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Viewing Conflicts as Problems to Be Solved Can Help Diplomacy

By Gianluca Corinaldesi and Rohini Thakkar

Track 2 Diplomacy has been around for 60 years. For much of that time, it has been primarily defined as small, discreet dialogues involving influential but unofficial participants. 

World-renowned expert Professor Peter Jones of the University of Ottawa recently provided an overview of the history and relevance of Track 2 Diplomacy as invited speaker to the second installment of DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy Program (RDP), Multi-Stakeholder Framework series titled “What Future for Track Two Diplomacy.”

Professor Jones is also the Executive Director of the Ottawa Dialogue, an organization which runs Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues around the world. In addition to several publications and policy papers on this subject, Jones is the author of Track Two Diplomacy: In Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press 2015) and editor of the recently published special issue “Best Practices in Track Two Diplomacy,” International Negotiations, A Journal of Theory and Practice, Volume 26 (2021): Issue 1.

Origins and Examples of Track 2 Diplomacy

The first articulation of Track 2 Diplomacy or unofficial diplomacy as a field came in the ‘60s from John Burton, an Australian diplomat who conceptualized the role of third-party facilitators whose job was to bring together people from societies and conflict, “not officials, not there to negotiate.”

“Influential people close to power” convene, without the constraints of official positions, and “try to draw the sides out on the underlying causes of the dispute,” Professor Jones said.

An example are the Israeli-Palestinians workshops started by Herbert Kelman (at the time a Harvard professor) in the ‘70s, held through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which were instrumental in generating many ideas eventually adopted by the Oslo Agreements.

Track 2 facilitators focus on viewing the dispute as a problem that needs to be solved, “a problem which they jointly have to analyze and then jointly solve, rather than bargain over,” Jones said. But this problem-solving approach is more of a complement than a substitute for official Track One diplomacy: “It’s a misnomer to think that Track 2 is about sitting down somewhere and secretly hammering out an agreement. That’s what governments do. It is more about creating the space for that ultimately to happen.”

Creating this space often requires unpacking the crystallized notions both parties hold about each other.

During the U.S-Iran nuclear negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, Iranians kept saying “Americans don’t respect Iran,” while Americans were only focused on uranium enrichment. Peter Jones, at that time a facilitator in some of the talks, recalls asking: “I think our Iranian friends should explain what they mean by ‘respect’?” And that led to “a day-long conversation” where Iranians explained the “very deep- seated feeling that the United States and the West simply don’t accept the Islamic revolution and never will, and until the Iranians feel that that is not the case, a genuine rapport with the Iranian Government is not going to be possible.”

New Forms of Unofficial Diplomacy

The field of unofficial diplomacy developed over the years and is now encompassing hybrid forms like Track 1.5 (secret meetings run by influential elites) and newer forms like Track 3, where civil society stakeholders, who traditionally don’t have a seat at the peacemaking table, aim at carving a grassroots role in state-level negotiations, in the hope of promoting a permanent social change. 

In the case of Track 3, there have been voices who argued that the emphasis on elites leads to processes which marginalize important voices and results in peace agreements which are not representative of broader societies. In the past decade, these concerns have become an important issue for the field; the issue of how to include civil society and other actors in unofficial peacemaking.

“Most of the traditional tracks try to support Track 1” in conflict management and conflict resolution, said Professor Jones. But there is an “Emerging Agenda” that seeks to expand the role of advocacy in peace negotiations, to give a voice to under-represented groups who can bring human rights values, gender, and social issues in conflict dialogues. 

“We do recognize that a peace process which is multifaceted, multi-dimensional, which involves multi- stakeholder groups is likely going to reach a more durable and lasting peace than one which is just made by any one particular level of society,” Jones said. But “my own concern is that the tracks are going to spin off into increasingly separate orbits and perhaps even somewhat antagonistic orbits,” he concluded.

Another challenge is that traditional third-party facilitators are supposed to be impartial. 

 “Impartiality means very different things to human rights proponents and conflict resolution workers,” Jones said. “For a human rights advocate impartiality refers to the application of human rights norms, but most of these norms are constructed to protect the weak from the strong.”

Rethinking Diplomacy (RDP) fellow, Ambassador W. Robert Pearson and DUCIGS/RDP director, Professor Giovanni Zanalda moderated the event. Ambassador Pearson asked Peter Jones if the practice of unofficial diplomacy can be applied to other kinds of current global challenges like food security, climate, public health.

“It’s all about problem-solving,” Jones replied, adding that a skilled facilitator can still help bring the parties together and try to discover the space for a constructive dialogue. “But I suspect that much of this has to be done by experts in the fields.” 

Excerpts from the webinar:


“Unofficial dialogues, generally between two antagonistic parties, and often facilitated by an impartial third party and involving individuals with some close connections to their respective official communities, focused on co-operative efforts to explore new ways to resolve problems or differences over, or discuss new approaches to policy-relevant issues.”


  • Small, informal dialogues, referred to as “Problem Solving Workshops,” between people in conflict, usually facilitated by an impartial “Third Party.”
  • Dialogues are unofficial, but it is expected that the participants have access to decision­makers at home, and will be able to influence thinking in their societies on the conflict.
  • Dialogues are not venues at which current positions are debated, but rather places where the participants “step back’ from official positions to jointly explore the underlying causes of the dispute in the hope of jointly developing alternatives.
  • It’s an ongoing process rather than “one-off” workshops.
  • Most dialogues emphasize the value of addressing the deep-seated, psychological aspects of disputes.
  • While not exactly “secret”, dialogues are conducted quietly to create an atmosphere within which “outside-the box” thinking can flourish and participants are not afraid to propose and explore ideas that could not be entertained by an official process or one in which exchanges might be repeated in the press.


A way to define track two diplomacy is to consider different objectives with respect to the way the conflict will be handled:

Conflict management – tends to be for and by elites and those who want to find ways to manage change and mitigate the impacts of rapid political, strategic and social change;

Conflict resolution – requires that the elites (who sometimes benefit from a conflict), change their outlook or get out of the way;

Conflict transformation – transforms the basis of the conflict and may change the position of the elites in the respective societies.


It changes perceptions of the conflict and the “other.” It also opens new channels for communication between adversaries who had few other means of communicating (and, in some cases, no means of communicating). It also identifies and develops new options for future negotiation. It also prepares the ground for the transition of ideas developed in track two to the official track. Track two diplomacy helps develop networks of influential people who can work to change views in their countries.


Over the past few years a new agenda has been emerging from some quarters which holds that the quiet, confidential and elite nature of some Track Two dialogues is wrong in that it can have the effect of helping sustain the elites who are often responsible for the fighting in the first place.  In the view of this new agenda:

  • Dialogues must be spaces for the inclusion of those left out of elite peacemaking (civil society, gender issues, etc.)
  • Dialogues must help to spread norms such as human rights, gender inclusion, etc.
  • Dialogues must be run by local actors to be authentic.
  • Track 2 should not just be about helping local elites manage their conflict without addressing real causes. Dialogue should not reinforce power structures which caused and sustain the conflict.
  • External actors, even well-intentioned ones, do not have the ability to really comprehend and mediate in social situations they are not part of (importing invalid norms).
  • Certain norms (human rights, gender issues) do need to be brought into conflict situations if key issues are to be addressed.
  • More a conflict transformation agenda, than a conflict resolution one

While this agenda has much to offer, there is a danger for the field that it will lead to a split between the tracks.


Both human rights and CR (Conflict Resolution) invoke principles of impartiality. However, the concept had completely different meanings for practitioners in each field. To a CR practitioner, impartiality requires an even-handed treatment of all parties, regardless of their status or resources. For a human rights advocate, impartiality refers to the application of human rights norms, most of which are constructed to protect the weak individual from the abuses of the state or other potentially exploitative authorities. Thus, the human rights result does not appear impartial, but instead looks like (and often is) advocacy for one party over another. This presents a conundrum for the CR practitioner who recognizes that social justice requires creating a more level playing field, but who needs to maintain even-handedness to be credible.” Babbitt.

“Impartiality Matrix” – Practitioners need to think about where they are in this matrix and why.

Impartiality Matrix in Track 2 Diplomats


They should be working together and they should be communicating but they rarely are.

And that is one of the reasons why people like Diamond and McDonald wrote the book on multi-track diplomacy and others have looked at this. We do recognize and there’s a lot of studies and understanding that a peace process which is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, which involves multi stakeholder groups is likely going to reach a more durable and lasting peace than one which is just made by any one particular level of society.


My sense is that, where we are right now in the next six months is probably not going to be affected by unofficial diplomacy. The system has to play itself out. But what we learn from it, and where we try to improve upon it for the next time, could be an area where some informal discussions could be useful before people start to take hard and fast engraved in stone positions about this. It’s going to be important to bring together the various people from track one, track two, track one and a half and where they can sit back and start to say well you know what were our various experiences and perspectives on this last year, and how the rollout of the vaccine happened and how it was distributed and was shared. And can we begin to come up with some new guidelines, some new thoughts. I think that is going to be some sort of a problem-solving approach to figuring out how to do this better next time.


I think that those organizations which have tended to do better than others have been first of all around for a long time, longevity matters, reputation matters, prioritizing facilitation over all else matters, an approach which also recognizes that one has to continuously improve and do research and so many of the better organizations are the ones which are more widely regarded in the field have a research facility within them, as well as a sort of a facilitation and their research is supposed to guide their action and vice versa.


We found that groups of people, including religious leaders have been willing to sit and talk quietly and try to understand each other.

For instance, an organization of the Catholic Church which is based in Rome, gained entry to the conflict through the Catholic Church in Mozambique during 1970s conflict and was able to persuade people from both sides to come to these discussions and over time was able to play a role in helping to transform positions and transform views.


There are obviously cultural specificities, which affect how people interact, how they talk and there are also political specificities. One of the problems that we have, for example in South Asia is that there is a very long standing, political, historical suspicion of outsiders becoming involved in regional affairs, particularly in India, there’s this feeling that we will solve our own problems, we don’t need outsiders, we’ve had that for hundreds of years. One has to be very quiet and make the case that we’re there to facilitate, but it is the conversation between the people from the region that sort of directs where this goes and how it happens. We’re not outside interveners that are dictating how this is going to be done. In other conflict situations, there may be a need for someone to be much more assertive and say, well you know we are going to sort of set up this thing, and because the two sides want that.


I would never imagine that I can go to another foreign culture, in a foreign country, in a foreign language and just understand completely what is going on. But, one of the things that we do as facilitators is, we can very carefully ask questions, it’s called making process observations or content observations, really to try and bring out their understanding of these issues. Because, very often we find in situations of conflict, over a long period of time people on either side, they’ve crystallized complex sophisticated problems down to a single word which they just throw out and say well that’s it! you don’t understand! When in fact it what they need to do is unpack that and do so in the presence of the other side.


I don’t believe that when two governments are deeply engaged in a negotiation and they’re trying to genuinely trying to resolve an issue. I wonder, sometimes if outsiders are that helpful. I mean let them get on with it. But, where there are situations where there’s little to no discussion at the track one level, or the discussion is stranded and it’s not productive, I tend to believe there’s always some scope for a useful problem-solving approach involving people near power, but not in it, to try and see if there are new ways to understand the problem.


It’s an iterative process. It really depends upon in person meetings, because we find that the ability to really dig down beneath long held positions it happens, just as much in coffee breaks and over meals and perhaps even more so than it does around the table itself. With this kind of (virtual) format, you miss that, you don’t get that.  I am of the view that it’s essential. What we have been able to try to do in the last year, is to keep these dialogues going. You can certainly use them as mechanisms of information exchange. You can use them to maintain relationships. You can use them for quieter work amongst specific individuals, maybe the whole working group won’t meet, but maybe one or two from each side might need to work on a proposal or on a paper in this mechanism. But I’m not sure you can use this [virtual] mechanism to really run track two as it’s been traditionally thought of. It really does require personal contact, because a lot of it is about breaking down psychological inhibitions and barriers.