The Future of Track Two Diplomacy

FEATURES | October 6, 2015     

The Future of Track Two DiplomacyThe Iran nuclear deal was Track One. But its roots are Track Two. So whither Track Two in this new century?

Track Two diplomacy exists quietly – on the margins of international affairs. The term ‘Track Two Diplomacy’ was coined by US diplomat Joseph Montville in the early 1980s, even if it had been around much earlier under different names. Though much mystery surrounds it, Track Two is in reality simply a method of bringing together influential people from different sides of a given conflict, on an unofficial basis, to talk about the issues and to jointly develop new ideas about how that conflict may be better managed or resolved.

The field has not been without controversy – particularly on the part of some governments that have claimed that Track Two dialogues have overstepped their boundaries and intruded on official policy-making. Indeed, it may have been a mistake to include the word ‘diplomacy’ in the name, for this suggests that the process is somehow identical or tantamount to 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.

Indeed, perhaps because some of its proponents and practitioners have tried to claim too much for its successes, or tried to intrude into official diplomacy, there are those who regard much of what happens under the aegis of Track Two with great suspicion. Images are conjured up of ‘meddlesome amateurs’ getting in the way of the important work of diplomacy, and perhaps even confusing a situation by leading the other side to believe that the possibility of a changed position is present when it is not. As former US Secretary of State George Shultz put it in the foreword to my recent book on the subject, “Track Two diplomacy is something I heard of frequently during my years as Secretary of State. To be honest, I was often somewhat leery of it. I did not question the motives or the integrity of most who were engaged in it. Rather, my concern was that it would get in the way of our official diplomatic efforts and confuse others as to where the United States stood on various matters. More than once, I gave instructions to State Department officials to inform a foreign government in no uncertain terms that the US Government had nothing to do with this or that Track Two initiative and did not endorse it.” While Shultz went on, after leaving office, to develop a new appreciation of the nuances and potential uses of Track Two, his views while in office were not unusual.

On the other hand, proponents of Track Two believe that it can help to break through the barriers that official diplomacy can sometimes place on talks. This sometimes means deliberately entering into a ‘grey area’ between what governments will talk about (and whom they will talk to), and what they often know must be discussed if a problem is to be addressed. One example is the infamous question of ‘talking with terrorists.’ Many governments, and especially Western ones, have firm policies against such communication. This view was perhaps best summed up by then British Prime Minister John Major in a response to a question in the House of Commons 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 Honourable Members; we will not do it. […] I will not talk to people who murder indiscriminately.” In fact, Major’s government, recognizing the need to see whether there was any possibility of a negotiated settlement, had already initiated secret discussions through intermediaries. Various kinds of contacts, including Track Two contacts, had been underway since the 1970s. In his memoirs, Major justified 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 of the mechanisms that makes this possible. The earliest contacts between influential Israelis and Palestinians were conducted in Track Two fora, when it was illegal under Israeli law for a citizen to meet anyone affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. 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, and these dialogues helped to open the way for the talks that ultimately resulted in a transition to majority rule in South Africa. In each case, by holding such discussions at arm’s length from government, and holding them quietly, it was possible for stakeholders to explore whether there was a potential partner on the other side with whom discussions of an alternate future might be possible, and to begin to identify and map the terrain of compromise without publicly compromising on any positions of principle.

There are many other examples of such discussions. Throughout the Cold War, high-level unofficial discussions took place among Americans, Soviets and people from other countries who were bound up in that lengthy conflict. These discussions were often run by groups such as Pugwash and the Dartmouth Conferences, and the ideas that they generated made their way into numerous arms control and other agreements during the Cold War. Indeed, Pugwash was awarded a share of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in bringing together people from across the two sides of the Iron Curtain. At present, such dialogues have been going on for some time between Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians, and among the various factions and groups in Afghanistan – to cite but a few examples. While much of what happens in these discussions is, by design, confidential, their results do sometimes quietly influence official diplomacy. This is typically done by means of the transfer of ideas, and sometimes of people, between Track Two and official diplomacy. In many cases, the influence of Track Two is as much about demonstrating that new ways of approaching problems are possible as it is about any specific problem-solving proposals or algorithms coming out of the discussions.

This was very much the case in respect of the recently concluded nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. Track Two dialogues on the nuclear issue between Iranians and Westerners, including Americans, have been happening quietly for many years. While the specifics of the actual deal are clearly the product of the official negotiations, those familiar with the Track Two processes that went on over the years can see ideas and concepts that resonate with their experience. Perhaps more importantly, some of the specific individuals on both sides who were involved in the formal P5+1 talks – both at the table and in the respective capitals – had been involved earlier in some of the Track Two discussions. Did the Track Two dialogues cause the official deal to be negotiated? Probably not. Did they, however, help to set the stage such that, once the officials got to the table, they were sufficiently familiar with each other and with each other’s concerns to suggest that conclusive negotiations were possible? Most certainly.

Even so, there are those who view Track Two with suspicion. Part of the problem in coming to grips with the field is that it is large, imprecise and unwieldy. There is no single model, understanding or even vernacular or vocabulary for 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 whether official positions can be changed. Others seek to influence civil society – often as a means of creating pressure campaigns designed to bring about changes in policies or even in governments.

In reviewing the history of Track Two, a nuanced approach must be taken in respect of when various kinds of Track Two can 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 the organizers and participants feel have brought about the conflict, or otherwise sustain it. There are many different kinds of Track Two in between. Unfortunately, the catch-all phrase ‘Track Two’ has come to be used to name a variety of dialogues that can be quite different.

Assessing whether Track Two is appropriate for opening up a dialogue in any particular case or for any particular conflict thus has much to do with determining what kind of Track Two one is talking about, and what objectives the dialogue is meant to advance. (Criticisms of Track Two are often criticisms on the part of people who believe that the wrong kind of Track Two was run at an inappropriate moment.) If a situation requires a quiet dialogue between elites to try to defuse a pressing issue, it might be inappropriate to launch a Track Two intended to bring together civil society leaders to develop alternate models of governance, leading to a public campaign for change. Conversely, if the elites are wedded to the present conflict and unwilling to envisage or discuss the broader changes necessary to transform the situation, a Track Two involving them alone would likely yield few, if any, results in terms of developing new ideas that could resolve the issues. In the event, involving civil society leaders who are trying to stimulate far-reaching change might be exactly what is required.

Regardless of what kind of Track Two is being discussed, and of who are the intended audiences, most Track Two dialogues tend, in practice, to share certain characteristics. They all emphasize small, informal dialogues – which the literature refers to as ‘Problem-Solving Workshops’ – between people from the various sides of a conflict. These dialogues 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 involve the participants stepping 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 in order to create an atmosphere in which ‘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 indeed ideas that might be repeated in the press.

Such processes, if successful, can lead to a number of results. These include changed perceptions of the conflict and the ‘other’ – for example, a greater appreciation for the complexities, domestic politics and ‘red lines’ of the other side. New channels for communication may be opened between adversaries who had few other means of communicating. New options for future negotiation may be identified and developed. Finally, networks may be established by and for people who can work to change views in their own countries.

As noted, a successful Track Two requires that the participants be able to transfer the ideas developed in such meetings into the official sphere. This is more difficult than it may seem. 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. As such, Track Two projects aimed at influencing official policy often enlist 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’ as they are no longer officials themselves. If and when 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 – even if there is evidently no guarantee of acceptance.

Ideas developed in Track Two often enjoy the most traction when they happen to come along at those rare moments when ‘the system’ is looking for new approaches. This observation has led some to argue that Track Two dialogues launched before a moment is ‘ripe’ are wasted efforts. Those who view the field more subtly, however, understand that Track Two can work quietly in order to help create or stimulate such moments. This is done by demonstrating that new thinking or a broader imagination is possible, and developing cadres of credible people who advocate the consideration of new approaches. The creation of a sense that new directions are possible, and of a core group of proponents for such new thinking, is a fundamental component of what makes a moment ripe in the first place.

To be sure, the reliance on ‘influential’ figures as participants in Track Two processes carries with it potential problems. First, there are not many of them to go around – that is, Track Two can be dominated by a small elite who are excessively similar in their thinking. Indeed, some argue that efforts should be made specifically to avoid overreliance on the ‘usual suspects’ in Track Two exercises in order to create a platform where really independent thinking can take place. This is frequently one of the key points of dispute between those who see Track Two as a means to manage a situation and those who believe that the purpose of such dialogues should be to transform the very logic of a conflict.

This leads to the second problem – known in the Track Two world as the ‘Autonomy Dilemma.’ On the one hand, reliance on influential elites means that results can be more easily transferred to the official process, even if ‘outside-the-box’ thinking may be in short supply. On the other hand, gathering a really autonomous group with few connections to government can lead to more independent thinking, even if the ability of such processes to transfer their results is limited as 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 to constantly work to ensure 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 for Track Two processes to take place and endure. Traditionally, Track Two has been funded by major foundations and by some governments, such as the Scandinavians and the US. (Canada used to be a financial supporter of this type of dialogue; no longer.) This naturally sometimes leads to concerns that undue influence is being exerted. At the end of the day, however, the integrity of the Third Party (the individual or groups that convene the dialogue and act as moderator) 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 that 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. Bref, much thought still needs to be given in the Track Two world as to how such dialogues are funded.

Of course, Track Two is not magical, nor is it a panacea. Just because influential people from societies in conflict come together quietly for discussions does not mean that problems will be resolved. Moreover, if done insensitively, Track Two can exacerbate the problems that exist between groups in conflict. But if done sensitively and properly, Track Two dialogues can provide an opportunity for new thinking to flourish on difficult problems. They can also help to create cadres of individuals who have been through a process that causes them to rethink their perspectives on a conflict, and opens them up to contact with people from the ‘other side’ that would have been impossible by any other means. In situations of longstanding and deadly conflict, this can be very useful. And in the decade to come, we may well see that Track Two and cognate processes will have helped to lay the foundations for official attempts at resolving such impasses as the intensifying Russo-Western conflict, the conflict between the two Koreas (and prospects at reunification), renewed Sino-Japanese tensions (and any Sino-American tensions), ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani pretensions to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a number of permutations of conflict among states and groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. In each of these cases, Track Two dialogues have been ongoing for some time.

Looking ahead, governments, and those who are involved in international affairs more generally, will need to develop a more nuanced appreciation of what Track Two is and how it can be useful. 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 formal diplomatic processes to try to create new possibilities. Governments, for their part, need to learn to recognize – more than they sometimes do – the contributions that such dialogues can make, particularly in circumstances when a situation is deadlocked. The space and freedom required for ‘outside-the-box’ thinking are often very hard for governments to accept. Indeed, when vested interests specifically do not want to reach an accommodation with the other side, Track Two can seem threatening. There therefore exists a creative tension between Track Two and official diplomacy. This is natural. The art of the deal for both sides lies in recognizing when and how creative tensions may be turned to positive effect.


Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His latest book is Track Two Diplomacy: In Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press).


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