September 19, 2007
Unofficial diplomatic discussions can play a significant role in shaping attitudes in the Middle East and Asia, but are best used as a long-term strategy without expectations for dramatic policy shifts, according to a report issued by the RAND Corporation.
Such discussions — typically featuring individuals from universities, non-governmental organizations, former government leaders and even current officials acting unofficially — primarily are about long-term socialization and generating new ideas, not immediate policy change, according to the report.
“Their appeal is their ability to raise ideas and solutions that might not be possible in official circles, but that could over time influence official thinking and ultimately move policy,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the study's author and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
“What seems unthinkable today may, through unofficial contacts, become the norm tomorrow,” Kaye said. “But they're not going to create dramatic policy changes among entrenched adversaries overnight.”
So-called “Track Two diplomacy” consists of interactions among individuals or groups that take place outside an official, formal negotiation process. “Track One” refers to all official, governmental diplomacy. While there are many kinds of informal diplomatic exchanges, Kaye's report focuses on policy-related, problem-solving, regional discussions.
Frequently, the goal of these sessions is to get adversarial countries to talk about regional security issues and ways that cooperation would benefit them both. For example, discussions may focus on a variety of “confidence-building” measures, such as notifying neighboring governments of military training exercises so as not to make the other government suspect a potential military attack, or identifying an earthquake as a natural disaster, not the aftershocks from underground nuclear testing, Kaye said.
Track Two dialogues can contribute to understanding and expertise in regional arms control, expertise that was lacking in both regions prior to such discussions. They also improve understanding of adversary's threat perceptions and domestic constraints because, Kaye argues, “in unofficial settings people can get past boilerplate positions and explain the rationale behind various policies; they can say, 'Look, this is really what is going on in my country, this is how the population feels, this is what the military thinks, etc.'”
But Kaye notes that there are numerous limitations to these discussions, particularly in the Middle East and Asia where longstanding histories of conflict and mistrust. Some discussions, rather than fostering improved relationships with neighboring countries, have led to parties developing even more negative attitudes about the other side.
Track Two discussions also can raise false hopes if group members are not in tune with the political realities of their governments and societies. In some cases, participating in these discussions at all can be dangerous for citizens of countries that have authoritarian governments suspicious of outsiders. And ongoing regional conflicts and instability often make it difficult for such discussions to make progress.
Kaye notes that although the study recommends that the United States support and pay more attention to these Track Two efforts, the appearance of American involvement, particularly U.S. funding, can cause some groups antagonistic to U.S. policy to refuse to have anything to do with the discussions.
The RAND report was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security and Research Division. It was supported by a research grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation.
The RAND National Security Research Division conducts research and analysis for all national security sponsors other than the U.S. Air Force and the Army. The division includes the National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center whose sponsors include the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the defense agencies, and the Department of the Navy. NSRD also conducts research for the U.S. intelligence community and the ministries of defense of U.S. allies and partners.
The report, “Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia,” is available at www.rand.org.