Unofficial dialogues can open up new approaches to intractable conflicts.
Track Two Diplomacy is a method of bringing together influential people from different sides of a conflict, on an unofficial basis, to talk and try to jointly develop new ideas as to how the conflict may be better managed or resolved. There are those who regard Track Two with suspicion. Proponents of Track Two believe that it can help to break through the barriers that official diplomacy can sometimes place on talks. This often means entering the grey area between what governments will talk about (and who they will talk to), and what they often know must be discussed if a problem is to be addressed.
Track Two diplomacy often demonstrates that new ways of approaching problems are possible.
One example, is the question of talking with those designated as terrorists. Many governments have firm policies against such talks. This view was summed up by then British Prime Minister John Major in a response to a question in the House as to whether he would talk with the IRA while fighting was still underway; “If the implication of his remarks is that we should sit down and talk to Mr. Adams and the Provisional IRA, I can say only that it would turn my stomach, and those of most Hon. Members; we will not do it. . . . I will not talk to people who murder indiscriminately.”
In fact, Majors’ government had already initiated secret discussions through intermediaries. Indeed, various kinds of contacts, including Track Two contacts, had been underway since the 1970s. As Major later wrote in his memoirs in justifying the fact that he had authorized such talks even though his public position was contrary; “We were well aware of the unlikelihood of success, but we felt we had a responsibility . . . to see if the leadership of the Provisionals, if offered fair and equal treatment, had the will and the ability to move away from terrorism.”
This case is not unusual. Many governments say publicly that they will not talk to this or that group but do so quietly. Track Two is one mechanism to do so. The earliest contacts between influential Israelis and Palestinians were conducted in Track Two forums, when it was illegal under Israeli law for a citizen to meet anyone affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Indeed, the famous Oslo Process began as a Track Two dialogue, which evolved into an official discussion.
Similarly, the earliest contacts between people associated with the apartheid government of South Africa and those affiliated with the banned African National Congress took place in Track Two settings. These dialogues helped open the way for the talks which ultimately resulted in a transition to majority rule in South Africa. In each case, by holding such discussions at arms’ length from government, and holding them quietly, it was possible to explore whether there was a potential partner, and to begin to identify and map the terrain of compromise, without publicly compromising on a position of principle.
There are many other examples. Throughout the Cold War, high-level unofficial discussions took place between Americans, Soviets and others. These discussions were often run by groups such as Pugwash and the Dartmouth Conferences and the ideas they generated made it into numerous arms control and other agreements. Indeed, Pugwash was awarded a share of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for its work. At present, such dialogues have been going for some time between Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians and amongst the various factions and groups in Afghanistan, to name but a few. While, by design, much of what happens in these discussions is confidential, their results seek to quietly transfer ideas and people between Track Two and official diplomacy. Specific proposals may emerge from Track Two talks and go on to influence formal agreements, but what is often just as important about the process is demonstrating that new ways of approaching problems are possible.
But, even so, there are still those who regard Track Two with suspicion. Part of the problem in coming to grips with the field is that it is large and imprecise. There is no single model of Track Two; different scholars and practitioners have used terms such as ‘interactive conflict resolution;’ ‘controlled communication;’ ‘Track 1.5;’ ‘Track 3;’ and many others. Some of these dialogues are meant to bring together high-level people for quiet talks aimed at seeing if official positions can be changed. Others are oriented towards influencing civil society to bring about changes in policies, or even changes in governments.
A nuanced approach must thus be taken to when various kinds of Track Two can usefully occur. Above all, one needs to define carefully the interplay between goals and methods. Some Track Two projects are aimed at bringing together those close to governments for a dialogue aimed at managing the conflict. Others aim to bring together civil society leaders to develop means to effect changes in the structures of power as a prelude to a transformation of the underlying conditions that have brought about the conflict or sustain it. There are many different kinds of Track Two in between.
Looking forward, governments, and those who are involved in international affairs more generally, need to develop a more nuanced view of what Track Two is and how it can be useful. In particular, those engaged in Track Two must always retain a sense of perspective about their role; they are not negotiating on behalf of anyone and should not imagine that they are. They are, instead, stepping outside the norms of diplomatic constraints to try to create new possibilities.
Officials, on the other hand, need to learn to appreciate, more than they sometimes do, the contributions such dialogues can provide, particularly in circumstances when a situation is deadlocked. The space and freedom required for outside-the-box thinking is often very hard for governments to accept. Indeed, in circumstances, where vested interests specifically do not want to reach an accommodation with the other side, Track Two, and the possibilities it opens up for new thinking, can seem threatening. Thus, there exists a certain creative tension between Track Two and official diplomacy. This is natural. The art on both sides lies in recognizing when and how creative tensions may be turned to positive effect.
When it comes to adversarial states, diplomatic aims are better served by engagement, not isolation.
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