of Traquair House – runs in tandem with the rest of the festival, and features a rich celebration of music, dance, visual art, film and storytelling from across the world. Highlights from this year features performances by the classical Indian dance company Dance Ihayami, as well as SOWhErETO Africa's energetic celebration of street life in South Africa, and visual storytelling workshops with Yemeni photographer Thana Faroq.

'Cultural relations won't always reduce conflict or ameliorate the hard political choices that countries face,' says Muller, when asked about art's role in interpreting global politics. 'However, it can reduce the scope for misunderstanding or inflammatory rhetoric, as well as help reveal the fears that motivate the actions of others.' The Walled Garden programme also offers a calm, non-threatening setting for delegates to reflect upon each others' perspectives – a vital aspect in diplomatic work. 'For diplomacy to work you need to understand the different perspectives that global and local players have,' says Muller. 'It is only through learning and empathising from someone else's point of view can we reduce conflict.'

Artistic exchange also provides an immediacy and presence to people's experiences; something which, despite the rise of the internet and social media, Muller argues that people still crave. 'In an era of fake news and attribution there is a greater desire to see and hear for yourself. Beyond Borders does this not just by providing people with the opportunity to hear stories from those on the front line – it does in an environment where all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds hear those stories together.'

With the rise of strongmen politics around the world – the likes of Trump, Putin and Erdogan come to mind – how can we reaffirm notions of international diplomacy and cooperation? The answer, Muller suggests, lies in establishing a baseline of facts. 'Without accurate information there can be no proper domestic and international policymaking. We need to understand the deeper reality behind the daily news cycle and the fleeting headline.'

Ultimately, however, there is a similar need to recognise that there is much more that connects us than sets us apart. Reflecting upon his extensive experience in the field, Muller says, 'Although all conflicts have unique features, there are often common characteristics that underpin them. For example, most conflicts arise from some sort of exclusion or fear of the other or of losing power. Human psychology and dynamics are surprisingly consistent when it comes to the conflict environment.'

Beyond Borders International Festival, Traquair House, 25–26 Aug, beyondbordersscotland.com

Beyond Borders International Festival

A weekend of talks by politicians and journalists about international diplomacy and the peace building process, as well as an arts and culture programme featuring music, performing and visual arts, poetry and dance.

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