How the left-field idea of diplomacy without diplomats became an essential tool of statecraft.
- By Charles HomansCharles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.
The brainchild of a handful of academics, free-thinking State Department bureaucrats, and public intellectuals in the 1970s, “Track II” diplomacy grew out of the observation that private individuals, meeting unofficially, can find their way to common ground that official negotiators can’t. Put bluntly, “citizens could take some action rather than simply being bystanders while the grown-up governments acted like jerks,” says Joseph V. Montville, the former Foreign Service officer who first put the term down on paper in the pages of Foreign Policy 30 years ago. Governments once viewed Track II as a kind of feel-good exercise at best, and at worst as a genuine threat — freelance diplomacy, after all, can damage the real kind. But three decades later, most of them have come to understand that an era of unconventional conflicts requires unconventional solutions.
May 1, 1960
An American U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace is shot down, leading to a full-blown Cold War diplomatic crisis. President Dwight Eisenhower’s friend Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, convenes a gathering of unofficial American and Soviet delegations at Dartmouth College. The meeting establishes the blueprint for Track II diplomacy, from the cast of characters (a mix of academics and ex-officials) to its agenda: a frank conversation about their countries’ differences.
Shrinks discover geopolitics. With backing from groups like the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs (IPFA), the new field of political psychology begins convening meetings of Arab and Israeli scholars and retired officials. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is a believer, telling Israel’s Knesset in his historic 1977 visit that “a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection, a barrier of fear, of deception” divides Arabs and Israelis, and is “70 percent of the whole problem.”
December 24, 1979
Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter cuts off contact with the Kremlin. The following year, California New Agers Michael and Dulce Murphy convene a conference at the Esalen Institute to promote unofficial citizen exchanges with the Soviets. Joseph V. Montville, a Foreign Service officer and participant in the APA’s Arab-Israeli meetings, tells attendees, “I suppose you could say what I do is Track I diplomacy, and what you do is Track II diplomacy.”
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In Foreign Policy, Montville and William D. Davidson, a psychiatrist and president of the IPFA, put the term “track II diplomacy” in print for the first time. “Its underlying assumption,” they write, “is that actual or potential conflict can be resolved or eased by appealing to common human capabilities to respond to good will and reasonableness.”
Citizen groups’ efforts to leap the Iron Curtain gain momentum, but Track II still faces a cool reception from hawks. “Creating all of these networks that transcend government control has the potential for greatly harming the Free World,” the Heritage Foundation’s Mikhail Tsypkin warns in 1986.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences hosts the first of a series of conferences bringing together Arab and Israeli participants to discuss possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meetings and others like them snowball into the first major effort to put Track II into practice, laying the groundwork for the landmark 1993 Oslo Accords.
The Soviet Union collapses, leaving diplomatic institutions like the United Nations, forged in an era of great-power conflict, poorly suited to keeping the post-Cold War peace. Policymakers begin considering Track II diplomacy with renewed interest.
June 12, 1994
With the United States and North Korea on the brink of a nuclear crisis, former President Jimmy Carter journeys to Pyongyang to extract Kim Il Sung’s promise to halt his nuclear program. “It was a triumph of Track II diplomacy,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later writes. Carter exemplifies the rise in Track II circles of what might be called the Track 1.5 diplomat, an ex-official who meets on behalf of his country with other nations’ officials.
September 23, 2002
U.S. Ambassador Marc Grossman, today the State Department’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, tells an audience at Foggy Bottom that “Track II diplomacy [is] a key part of our efforts.”
Once a fringe notion, Track II is now taught in 99 conflict resolution graduate programs in American universities, and many more worldwide.
How Track II Works
The Players: China, its neighbors, and the United States
The Peacemakers: The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and others
Several organizations began bringing U.S. and Chinese defense officials to the table unofficially after tensions rose over the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 spy-plane incident on Hainan Island. The meetings have helped ease tensions even as China has begun flexing its military might in the greater Pacific region.
The Players: India and Pakistan
The Peacemakers: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
The Pugwash group, a half-century-old peace organization, managed to bring together Kashmiris from both sides of the long-running conflict for the first time in decades in 2004; a formal peace process (if not actual peace) followed.
The Players: China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States
The Peacemakers: The National Committee on American Foreign Policy
When six-party nonproliferation talks stalled in 2005, the NCAFP kept the conversation going by convening a blue-ribbon panel of former diplomatic officials (including Henry Kissinger) in New York that mirrored the talks themselves, only without the lofty stakes.
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