Outsourcing Diplomacy: The Necessity of Unofficial Talks

Cristian Tracci
January 26, 2019

As Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs) around the world face important diplomatic challenges, they do so with one hand tied behind their backs. Whether due to limited resources, ideological differences, or political constraints, official diplomatic channels are strained. This is the time when Track 2 diplomacy, commonly known as unofficial diplomacy, must fill the gap left by state bureaucracies to address potential conflicts and current tensions – including the nuclear threat in North Korea, the sustainability of the Iranian nuclear deal, and the need for cooperation with China in areas of mutual benefit.

Track 2 Diplomacy includes a variety of activities aimed at solving or preventing conflicts. These initiatives can be conducted by various actors: government representatives acting in a non-official capacity, NGOs and non-government experts working as mediators in structured negotiations, scholars participating in dialogues about norms, and trainings for future peacemakers. While the format of these initiatives can change substantially, they are all actively part of a peace process and share an underlying purpose: to foster understanding and trust, and sometimes reach agreements among the parties involved. They effectively complement ongoing global diplomatic efforts.

The Missing Link

As an example of the difficulty MFAs face, the diplomatic core of the United States has been hollowed out, losing 12% of its foreign-affairs specialists over the initial 8 months of President Trump’s tenure. Turnover is expected in any executive branch transition, but these numbers are outside normal parameters, as the Trump administration has suffered an overall turnover rate of 34%—markedly higher than the 9%, 6%, and 11% under the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations, respectively. This brain drain of the most experienced diplomats could mean real trouble ahead for the United States when it comes to forging new policies with foreign governments. The lack of experience of junior officers in negotiations and knowledge about local dynamics paves the way for the work of unofficial experts.

In the case of North Korea, Track 2 has played a critical role both recently, supplementing the deficiencies of the U.S. administration, and historically, preventing misunderstanding and finding breakthroughs between two countries with no official diplomatic relations. Some of the recent diplomatic openings can be attributed to Track 2 initiatives led by Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department policy official and Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who assisted in the process with the North Koreans that resulted in the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018. The work of these former diplomats was crucial, since the U.S. did not have an ambassador to South Korea at that time to advise on the particulars of the Korean peninsula. Nor did it have the benefit of a Permanent Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs or a Permanent Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. It would be hard for any foreign affairs body to negotiate the best deals and craft the wisest policies without experienced diplomats to advise the lead negotiators. Given these limitations, increased opportunities exist for NGOs, scholars, and former officials to facilitate dialogues informally and eventually bring about official meetings.

Closed Doors

One of the advantages of non-state actors is indeed their ability to go places and have conversations that the MFAs would struggle to, even in the best of times. In the case of the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992), the Community of Sant’Egidio, a faith-based organization founded in Rome, leveraged its long-standing presence in the territory and trusted reputation to bring the two rival governments together, in a way that would have been unavailable to most diplomats, to sign the Rome General Peace Accords in 1992.

In 1978, despite a troubled history of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. and the absence of formal ties between the two neighbors, the Cuban government invited members of the Cuban-American community in exile to travel to Havana for talks. These participants put their personal feelings aside, looked past ideology, and strived to achieve concrete gains despite their fundamental disagreements with the Communist government. Cuban-American members who flew to Havana believed that ending the island nation’s isolation might help improve human rights, secure the release of political prisoners, and address family reunification. As a result of this “diálogo,” by 1979 the Cuban government began allowing Cuban-Americans to return to the island to visit their families. Perhaps most significantly though, these unofficial diplomats, advocating for a cause that was meaningful to them, were able to secure the release of 3,000 political prisoners.

Today, a place in need of just such a dialogue may be Iran. One of the benefits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was that it created a formal channel of communication between the U.S. and Iran, two nations without normal diplomatic ties. Having this mode of communication was extremely helpful when two U.S. Navy boats accidentally strayed into Iranian waters in 2016, reigniting historically heated tensions between the two countries, which were quickly resolved thanks to the new engagement strategy. With the United States withdrawing from the JCPOA, that communication channel is now closed. If the same incident were to happen today, such a conversation would likely be very different given the current tensions, if it occurred at all, and it certainly would not be resolved as quickly, as even Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, pointed out. This creates an opportunity for non-state actors to quietly bridge the gap between Iran and the U.S., bring each party back to the negotiating table, and provide the link needed to re-open talks. This type of unofficial diplomacy does not have to necessarily result in a brand-new nuclear deal. Often, it is just as important to incrementally improve relations and build trust, so that when an opportunity for a diplomatic step forward opens, a relationship can be shepherded to official channels once more.

Common Ground

Track 2 diplomacy can be especially useful in situations where diplomats might fear for their safety and the longevity of their careers as a result of engagement through official channels, as may be the case in places like Turkey or China. The political climate can make frank conversations between official state representatives and the emergence of new ideas very difficult. However, trusted non-state actors can step in, discuss controversial topics, and find common ground between two parties, before on-the-record talks commence. In this way, despite central governments’ directives, Track 2 can create a safe space to engage in meaningful dialogue with less fear of reprisals, or come up with innovative proposals outside of the established paradigm. Trust, reliability, and confidentiality are the best guarantees Track 2 can offer to any international actor.

A Global Necessity

Due to the understaffing of diplomatic agencies, historically poor relations that prohibit talks, and diplomats’ lack of bureaucratic and political freedom, alternatives to traditional diplomacy have never been more important. Out of necessity, the global community must now outsource diplomatic efforts to actors beyond the traditional apparatus of statecraft – to prevent conflict, anticipate global challenges, and develop solutions for peace in our time. Without Track 2 advocates providing additional avenues for diplomacy, the world would be left with more conflicts raging unabated. From the successes of Iran and Cuba to the future potential of intermediary talks with Turkey and China, Track 2 diplomacy has become not only useful, but a global necessity.

Cristian Tracci is a Master in International Affairs candidate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in international security policy.