Plainclothes Diplomats

Inside the practices of track two diplomacy.

Peter Jones has written an interesting book on a subject most people do not know even exists. Jones is well placed to have done so, putting together Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice after decades of work in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere, as well as an accompanying academic career teaching and researching on the issue.

The book is a comprehensive effort to describe the ins and outs of this kind of diplomacy. I have been a practitioner of track two diplomacy for more than 15 years, and before that an official diplomat, and the book has proven to be quite enlightening for my own experiences.

However, first and foremost, what is track two diplomacy? Most people are unfamiliar with the term, and, if described otherwise (private or informal diplomacy), it can even sound almost shady.

Jones defines the term as unofficial dialogues between conflicted parties often facilitated by a third party aimed at new ways to resolve differences. He also makes clear the difference between diplomacy and conflict resolution: the former is the official pursuit of interests while the latter occupies a narrower, if complex, band of activities. More casually, track two can be described as unofficial (versus official) diplomacy encompassing a range of efforts from grass roots level dialogue to hard-core talks that can lead to official negotiations. One of the most famous of track two operations, the Oslo Process, began as track two and ended as track one.

Why would track two even need to exist? Can official diplomacy not do the job? It can, but officials are often preoccupied by the crises of the day and narrower state agendas. They are often hesitant to engage in sensitive and taboo subjects that have risky political implications or might even get them fired.

As Jones recounts, the genesis of track two was a desire by some, such as the Australian John Burton and others, to go deeper into the roots of conflict and derive more sustainable solutions. These individuals believed that “dialogue, values, and relationships were as important in international affairs as power.”

Today, as traditional diplomacy gets more hurried due to the pressures of technology and media-driven politics, track two can become more relevant because of its more leisurely pace and reflective approach. Track one rarely has the inclination or the luxury to delve into what track two pursues.

As Jones points out, the benefits of a constructive track two operation can be many: from developing advice for policy makers to incubating new processes and ideas, to the socialization of key people into new paradigms. Track two, if properly implemented, can even increase the complexity of understanding between enemies, which is neither a mean feat nor an unworthy goal.

Jones’s book has a foreword by former U.S. secretary of state George P. Shultz, who admits that he, like many officials, was often suspicious of track two efforts, wary that they would get in the way, damage sensitive processes or simply reach great heights of irrelevance. However, Shultz, like many officials, became a fan of track two through exposure to it. My own experience is that tracks one and two can work together almost seamlessly if one has the right people on board, and the right lack of pretension on all sides.

Jones describes the origins of track two among the academics and former diplomats who aimed to extend international relations beyond an approach of realism fundamentally based on power. However, one should also not forget the many informal, if less academically framed, efforts by private citizens who pursued diplomacy under the radar, and quietly humanized the relations and softened tensions, especially between the United States and the Soviet Union. The recent film Bridge of Spies highlights a masterful example of such informal diplomacy. In the Middle East, private citizens have also played similar unheralded roles between enemy states.

These, however, are not the structured efforts that Jones describes as track two, but they are examples nevertheless of the power of unofficial diplomacy. They may even sometimes be more effective than more formal track two due to their organic and personal nature.

This book is made up of two parts: theory and practice. It intentionally bridges the two worlds, seeking to make them more familiar to each other, because Jones understands both. I am a practitioner and found much of the theory interesting, but sometimes odd.

Jones presents the need for theories of change (a theoretical understanding of how one will achieve one’s goal) in track two and lists many such paradigms, each vying to better explain what the practitioner is doing. It seemed to me that these were like complicated attempts to describe various aspects of the same weather system, an interesting but ultimately futile exercise given the level of complexity at play. Jones admits in his book that practitioners do not much like theory, while theorists insist the practitioners need to be more rigorous in their processes.

However, this book shines best in the chapter on “People,” in the practice portion. Jones writes fluidly here showing a great command of track two operations. He is very good on the role of the mediator, the “repository of trust” in the process, who requires the cultivation of an “‘innocent’ eye … that enables one to ask searching, fundamental questions.”

I have also found that disciplined observation is key to mediation. The mediator often has to hold back from saying anything, permitting answers to come to participants, and to himself or herself. In this section on people, the living and textured dimensions of track two—the attempt to bridge conflicted peoples—comes to life due very much to Jones’s direct experience.

Indeed, the book is also useful in its almost encyclopedic approach of recording all possible theories and approaches to track two diplomacy. It stands as a reference, and certainly it explained much of my own past behaviour, which was mostly intuitive judgements at the time of action.

There are also other more subtle lessons than the articulated theories of change and compendia of frameworks. Jones fell into track two diplomacy by accident. He was working on arms control issues when one of his participants told him “you are running quite a good Track Two here” when he had not even heard of the term.

I also fell into track two by accident. I was a specialist in the Middle East, working on policy issues related to Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel and Palestine. My work also took me slowly but surely toward track two, mediation and conflict resolution.

Indeed, one of the most successful track two operations I have been involved with was unplanned and evolved by accident. During the early days of the Arab spring, I had a meeting with individuals from the Middle East aimed at developing greater understanding of the sea change that had just occurred, especially the rise of Islamists at the time. During that meeting, a couple of “enemies” decided spontaneously to meet and talk about their conflict—a three-year process then ensued with many worthy fruits.

This emphasis on accident is important because, often, political processes simply cannot be planned, let alone organized. They often happen by a serendipity arising out of a context and contacts that defy definition. Indeed, to my knowledge, the Oslo Process, for better or worse, also arose out of similar serendipitous meetings on the ground between its Norwegian creator and Israelis and Palestinians. If the role of accident and coincidence is key, then so is a degree of operating flexibility that no theory of change can encompass.

Jones admits that he himself errs on the side of the organic, rather than the structured and academic, but he still believes that a healthy combination of intuitive judgement and scientific discipline works best for track two—theory and practice. I, on the other hand, abide more by the idea that “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” In my view, practice is the trump.

Structure and theoretical understanding are all well and good, but lean and flexible operations may be the essence of success. There is a constant argument in track two circles about ripeness, that is, whether a conflict is ripe for discussions and progress. Some believe that processes need to be maintained no matter the context. Indeed, Jones and others say, mediation may even help create that right moment.

I am less convinced. It may not always be necessary to have an ongoing formal process, Instead, there are ways of maintaining contact with key actors, some of which can be very indirect and some, truth be told, are social rather than professional—or certainly mix the two heavily. With this approach, one needs to be ready to dive like an eagle on to the prey when the time comes, when ripeness ensues. This may seem far too loose for many, but it may reflect reality more than a potentially artificial process.

Of course, the bogeyman behind any approach is funding and the need to maintain a career. Some in track two are looking to justify their time and make a living and this is part of the natural drive for articulated (and funded) processes. Funders, on the other hand, often have unreasonable demands with their target obsessions, and boxes to be filled in to demonstrate concrete results where there may be none.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of track two activities and a great dilution and range of quality. “The field can be open to unrestricted experimentation and amateurish even destructive practices,” writes Jones. Conflict resolution is a sexy and challenging subject and many believe that, with an idea, goodwill and a few good contacts, they can give it a try.

The reaction is therefore the desire to professionalize the field, an attempt to give it rigour, even through dreaded evaluation processes, which Jones correctly demolishes. Direct observation of a dialogue, which is the best evaluation method, affects its nature and the quality of the event.

There is almost no way around this conundrum, except through intelligent and careful reporting of findings by the facilitators. “We must accept the fact that in complex political situations,” Jones quotes former U.S. diplomat Harold Saunders as saying, “exact cause and effect or the precise contribution of ideas may be unknowable in any measurable terms.”

The danger of professionalization is also that it risks taking the guts out of this very human process, leaving it in the realm of rote interaction, emptied of its essential life. Track two work, even more than track one diplomacy, is profoundly personal and yet connected to larger human dynamics. It is very hard for the more empirically minded (and the accountants) to accept this, but so it is.

Therefore it is fundamentally guesswork, hard to pin down, and its benefits are in the process itself. It is for this reason that the field should be approached with a delicate mix of humility, well-defined goals and no pretence of social engineering. The most effective track twos I have been involved in relied above all on the quality of the participants involved. The higher the quality, the better the results and potential ripple effect—and that’s that.

In that sense, there is an ongoing debate on whether track two is more art or science. Jones concludes, as I do, that it is more the former, but he does make the case to add some science to improve predictability and results.

I would also add that anyone wishing to enter the field ensure not only a high degree of humility but also the self-discipline and reflective rigour needed to regularly decide whether a process should go ahead or not.

The practice of track two is as much learning for the practitioners as for the participants, and that learning is in the doing, not the study. The reality may well be that such processes are primarily intuitive in their creation, and only appear rational post facto, in reflection (and these two states should not be conflated).

“Real peace is made of a complex and interlocking web of factors,” Jones has written. Track two can be an important element in that web if its designers can perceive the key parts of the pattern. Nothing can replace the accumulation of experience, failures, dead ends, and a determined and disciplined process of learning in an area of one’s passion; the rest is narrative. If all this is true, the hard truth is also that the space for track two is probably smaller than it looks.

Through this book, Jones has delivered a solid and highly comprehensive reference for this field, something for academics to be challenged by, and, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, for practitioners, looking back on their work, to “arrive where they started and know the place for the first time.”