“Track Two Diplomacy” is a term that first appeared in the early 1980s, though it had been around much longer than that under different names. Much mythology has come to be associated with it. In reality, it is simply a method of bringing together people from different sides of a conflict, on an unofficial basis, to talk about the issues and try to develop new ideas.
In my view, it was a mistake to include the word “diplomacy” in the name. It conveys the idea that this is somehow a diplomatic activity. It is not. Diplomacy is reserved strictly for those who represent the state. People engaged in Track Two do not represent the state and should not try to.
There is no single model of Track Two. In practice, however, most Track Two dialogues tend to share certain characteristics:
• They emphasise small, informal dialogues, which the literature refers to as “problem solving workshops,” between people from the various sides of a conflict, which are often facilitated by an impartial “third party;”
• Though the dialogues are unofficial, it is generally expected that the participants will be able to influence the development of thinking in their societies on the conflict;
• The dialogues are not meant to debate the current positions of the sides, but rather are workshops where the participants step back from official positions to explore the underlying causes of the dispute in the hope of jointly developing alternative ideas;
• The dialogues are ongoing processes, rather than “one-off” workshops; and
• While not exactly secret, the dialogues are conducted quietly and the “Chatham House Rule” is applied to create an atmosphere where “outside-the-box” thinking can flourish and participants are not afraid to propose and explore ideas that could not be entertained by an official process or one in which exchanges might be repeated in the press.
Such processes, if successful, can lead to a number of results. Amongst these are:
• Changed perceptions of the conflict and the “other,” including a greater appreciation for the complexities, domestic politics and red-lines of the other side;
• Opening new channels for communication between adversaries who had few other means of communicating;
• The identification and development of new options for future negotiation; and
• The development of networks of influential people who work to change views in their countries.
A key to successful Track Two is that the participants be able transfer the ideas developed in such meetings into the official sphere. This is harder than it seems. Officials are instinctively wary of ideas coming from outside the bureaucracy, sometimes because Track Two can complicate their lives, and sometimes because they fear the loss of control over an issue more than they are prepared to accept ideas that come from outside.
Thus, Track Two often enlists as participants people who have connections to the official world (often retired senior officials). The objective is to have people at the table who have credibility in the official world and are familiar with how things are done there, but who have also the luxury of being able to think “outside the box.” When and if a Track Two process comes up with a new proposal or idea, such influential people have the credibility in official circles to gain the idea a hearing. But there is no guarantee of acceptance.
Ideas developed in Track Two often enjoy the most traction if they happen to come along at those rare moments when “the system” is looking for new approaches, sometimes known as “ripe” moments. More subtly, however, Track Two can work quietly to help create such “ripe” moments by demonstrating that new thinking is possible and developing cadres of credible people who advocate the consideration of new approaches.
But the reliance on such “influentials” carries with it potential problems. First, there are not many of them to go around and Track Two can be dominated by a small elite who are too similar in their thinking. Indeed, some proponents of Track Two argue that efforts should be made specifically to avoid over-reliance on “the usual suspects” in order to create a platform where really independent thinking can take place.
This leads to the second problem, known in the Track Two world as the “Autonomy Dilemma.” This dilemma holds that, on the one hand, reliance on influential elites means that results can be more easily transferred to the official process, but “outside the box” thinking may be in short supply. On the other hand, gathering a really autonomous group which has few connections to government can lead to more independent thinking, but the ability of such processes to transfer their results is limited because the participants are not known or trusted by officials. There is no easy answer to the problem posed by the Autonomy Dilemma, other than for practitioners of Track Two to be aware of it and constantly work to make sure that the discussions do not degenerate into an exchange of official positions.
Another critical issue is funding. Though the sums involved are comparatively small, support for airfares and other meeting costs is required. Traditionally, Track Two has been funded by major foundations and by some governments. This sometimes leads to concerns that undue influence is being exerted. At the end of the day, the integrity of the Third Party depends on not accepting support if the funder demands conditions, and on being scrupulously open and honest about who is funding the exercise. It must be made clear to the funders by the Third Party that support will only be accepted if the process will be organized in ways which meet with the approval of the participants. Third Parties who act as agents of others quickly gain a reputation for untrustworthiness and are unable to continue. This is sometimes one of the most difficult things for critics of Track Two to grasp, but the process cannot work any other way.
The question of how close a Track Two should be to official diplomacy also causes confusion between genuine Track Two and so-called “Backchannel Diplomacy.” The two are often used as synonyms for each other, but they are different, and should be kept conceptually and practically separate. Backchannel diplomacy is essentially official talks between governments, but conducted quietly and at arms’ length. But the key is that those around the table are under instructions from their governments and are sent there by governments to discuss an issue. Track Two, as noted, features influential people, but they are not there on behalf of their governments or with any instructions and should never act as though they are.
This difference, though subtle, is critical and leads to enormous confusion. Track Two projects are sometimes accused of being “secret negotiations.” All sorts of conspiracy theories can be hatched that a backchannel is operating in which secret deals have been struck on sensitive issues.
If done sensitively and properly, however, Track Two dialogues can provide new thinking on difficult problems.
Track Two Diplomacy: In theory and practice be published this summer by the Stanford University Press.