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The Arab Weekly: ‘Track II diplomacy’ could be key to peace

By: Lin Gao

PC: Karolina Grewboski

One of the key tools of international peacekeeping of recent decades has been an unofficial but concerted effort called “Track 2 diplomacy”. So named because it takes place outside of official, so-called Track 1 channels, Track 2 seeks to alleviate tensions by building relationships between citizens and institutions of potentially rival states, helping the members of each state to build personal relationships and gain insight into their rivals’ points of view. An offshoot of this track is one where state representatives interact off the record.

Track 2 takes many forms. These include cultural and student exchange programmes and non-binding international discussions from which NGOs and other Track 2 representatives can derive policy recommendations for their respective governments. Those same organisations also often make their insights available to the larger public in order to help everyday citizens get a sense of the views, concerns and humanity of peoples whom they might be otherwise be inclined to regard with suspicion.

The term “Track 2 Diplomacy” was coined in a piece in the Winter, 1981 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “Foreign Policy According to Freud” by psychologist William D Davidson and career diplomat Joseph V Montville. Although the core of the piece, as its title implies, concerned the ways in which modern psychiatric theory and practice influenced the US and Soviet Union’s attempts to understand each other’s behaviour, the authors also pointed to the theretofore unnamed process by which non-governmental actors and interactions, student and cultural exchange programmes, foreign travel, extended family ties, literature and film, helped normal, everyday citizens of both nations to understand the feelings and perspectives of their putative adversaries.

We needed to realise, as Sting famously put it just a few years later into the same decade, that the Russians loved their children too.

Montville has continued his focus on Track 2 diplomacy and its potential to alleviate modern conflicts. He discusses the application of Track 2 to conflicts as varied as Northern Ireland’s struggle for peace and the Israel-Palestine imbroglio.

In the piece, Montville makes at least two points that bear reiteration here: first, that ongoing cycles of conflict tend to foster a victimhood mindset in which the fundamental humanity of one’s adversaries is harder to recognise, or at least easier to avoid acknowledging and that without insight, acknowledgement and genuine contrition over past wrongs, conflict is likely to escalate.

The continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is more than anything else a conflict between two deeply-entrenched victimhood mindsets. One Jewish Israeli mindset anchored in the horrors of the Holocaust and a Palestinian mindset stemming from a sense of historic injustice at being forcefully evicted from their ancestral land.

Not much progress towards a settlement can occur without some form of compromise-based coexistence of the two narratives of victimhood.

Second, the inherently ad hoc nature of Track 2 diplomacy is both a limitation and a strength. Because this type of diplomacy occurs outside of official state channels, it has no binding power over either side in a conflict and is therefore circumscribed in its efficacy. For exactly the same reasons, however, it can work outside of the constricting channels of traditional diplomacy in which chauvinistic national interests, as opposed to broader international interests, govern the negotiators’ agendas.

Although Track 2 is still in its relative infancy, there is ample cause for powers like the US and China and their citizens to support efforts to dial down the tension that has beset the international community, as China has replaced the Soviet Union as America’s chief economic and cultural adversary.

The pertinence of such diplomacy obviously extends to other conflicts such as those that continue to make the Middle East and North Africa region one of the most war-plagued in the world. On the positive side, there are signs MENA countries are finding their way toward dialogue and reconciliation.

Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a prolific author on the history of international conflict, has coined the term “Thucydides Trap” to describe the fraught dynamic that results when a dominant power is faced with competition from a rising rival. Professor Allison cites sixteen instances since the fifteenth century in which this dynamic has come into play on the world stage. Twelve of those, including the two conflicts that defined the first half of the twentieth century and gave rise to the Cold War, ended in war.

Those are not good odds, but the past is not necessarily a prologue. The Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, perhaps the most potentially devastating conflict in human history given that both sides were armed with tens-of-thousands of thermonuclear weapons, ended without a direct war between the two powers. Today Russia and the US remain at waxing and waning levels of tension and rivalry, but the danger of full-scale nuclear war has receded, as has the fear of such a conflict from the popular consciousness.

US withdrawal

The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has cast in sharp relief the relative success of China’s efforts to increase its prestige and influence on the world stage as epitomised by its ongoing Belt and Road Initiative. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and its abandonment of local allies and translators have resonated especially with Taiwan. These events, as Beijing has gleefully reminded its people, demonstrate the inconstancy and unreliability of the US should Taiwan’s push for mere sovereignty come to the shove of military intervention.

The US posture also convinced other nations such as those of the Arab Gulf that the US is an unreliable ally against the security threat posed by Iran and its regional proxies. That same posture has ironically drawn such countries as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Egypt closer to China and Russia, to the despair of Washington.

The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously drawn world attention and energy and sapped the international will to push back against China’s sustained anti-democratic crackdowns in Hong Kong, bold encroachment into Asian international waters, its unwillingness to police, or outright complicity in, cyber warfare and its menacing attitude towards Taiwan. Moreover, the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the political, economic and cultural collision course which the US and China have navigated with varying degrees of success since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Although China has weathered the COVID crisis more successfully than many other nations, its continuing obfuscation and hostility to taking any measure of responsibility for a pandemic that almost undeniably originated within its borders, and which was unleashed upon the world by China’s decision not to take earlier action to curtail, has left the international community sullen and suspicious. The larger world regards China as aggressive and unprincipled while it views its chief geopolitical rival, the US, as politically disorganised, mercurial and short on self-confidence and willpower.

Seen in this light, China’s Twitter-troll diplomacy regarding the genesis of the pandemic and its heavy-handed policing of its own citizens and satellites might be easier to understand, if none the more soothing. A Pew Research study from earlier this year showed American views of China souring. Official relations between the two powers have been increasingly cooling for some time, accelerating during the Trump presidency and the Coronavirus pandemic.

Superpower burdens

While the citizens of the US, many of whom spent their childhoods in the latter decades of Cold War regard the very term “Cold War” with a sense of foreboding, China may see the same term as a kind of global acknowledgement of its rising eminence and formidability. Unlike the democratic nations spawned by The Enlightenment, China, its government and increasingly, its people, view their more authoritarian, state-cantered ideal of social order as not only more successful in the pursuit of short-term national goals but destined to become the model for the foreseeable future. Whatever their once-vaunted technological, scientific and military pre-eminence may have been, the Western democracies seem increasingly tired, riven by racial, social and economic strife which seem to be a feature, not a bug, of their first principles of individualism, self-actualisation and circumscribed government.

At the same time, China is realising that its graduation from developing nation to emerging superpower carries its own burdens and perils. It is still a nation beset by severe economic inequality, ethnic rivalries and corruption. In its feverish drive to modernise and to show both its own people and the wider world that it is doing so, China has often cut corners, creating environmental pollution within its own borders. Its Malthusian One Child Policy, an authoritarian solution to a problem that never materialised, has left it with a dearth of both young workers and women of childbearing age. Worse, even though the Chinese government officially relaxed the policy a few years ago, its effects have seemingly become part of the cultural landscape of modern China. The Chinese are not having more children even though they now find themselves allowed and even encouraged to do so.

In summary, the news about the relationship between these two very different superpowers, one long dominant but seemingly weakened, the other a rising upstart eager to establish its credentials, seems all bad. The question is what can be done to ease tensions and allow these two nations, their satellites and beneficiaries, along with the rest of the larger world, to coexist peacefully and to avoid a repetition of the globe-wrenching conflicts that characterised the first half of the 20th century?

I am a member of China’s generation of only children and a lucky daughter of the same. I have always wondered:

Why do nations fight wars rather than cooperate? Which common factors precipitate war and which, peace? Is war diplomacy by other means, or is diplomacy war by other means or both, or neither?

Awareness of the damage that armed conflict, even conflict confined to the technology of modern conventional warfare, could do to both nations may help to keep the US and China from the brink and nudge other nations toward diplomacy.

Track 2 diplomacy and the efforts of its proponents can help to keep the lessons of the past at the forefront of the public consciousness. Even in a nation like China with its central authority and rigid political power structure, the views and concerns of everyday citizens weigh on larger policy decisions.

Remembering the past may not be enough to help us avoid repeating it, but if we ignore its lessons, the odds are all too ominous that we shall find ourselves re-living its dread and fear in ever more threatening contexts.



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