Former U.S. ambassador: Vatican's 'soft power' helpful in diplomacy

Last week on "Interfaith Voices," I interviewed Francis Rooney, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2008 under President George W. Bush. Rooney has written a book called The Global Vatican, which provides an interesting history of relations between the U.S. and the Vatican since the founding of the United States.

Although there was some level of diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and the Vatican under Franklin D. Roosevelt to ensure Vatican neutrality in World War II, actual diplomatic relations began in 1984 under Ronald Reagan. Reagan saw such a relationship as useful in his efforts to overturn communism.

Rooney provided a succinct explanation of the reasons we have diplomatic relations with the Holy See as a sovereign entity. In short, the Vatican wields "soft power" that the United States can try to employ to further U.S. interests. Most interesting of all to me was the "soft power" of Pope John XXIII in the Cuban missile crisis. In an age when adversaries were not talking to each other, we encouraged the pope to give a speech on the importance of peacemaking. That speech was printed on the front page of Pravda, and the United States interpreted it as a signal that Russia was ready to talk about missiles in Cuba. It was a convoluted way to conduct diplomacy, but it worked!

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I asked Rooney specifically about the Iraq War because the Vatican was strongly opposed to that war, and he was ambassador at that time. He said the Vatican opposed that war because it feared three consequences: increased persecution of Christians, exacerbating the Shiite/Sunni divide in Iraq, and moving Iran to a stronger position in the Middle East. Rooney acknowledged that all three came to pass. But in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was willing to treat Iraq as "history" and move on, Rooney said. But that war was far from over, so this is an interesting bit of news.

As a whole, Rooney makes a case for U.S. relations with the Vatican as the Vatican uses "soft power" in the world today.

Listen to the interview.

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