During violent conflict or in its aftermath, the long-term relational networks built by Track II practitioners become vital to facilitating dialogue and managing tensions. Analysis of the long-term impact of Track II can help explain how such relationships evolve and how to increase their effectiveness.
Academic institutions can provide more neutral sites for Track II dialogues between opposing actors. Research concerning the long-term trends of Track II diplomacy will help funders make informed decisions about what to expect from such initiatives.
Practitioners emphasize the importance of native-language mediators, who understand the cultural codes of those involved, to the success of Track II initiatives. Native-language mediators should be embedded in moderator teams leading Track II mediation efforts
The latter often focuses on short-term conflict resolution, overlooking the historical nature of conflicts. Track II initiatives focus on (re)building relationships and can address historical and complex grievances and contentions, contributing to a more sustainable resolution.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has undergone many Track II initiatives, with the aim of resolving, or at least alleviating, conflict. Perceptions of the extent to which Track II diplomacy has been effective differ among scholars, practitioners, and funders of this kind of mediation. Evaluating the impact of Track II diplomacy on peace mediation is a far from straightforward endeavor, not least because it constitutes one part of a complex web of mediation processes and is impacted by domestic and geopolitical developments.1 Nevertheless, it remains an important channel through which unofficial and semi-official dialogues contribute to building confidence and relationships between hostile groups and individuals, especially during armed conflict. This issue brief outlines research and practical considerations for this key component of the overarching field of peace mediation: Track II diplomacy. It calls for strengthened scholar-practitioner collaborations to assess the impact of Track II processes in varied contexts, the product of which would aid funders of Track II mediation to make better informed decisions. To inform the study, the author conducted 22 interviews with Track II practitioners, participants, and academics in 2019,2 who worked within the conflict contexts of Libya, Syria, Yemen, U.S.-Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. The interviews were conducted in English and Arabic and consisted of a series of semi-structured questions to allow for contextual empirical analysis.
Despite several well-known Track II initiatives in the region, debates persist about what it is; how it fits within wider mediation and conflict resolution efforts; its strengths and limitations; and how it can be made more effective. Indeed, a key challenge is an absence of consensus on what exactly constitutes “Track II” as opposed to, for instance, “Track 1.5” or “Track III.” Consequently, this paper employs a broad definition of the term “Track II” to encompass both semi-official and unofficial negotiations.3 Another challenge is that most unofficial diplomacy is necessarily conducted behind closed doors, limiting public scrutiny. This further complicates the development of a clear examination of how Track II has fared in MENA and other parts of the world. In multi-track negotiations, factors that were not necessarily addressed within a particular track may have contributed to the alleviation or exacerbation of a conflict, making it difficult to isolate the role of Track II in resolving conflict. Several Track II practitioners shed light on this issue by providing recommendations for how to manage expectations regarding what such unofficial dialogues can, or should, achieve.
This issue brief begins by examining the definitional ambiguities regarding what constitutes a Track II process. This is important, as distinguishing Track II processes from other semi-official and unofficial mediation initiatives has implications for how such processes are evaluated. The brief then discusses the role of Track II mediators, followed by a discussion of the importance of analyses that track the longer-term impacts of Track II processes. It concludes that scholar-practitioner collaborations assessing the impact of Track II mediation in varied contexts are needed to strengthen our understanding of Track II diplomacy’s effectiveness and to help funders make informed decisions about what to expect from such initiatives.
While the idea of “Track II” diplomacy had already begun to emerge by the 1970s, the term itself originated in an article, “Foreign Policy According to Freud,” published in Foreign Policy in 1981.4 Though the article was co-authored by William D. Davidson and Joseph V. Montville, the term is usually credited to the latter, who was a U.S. Foreign Service officer.5 Montville defined Track II diplomacy against “traditional” Track I diplomacy—which includes official policy statements, visits, and meetings—specifically as:
… unofficial, non-structured interaction … [that] is always open-minded, often altruistic, and … strategically optimistic, based on best case analysis. Its underlying assumption is that actual or potential conflict can be resolved or eased by appealing to common human capabilities to respond to good will and reasonableness.6
He also noted that Track II could serve “as a supplement to the understandable shortcomings of official relations, especially in times of tension” and that “both tracks … need each other.”7
In subsequent decades, scholars and practitioners expanded upon and complicated Montville’s definition, but the fundamental idea remained the same. Peter Jones, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and Track II specialist, sums up Track II as follows:
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.8
However, he also points out that scholars and practitioners understand and refer to Track II in various ways, deploying terms such as “Track 1.5,” “Track 3,” “interactive conflict resolution,” and “controlled communication.”9 Though Jones suggests that these terms all fall under the umbrella of Track II, other scholars and practitioners have expanded upon and moved beyond the term. Notably, in 1991, John W. McDonald and Louise Diamond established the idea of “multi-track diplomacy,” which included Tracks I and II, as well as seven additional, interconnected tracks.10
In his article “Track One and a Half Diplomacy and the Complementarity of Tracks,” Jeffrey Mapendere notes that the primary features of Track 1.5 are that, firstly, the involved third party does not represent a political institution and, secondly, that the other involved parties officially represent the conflict actors.11 He refers to Track 1.5 as “hybrid diplomacy,” noting that it “gives the third party diplomatic agility to flip from Track One to Track Two conflict resolution techniques in accordance with the situation”; for instance, it can be conducted either privately or publicly.12 He also argues that Track 1.5 actors “can facilitate communication” between Tracks I and II and that “if well coordinated within a strategic framework for peace, these levels of diplomacy can have a quick and direct impact on conflict.”13
Meanwhile, Pernille Rieker defines Track III diplomacy as dialogue initiatives carried out by local grassroots organizations and international development agencies.14 Citing Reimann, she notes that “while Track I diplomacy involves diplomats and applies outcome-oriented approaches, Tracks II and III involve civil society and are more focused on the process of confidence building than concrete outcomes.”15 Henrik Thune and Frida Nome explain that “Track III is understood as bottom-up approaches to peace-building, rarely directly linked to actual peace process [sic], but to long-term engagement for reconciliation, capacity-building on the societal level and network-building for future dialogue openings.”16
However, the various tracks are not always easy to demarcate, as they often overlap with and influence one another. Thune and Nome argue that distinct tracks are not representative of how actual mediation efforts are carried out, citing examples of efforts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. They write:
To put it simply, most mediation efforts are Track One and Track Two at the same time; they are not separate initiatives or processes … but are often deliberately combined. Moreover, many of the “informal actors” … are not really unofficial: they should be recognized as official subcontractors.17
Peter Jones similarly notes that Track II discussions can “quietly influence” Track I diplomacy through the transfer of ideas or even people.18
While some official actors have viewed Track II dialogues with suspicion, there is a growing understanding that “an era of unconventional conflicts requires unconventional solutions.”19 Jones notes that there still “exists a certain creative tension between Track II and official diplomacy,” due to the new ideas that emerge from Track II processes—especially in cases where involved parties are not actually interested in resolving the issue at hand.20 He also explains that some governments have accused Track II of “intrud[ing] on official policy-making.”21 Julian Thomas Hottinger argues that appreciation for peacemaking models led by non-state actors has risen in part because non-state armed groups have grown more complicated, heterogeneous, and difficult to manage.22 He adds that Tracks I and II can complement one another in a number of ways: Track II can increase the “willingness and ability” of conflict parties to participate in the peace process and keep lines of communication open, while Track I can provide political pressure and support.23 Some who have participated in Track II negotiations challenged these assertions about the conscious interaction between Track I and Track II. For example, one practitioner asked, “what if Track I is so flawed, that it needs to be replaced?”24
Few assessments of mediation processes examine the role of Track II mediators.25 What makes a Track II mediator effective? Gaps can exist between the goal of inclusive conflict resolution on the one hand, and the exclusive nature of mediation strategies adopted by Track II conveners on the other. Such gaps emerge most prominently in contexts that are culturally, religiously, politically, and legally diverse; in conflicts where proxies thrive; and where there is division among the permanent members of the Security Council.26
It is important to recognize the different roles played by different types of mediators within a given Track II process. As Allen explains, both external and local engagement strengthen the credibility of a Track II process. This is especially so because at least three types of mediators play different yet crucial roles: outsider-neutral mediators, international mediators, and insider-partial mediators whose strength lies in their local cultural understanding.27 Moreover, rather than aim toward the arduous goal of ending armed conflict, Track II mediators often focus their efforts on the things they do best: establishing and sustaining relationships between hostile groups and keeping channels of communication between them open. While this task requires a deep understanding of the history of animosity that often extends much farther than the start of the most recent round of violence, current dominant approaches prioritize “looking forward” without addressing the past. This can be detrimental to the prospects for longer-term peace.
Managing mediator and participant expectations by establishing achievable goals, such as cultivating long-term relationships, and employing a context-sensitive negotiation narrative are factors that often fall under the domain of the mediator. However, the design of Track II processes inadequately addresses such ideational tensions between mediators and disputants. A more constructive critique of mediators and how they engage with questions of identity and culture in Track II dialogues is needed to better understand the dynamics of interaction and problem-solving within a Track II process.
One of the critiques of Western-led mediation in particular concerns its linear, deterministic explanations of existing conflicts, which overlook the dynamic and historical nature of conflict contexts in MENA.28 Useful here is Polly Walker’s analysis of how Indigenous peoples’ perspectives on conflict resolution are “marginalized through Westernization.”29 She notes that the Western focus in mediation is on reaching an agreement between individuals rather than on fixing relationships. This “contrasts starkly with the cyclical and interconnected networks that characterize Indigenous conflict transformation.”30 Conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries involve historical hostilities and power struggles that long pre-date the 2011 uprisings in those countries. Nevertheless, current official mediation initiatives (also referred to as Track I) in these countries are often designed to address the immediate armed conflict rather than its historical roots. On the other hand, Track II mediation allows for “deeper digging” by bringing together representatives of hostile groups to engage in dialogue, away from the public eye, with a view to addressing long-standing differences and contentions. This difference in approach between Track I and Track II, however, is difficult to reconcile as the former tends to be more short-term focused, while the latter has a broader remit to address longer-term futures.
Another challenge is the role of language in mediation. Is having a translator alongside the mediator in the room enough to ensure productive dialogue? The political and demographic context of a case determines how essential it is that the principal mediator is a native speaker. Some practitioners interviewed, especially those who had a mediating role, view the presence of an interpreter in the room as sufficient to manage language differences between mediators and disputants. They based this on their own experience, such as with U.S.-Iran negotiations.31 Others were emphatic about the importance of ensuring mediators are native-language speakers.32 When asked why translation is not enough, one Yemeni interviewee who has participated in many Track II negotiations noted:
There are great translators, but sometimes in Yemen or Libya or Syria, we say things in a way that even if you are a native speaker, you wouldn’t understand. If you have to have a translator because there is a Westerner in the room, then have a translator from the native country—not simply an Arabic speaker. We Yemenis understand each other. We say half sentences—when a Yemeni says a half sentence, we understand what he or she is saying, but a Jordanian, for instance, wouldn’t understand.33
One interviewee, who has experience in Track II negotiations concerning Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East, explains the importance of mediator teams: “Effective mediators work together as a coordinated team … and it is very important to have people on the mediation team who know how to speak the native language.”34 Similarly, another interviewee, with decades of experience mediating Track II dialogues in the Middle East, emphasizes the importance of native translators as part of a mediator team, as it enhances contextual and cultural knowledge of the conflict: “The moderator team needs to have the contextual knowledge base. That’s why I like the moderator team approach. We need to have one or two members who know the cultural codes of the place. Who knows the language, who can build those relationships? That is extremely important.”35
The ascendance of Track II diplomacy is puzzling in light of one central fact: no one is sure about the conditions under which it aids conflict resolution.36
It is impossible to isolate Track II diplomacy from other factors that influence the course of conflict resolution, such as domestic, regional, and world politics. However, there are several important research and practical considerations that aid in the advancement of Track II dialogues and in our understanding of what worthwhile outcomes they can—and often have—generated. Nathaniel Allen and Travis Sharp usefully sum up four outputs that make Track II processes successful: (1) idea generation, (2) building relationships, (3) effective moderation, and (4) changing perceptions.37 While Track II analysts could quantify whether a process has generated new ideas, it is not as straightforward a task to assess whether a Track II process has changed perceptions over time. As Mehran Kamrava argues, “Resolving conflicts in the long run requires … the ability to … continue to shape the behaviors and preferences of the disputants long after they have left the negotiating table.”38
While difficult, it is possible to address these questions by pursuing longitudinal analytical studies that track the evolution of perceptions of the same group of individuals over time. The value of such survey analyses over the course of several years is also pertinent for other areas of the conflict resolution field, such as transitional justice. For example, Backer found that upon the publication of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in 2003, a panel survey of South Africans in Cape Town showed that they supported the proposed amnesty initiative. However, these perceptions changed only five years later, when Backer interviewed the same group of South Africans. This time, they were disillusioned by the lack of progress regarding the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations. Consequently, they wanted to see the amnesties replaced with criminal accountability measures, such as prosecutions.39 Within a given Track II process, such a longitudinal analysis would generate significant findings about the longer-term impact of Track II diplomacy, particularly as it relates to the outcome of changing perceptions.
There are other reasons why scholar-practitioner collaborations in the field of Track II diplomacy are vital. For instance, Susan Allen notes the important role academic settings, such as a university, play in providing a comfortable and trustworthy environment for discussions that are otherwise plagued by polarized politics. In her study of the Georgian South-Ossetian Track II process, Allen notes that participants “wanted the cover of academic meetings to provide them a rationale for meeting with people from across the conflict divide. In their home community, academic meetings were seen as legitimate reasons to meet, even when peacebuilding meetings were frowned upon.”40
Another important collaborative effort between scholars and practitioners is facilitating access to Track II archival material. Sultan Barakat underscores the importance of access to such material in his study of Qatar, which has served as an active mediator of official and unofficial talks in several crises and conflicts in the Middle East. He states that “Although anecdotal information and personal collections exist, Qatar would be better served by systematically recording its mediation experiences and storing them in a national depository” to make such material publicly accessible for those analyzing mediation processes to resolve conflicts.41
It is useful to consider how to reconcile the different vantage points through which scholars, practitioners, and funders work on Track II mediation. As Allen and Sharp explain, “[The] practitioner’s ambition to build peace, the scholar’s ambition to verify with empirical evidence, and the funder’s ambition to achieve efficiency are in tension over the issue of Track II diplomacy’s effectiveness.”42 Different parties hold different perceptions about what is deemed a success or progress. It is challenging to isolate the impact of Track II dialogues from other factors that contribute to conflict resolution and/or exacerbation. The objectives of each Track II process differ and can evolve over time. Some Track II processes are open-ended and primarily serve as a vehicle for communication rather than as a process aiming to definitively end a violent conflict. Still others serve to mitigate damage, facilitate access to humanitarian services, build relationships, or augment negotiating capacity. Nevertheless, the value of academic and policy research into Track II processes is significant. There is a strong preference among Track II practitioners for case study research in the field of Track II diplomacy, especially as intra-state conflicts are increasingly complex and involve multiple warring parties with histories of political struggles.
With several conflicts raging in MENA, questions about the merits of Track II diplomacy constitute a pressing policy issue. Many actors are involved in decisions regarding conflict resolution: warring parties including state and non-state actors, proxies, as well as multilateral institutions, diplomats, and others. The complexity of the actors and issues concerned produces a hefty task for Track II diplomacy. A growing body of research presents a critical review of Track II and other forms of semi-official and unofficial forms of diplomacy. Nevertheless, few studies examine the strategy of Track II itself and of its mediators.43 This is despite the strong appetite among diplomats and mediators for such analytical material, particularly analyses based on detailed case studies.
This issue brief aimed to underscore the research and practical considerations that future Track II research and policy work should prioritize: the role of mediators in facilitating the production of new ideas and building relationships, and the importance of research that tracks the impact and changing perceptions of individual Track II processes over time. It underscores the importance of scholar-practitioner collaborations that assess the impact of Track II mediation in varied contexts. These systematic interactions between Track II policy actors and scholars are needed to strengthen our understanding of Track II diplomacy’s effectiveness, and to help funders make informed decisions about what to expect from this important type of mediation practice.