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How Track 2 Diplomacy Might Help Ease Russian-Ukraine Tension

In some cases, where formal diplomacy has initially failed, other diplomatic tracks have fared better. In essence, the end goal of relationship-building is the same, but the means to this...

We at the Jordan Center stand with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

Sarah Dorr is the Director of Professional Development at the International Studies Association and a Research Scholar ar the University of Connecticut's Global Affairs.

At a recent academic convention, a Russian colleague shared that he might no longer be able to place Russian and Ukrainian scholars on the same panels because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This sentiment reflects serious concern and sensitivity toward interpersonal relationships between citizens of these countries. Simultaneously, this apprehension overlooks the possibility that informal interactions, such as academic exchanges, might contribute to relationship-building and trust between citizens of nations at odds and that severing those relationships just adds to the existing tension.

As we know, many Western universities have ended their academic relationships with Russia, thereby closing established channels of communication and engagement. These closures translate into mutual isolation and an end to dialogue. Delegates, everyday residents, and the third parties who would have heard the stories they tell, have lost the opportunity to experience and learn from interaction with others, who might alter their existing perceptions of a different nationality in unexpected ways.

Against the backdrop of increasing Russian isolation, these interactions become even more critical. They create dialogue, trust, and separate people from the problem. As Madeline Albright observed in 2014, “Everyone is a diplomat in their own way.” Therefore, by ending formal cooperation, individual diplomatic opportunities have already been drastically reduced.

To date, formal or Track 1 Diplomacy, where diplomats, governments and international organizations formally engage, has failed to prevent the initial Russian aggression and has thus far struggled to de-escalate the war. Unfortunately, the success of future diplomatic efforts, at least in the short term, does not look likely. On Friday April 29, Russian missiles struck Kyiv, the day after the United Nations Secretary António Guterres met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The 29th was the same day of Guterres visit to Kyiv. This is not a critique of global diplomatic efforts at large or in this instance, but merely the most recent example of formal diplomacy’s limitations.

Academic exchanges, on the other hand, are often categorized within Track 2 diplomacy, which does not involve direct government sanction. In some cases, where formal diplomacy has initially failed, other diplomatic tracks have fared better. In essence, the end goal of relationship-building is the same, but the means to this end uses a different strategy and is carried out by different players.

One well-known example of successful Track 2 diplomacy is the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993. Notably, the signing of the Oslo Accords, by official government representatives shows that Track 2 diplomacy only goes so far. In this case Track 2 diplomatic efforts played a major role in the processes leading up to the signing of a formal Track 1 agreement.

The genesis of Track 2 approaches is often attributed to Herbert Kelman, who organized a series of workshops starting in the 1970s that facilitated communication between Israelis and Palestinians.  Kelman described the objective of these workshops as “our emphasis has not been on communication as an end to itself, but on transmitting what is learned in the workshop setting to the political leadership, the political elites, and the general public in the two communities, thus helping to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations.”

“Workshop” fails to capture the highly curated and unique nature of Kelman’s design, which contributed to its success. For starters, the workshops were held over a period of several years and were highly structured with both an agenda and rules. Perhaps most important was the selection of participants. Kelman wrote that participants “must be politically involved and influential,” part of their larger community, politically moderate, and committed to finding a “negotiated solution.”

A present-day adaptation would benefit from similar design considerations in terms of scheduling, structure, and participants. For example, workshops with academics and civil society activists could take place immediately prior to academic conventions, many of which are held at regular intervals. The convention setting would facilitate discussion following the conclusion of the workshop by transmitting findings to a wider audience through international attendance and written outputs. Academic associations could also act as non politically affiliated hosts, or what Kelman referred to as a third party.

Because of the current isolation of Russians across so many sectors, providing spaces for  people to connect in spite of the underlying conflict has become even more critical to conflict resolution. As Oslo showed, unofficial interactions within these spaces can help build and reinforce relationships, and in doing so, form the foundation for future conflict resolution. And when faced with the sort of bloodshed seen in Ukraine, why wouldn’t all tools be tried?

At the start, at least, Track 2 approaches, whether in academic, diplomatic or business sectors, will directly encounter discomfort.  But moving through that discomfort perhaps allows for the building of relationships that humanize conflict impacts and may lead to de-escalation and conflict resolution.

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