TRACK-two diplomacy has been active in South Asia for many years. Proponents argue that it can cut through the red tape of conventional diplomacy.
Critics argue that it is both a useless waste of time, and a sinister plot — often making these contradictory arguments in the same breath.
In reality track two is simply a mechanism to bring together people from different sides of a conflict to talk about issues and try to develop new ideas.
Track two exists on many levels and for many purposes. Some projects bring together those close to the centres of power. Other track-two projects are targeted at the civil society level with the objective of promoting broader change on a societal level. Still others involve professional groups attempting to influence policy.
My own experience of facilitating track-two discussions has tended to be at the level of retired officials, working on issues close to those being considered by governments. So my comments here will speak to that kind of track two. But readers should be aware that there are many kinds of different activities that go on under the name.
The term ‘track-two diplomacy’ was first coined by Joseph Montville in 1981. In my view, a fundamental mistake was made by adding the word ‘diplomacy’. It conveys the idea that this is somehow a diplomatic activity. It is not. Those engaged in track two should never succumb to the idea that they are engaged in secret negotiations.
What they are there to do is to work with people from the other side to develop new ideas and understandings around dispute settlement. In practice, track two tends to be defined by a recurring set of concepts which arise in studies of various examples.
They emphasise small, informal dialogues between people in conflict, which are often facilitated by an impartial third party; though the dialogues are unofficial, it is generally expected that the participants are able to influence thinking in their societies; the dialogues are not meant to debate current positions, 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 alternatives; the dialogues are ongoing processes, rather than one-off workshops; and while not exactly secret, are conducted quietly to create an atmosphere where outside-the-box thinking can flourish.
Such processes, if successful, can lead to a number of results. Amongst these are: changed perceptions of the conflict, including a greater appreciation for the domestic politics and red lines of the other side; opening new channels for communication between adversaries; the identification and development of new options; and the development of networks of influential people who work to change views in their countries. A key to success in track two involving people working on issues close to the official agenda is that the participants be able transfer their ideas to the official sphere. This is harder than it seems. Officials are instinctively wary of ideas coming from outside the bureaucracy; sometimes with reason, and sometimes because they fear the loss of control. Thus, these processes often enlist as participants people who have credibility in the official world and are familiar with how things are done there, but who can think outside the box as they are no longer officials.
There is no guarantee that governments will accept ideas developed in track two, whoever the participants may be. In practice, ideas often enjoy the most traction if they come along at those rare moments when the system is looking for new approaches.
More subtly, however, track two can work to help create such ripe moments by demonstrating that new thinking is possible and developing cadres of credible people who advocate new approaches.
Reliance on such ‘influentials’ carries with it further issues. First, such track two can be dominated by a small elite who are too similar in their thinking. This leads to the second problem, known as the autonomy dilemma. This holds that, although reliance on influential elites means that results can be more easily transferred to the official process, outside-the-box thinking may be in short supply.
However, gathering a really autonomous group can lead to more independent thinking, but the ability of such processes to transfer their results to the inner sanctum is limited if participants are not known or trusted by officials. There is no easy answer to the problem posed by the autonomy dilemma, other than to be aware of it and work to make sure that the discussions do not degenerate into an exchange of official positions.
Of course, those who specialise in track-two projects aimed at change on the civil society level would argue that concern over the autonomy dilemma is misplaced. In their view, official policy will change only after the societies in question have changed — official policy will then catch up.
Thus, over-concern for how officials might receive the results of a track-two process is misplaced and has the effect of limiting what track two should try to achieve.
Another critical issue is funding. Though the sums involved are small, support for airfares and other meeting costs is required. Traditionally, track two is funded by major foundations and by some governments, such as the Scandinavians and the Americans. This sometimes leads to concerns of undue influence.
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.
Support can only be accepted if the process is organised in ways which meet with the approval of the regional participants. Third parties acting as agents of others quickly gain a reputation for untrustworthiness and are unable to continue.
The writer, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, is facilitating a South Asian track-two process known as the Ottawa Dialogue.