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Inaugural 90 Minute Dialogue debates multiculturalism in foreign policy


By dxw

The inaugural Wilton Park 90 Minute Dialogue took place on 16 November with a discussion on ‘Foreign policy implications of multiculturalism: strategy and practice’ led by Spencer Boyer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US State Department.


Wilton Park 90 Minute Dialogue: ‘Foreign policy implications of multiculturalism: strategy and practice’

16 November 2011 (WP1156)

Our inaugural 90 Minute Dialogue convened experts from government, academia, think tanks, business, pressure groups and politics to discuss the theme of ‘Foreign policy implications of multiculturalism: strategy and practice.’ Spencer Boyer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, US State Department provided the initial discussion points.

The Dialogue was an opportunity to hear US thinking on multiculturalism, in particular, the view that support for minorities within a culture is of such fundamental and strategic importance that it cannot be considered solely a domestic issue for individual countries concerned. Dialogue participants did not seek rigidly to define multiculturalism, and accepted that policy and strategy would differ from country to country. However, the open, off the record discussion highlighted a number of thought-provoking views and recommendations on how multiculturalism can or should be woven into the fabric of national and global narrative and strategic policy considerations.

The following points emerged from discussion:

From the perspective of the US’ strategic interest in cooperation with Europe, peaceful European states are more effective as allies than ones that are internally divided.  The discourse of multiculturalism thus shifts from a question of social ethics alone to more strategic concerns of security and stability.

The US’ national identity as a ‘melting pot’ offers uniquely compelling support for multiculturalism, with immigration historically perceived as a beneficial societal force. UK (and European) history, by contrast, requires perhaps a greater process of reconciliation with its colonial past.

That said, the US itself still falls some way short of its own standards regarding diversity and tolerance at home, and, some argue, has a piecemeal focus on such issues abroad.

Recent speeches by some European leaders demonstrate a shift from more traditional critiques of multiculturalism to an increasing focus upon Muslim communities and differences in values. Multiculturalism, when used as a proxy term for Islamic communities, has become a ‘dirty word’ in some circles, including sectors of Europe’s political elite.

The rejection of multiculturalism by some politicians is one expression of a far broader ‘multiculturalism fatigue’. One reason may be that multicultural policies project too heavily the mindset of those initiating them, and leave policymakers unwilling or unable to accept unexpected outcomes or differing opinions.

The conundrum is that there are diametrically opposed ways to achieving a society in which all feel welcome – either by accepting and welcoming minority communities (multiculturalism) or by turning inward to one’s own ethnic identity to the exclusion of others.

In Europe, differences between Muslim and non-Muslim communities have often been over- emphasised. This encourages the rise of far right groups and anti-immigration attitudes.

There is a need for a healthier global narrative on multiculturalism; one that does not focus solely on either minority groups or elites, yet actively reflects the views of these minorities. Engagement and listening are crucial, recognising that minority communities may well be least likely to want to contribute to a narrative imposed from government.

We should beware of focusing so much on constructing the ‘narrative’ that we neglect to pay attention to the necessary policies.

Social media helps power speak to the people and vice versa, and thus has an important role in a multicultural strategy. But it is important therefore that the message is consistent, not trying to say one thing to a domestic audience, and another internationally.

Multiculturalism needs to embrace increasingly marginalised and disenfranchised white working class communities. The class and socioeconomic dimension behind many minority sectors should also be factored into the policy and practice of multiculturalism.

Minority groups must be consulted on and encouraged into other areas besides those labelled as multiculturalism initiatives.

A greater read-across from the international human rights framework will provide greater rigour to the goal of multiculturalism and a means to avoid cultural relativism.

An ongoing concern is whether politicians can restore trust in the issues of immigration and multiculturalism in the context of increasing scepticism towards governments. Are we expecting too much from governments given an increasingly complex scenario?

Public diplomacy resources can help to complement strategic priorities and have the necessary longer-term focus in support of the creation and maintenance of cohesive societies.  

If you have an idea for a future 90 Minute Dialogue, please contact Nandini Mackay on +44 (0) 1903 817779 or email