Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently wrote an op-ed that, amid the many conflicts brewing around the globe today, recalls an era of diplomacy worth revisiting. In the Oct. 11 column, he expressed fear that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty he signed with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in December 1987 is at risk of collapse. Though 80 percent of the nuclear weapons that the United States and the Soviet Union accumulated during the Cold War have been decommissioned and destroyed, and both sides have complied with the deal's strategic weapons clauses, the INF faces stiff opposition in each country today. Gorbachev added that if the INF Treaty crumbles, and its signatories deploy nuclear weapons to their borders — presumably meaning to the line between East and West drawn in Poland and the Baltic states — they will become even more dangerous. He then called for a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, poignantly reminding them that they must have a sincere dialogue based on mutual respect to preserve the treaty.
I say poignantly because Gorbachev set the bar for respectful dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Reagan, despite strong resistance from the neoconservatives within his administration, became so convinced of Gorbachev's sincerity that he agreed to engage in talks with him. Indeed, in a historic address to the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 7, 1988, the Soviet ruler announced that his country would unilaterally scale down its armed forces by 500,000 troops within the next two years. During his speech, Gorbachev praised Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz for their progressive attitudes toward collaborative arms reduction.
I will never forget the first and only front-page editorial I have ever seen in The Washington Post hailing the extraordinary significance of Gorbachev's speech.
The Tale of Track Two Diplomacy
But the process of forging international relationships doesn't always take place through official channels. Enter the concept of "Track Two diplomacy," which flourished under Gorbachev and, 35 years later, won Shultz's endorsement. Its story began at a weeklong meeting on U.S.-Soviet relations at the Esalen Institute in 1980. About 40 people attended, including myself, at the time a Middle East specialist with the U.S. State Department and an unpaid consultant to the American Psychiatric Association. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the significance, if any, of recent trips to the Soviet Union by the institute's co-founder, Michael Murphy.
After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter was hard-pressed to show his disapproval of the move. In addition to working with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to support the Afghan fighters resisting Soviet occupation, his administration halted cultural and educational exchange programs and established a committee to undermine the Moscow Olympics. Most of the participants in the Esalen workshop were deeply concerned by the severance of these informal means of communication between the two countries at a time when each had massive arsenals of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at the other.
When the meeting's organizers asked participants why they had come to the conference, I said, "I suppose you could say that what I do is 'Track One diplomacy,' and what you are doing is 'Track Two diplomacy.'" Beyond the useful simplicity of the term "Track Two," the fact that I was an active duty foreign service officer at the time might have implied that Esalen's citizen diplomacy initiatives had the explicit approval of the U.S. government. They didn't, of course, nor did anyone ask for it.
But this might explain why the concept took off like a California wildfire. Citizen diplomacy groups sprang up across the country in the early 1980s, and the Esalen U.S.-Soviet Exchange Program that emerged from that fateful meeting transformed the countries' bilateral relationship. Over the years, the institute promoted an alliance between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts, as well as satellite bridges between California and Moscow. The program also facilitated communication between the U.S. Congress and the Soviet Duma, culminating in Boris Yeltsin's Earth-shaking visit to the United States, which inadvertently inspired his campaign to destroy his country's Communist Party and, ultimately, the entire Soviet Union.
The term "Track Two diplomacy" first appeared in print in a Foreign Policy column that I co-authored with psychiatrist William D. Davidson in 1981-82. But the fullest description of its meaning appears in my chapter of the State Department's book on the subject, Conflict Resolution: Track Two Diplomacy:
"Track two diplomacy is unofficial, informal interaction between members of adversary groups or nations which aims to develop strategies, influence public opinion, and organize human and material resources in ways that might help resolve their conflict. It must be understood that track two diplomacy is in no way a substitute for official, formal 'track one' government-to-government or leader-to-leader relationships. Rather, track two activity is designed to assist official leaders by compensating for the constraints imposed on them by the psychologically understandable need for leaders to be, or at least to be seen to be strong, wary, and indomitable in the face of the enemy...
"Track two diplomacy is a process designed to assist official leaders to resolve or, in the first instance, to manage conflicts by exploring solutions out of public view and without requirements to formally negotiate or bargain for advantage. Track two diplomacy seeks political formulas or scenarios which might satisfy the basic security and esteem needs of the parties to a particular dispute. On its more general level, it seeks to promote an environment in a political community, through the education of public opinion, that would make it safer for political leaders to take risks for peace."
Treading Where Diplomats Cannot
As today's headlines make clear, the American public is becoming increasingly concerned that Trump's policies on North Korea could precipitate a disastrous conventional war capable of destroying Seoul and its millions of citizens, along with tens of thousands of Americans living in South Korea. Many worry that Japan, too, may become a target of Pyongyang's short-range nuclear missiles.
In an Oct. 22 interview, Carter showed some sympathy for Trump while reiterating his recent offer to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The former president has a history of intervening in tense conflicts. He went to North Korea in 1994 to head off a potential war, reportedly annoying then-President Bill Clinton. Later that year, he persuaded Haiti's leaders (this time with Clinton's approval) to peacefully leave the country in order to fend off a U.S. invasion. Of course, Carter has never felt bound by strict instructions from the White House if he believes they reduce the chances of a peaceful resolution to conflict. His chief focus is eliminating violence; that's the way he is.
North Korea has already been the subject of many Track Two initiatives, even if the North Korean participants in those talks could never be considered unofficial. According to journalist M.J. Zuckerman's major cover story "Track II Diplomacy: Averting Disaster," published in 2005, the Carnegie Corporation of New York supported several "Track 1.5" meetings that eventually yielded a deal to resume formal negotiations among the six-party nuclear group made up of North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
A quick glance at Amazon's book list on Track Two diplomacy shows that North Korea isn't the only country where citizen outreach has proved useful, either. U.S.-Russian relations, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the India-Pakistan rivalry and the Philippines' foreign policy have all seen positive progress because of this informal brand of conflict resolution.
Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the Track Two phenomenon is Peter Jones' Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice, noteworthy in part because Shultz commissioned the book. I conclude here with some words from the former secretary of state's forward to the study that have special meaning for me:
"Track two diplomacy is something I heard of frequently during my years as Secretary of State. To be honest, I was often somewhat leery of it… my concern was that it would get in the way of our official diplomatic efforts and confuse others as to where the United States stood on various matters… Since leaving office, I have had a deeper association with Track Two and have taken part in some of these discussions… I now realize that properly done Track Two does not seek to 'get in the way' of Track One diplomacy, as those in office sometimes fear, but rather to complement it, often by going to places where Track One is unable to tread and by tackling subjects it cannot approach."
He understood the message of the Track Two initiative we helped to create, and that is certainly gratifying to this retired Track One diplomat.