In Box

Track II Diplomacy: A Short History

How the left-field idea of diplomacy without diplomats became an essential tool of statecraft.

The brainchild of a handful of academics, free-thinking State Department bureaucrats, and public intellectuals in the 1970s, "Track II" diplomacy grew out of the observation that private individuals, meeting unofficially, can find their way to common ground that official negotiators can't. Put bluntly, "citizens could take some action rather than simply being bystanders while the grown-up governments acted like jerks," says Joseph V. Montville, the former Foreign Service officer who first put the term down on paper in the pages of Foreign Policy 30 years ago. Governments once viewed Track II as a kind of feel-good exercise at best, and at worst as a genuine threat -- freelance diplomacy, after all, can damage the real kind. But three decades later, most of them have come to understand that an era of unconventional conflicts requires unconventional solutions.

May 1, 1960
An American U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace is shot down, leading to a full-blown Cold War diplomatic crisis. President Dwight Eisenhower's friend Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, convenes a gathering of unofficial American and Soviet delegations at Dartmouth College. The meeting establishes the blueprint for Track II diplomacy, from the cast of characters (a mix of academics and ex-officials) to its agenda: a frank conversation about their countries' differences.

1970s
Shrinks discover geopolitics. With backing from groups like the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs (IPFA), the new field of political psychology begins convening meetings of Arab and Israeli scholars and retired officials. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is a believer, telling Israel's Knesset in his historic 1977 visit that "a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection, a barrier of fear, of deception" divides Arabs and Israelis, and is "70 percent of the whole problem."

December 24, 1979
Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter cuts off contact with the Kremlin. The following year, California New Agers Michael and Dulce Murphy convene a conference at the Esalen Institute to promote unofficial citizen exchanges with the Soviets. Joseph V. Montville, a Foreign Service officer and participant in the APA's Arab-Israeli meetings, tells attendees, "I suppose you could say what I do is Track I diplomacy, and what you do is Track II diplomacy."

CHOO YOUN-KONG/AFP/Getty Images

Winter 1981-1982
In Foreign Policy, Montville and William D. Davidson, a psychiatrist and president of the IPFA, put the term "track II diplomacy" in print for the first time. "Its underlying assumption," they write, "is that actual or potential conflict can be resolved or eased by appealing to common human capabilities to respond to good will and reasonableness."

1980s
Citizen groups' efforts to leap the Iron Curtain gain momentum, but Track II still faces a cool reception from hawks. "Creating all of these networks that transcend government control has the potential for greatly harming the Free World," the Heritage Foundation's Mikhail Tsypkin warns in 1986.

1989
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences hosts the first of a series of conferences bringing together Arab and Israeli participants to discuss possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meetings and others like them snowball into the first major effort to put Track II into practice, laying the groundwork for the landmark 1993 Oslo Accords.

1991
The Soviet Union collapses, leaving diplomatic institutions like the United Nations, forged in an era of great-power conflict, poorly suited to keeping the post-Cold War peace. Policymakers begin considering Track II diplomacy with renewed interest.

June 12, 1994
With the United States and North Korea on the brink of a nuclear crisis, former President Jimmy Carter journeys to Pyongyang to extract Kim Il Sung's promise to halt his nuclear program. "It was a triumph of Track II diplomacy," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later writes. Carter exemplifies the rise in Track II circles of what might be called the Track 1.5 diplomat, an ex-official who meets on behalf of his country with other nations' officials.

September 23, 2002
U.S. Ambassador Marc Grossman, today the State Department's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, tells an audience at Foggy Bottom that "Track II diplomacy [is] a key part of our efforts."

Present
Once a fringe notion, Track II is now taught in 99 conflict resolution graduate programs in American universities, and many more worldwide.

How Track II Works

China
The Players: China, its neighbors, and the United States
The Peacemakers: The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and others

Several organizations began bringing U.S. and Chinese defense officials to the table unofficially after tensions rose over the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 spy-plane incident on Hainan Island. The meetings have helped ease tensions even as China has begun flexing its military might in the greater Pacific region.

Kashmir
The Players: India and Pakistan
The Peacemakers: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs

The Pugwash group, a half-century-old peace organization, managed to bring together Kashmiris from both sides of the long-running conflict for the first time in decades in 2004; a formal peace process (if not actual peace) followed.

North Korea
The Players: China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States
The Peacemakers: The National Committee on American Foreign Policy

When six-party nonproliferation talks stalled in 2005, the NCAFP kept the conversation going by convening a blue-ribbon panel of former diplomatic officials (including Henry Kissinger) in New York that mirrored the talks themselves, only without the lofty stakes.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

In Box

Fortress India

Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors?

Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old's father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani's wedding, arranged for a week later in her family's ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

There was no question of crossing legally -- visas and passports from New Delhi could take years -- and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards' backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn't safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn't so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter's corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. "When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry," Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world's bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.

In India, the 25-year-old border fence -- finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion -- is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture -- and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

Scott Carney

India did not always view its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh's independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh's already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country's famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators.

As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh's rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country's fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a "threat multiplier," sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it's no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

India has a long history of accepting refugees, from the Tibetan government in exile to Sri Lankans fleeing a drawn-out civil war. Faced with the threat of mass migration from the east, however, New Delhi has drawn a line in the sand. Rather than prepare expensive and possibly permanent resettlement zones, India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the program was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to nonlethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them.

By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn't actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a "lineman" -- what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border -- who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through.

"Entire villages can cross the border with the right payoffs," says Kirity Roy, head of the Indian human rights organization Masum, which together with Bangladeshi organization Odhikar and Human Rights Watch released a bleak report on the border situation in December. No one is likely to manage the crossing without a lineman's help, Roy explains. "If someone tries to sneak past the linemen without paying, they will find them out and tell the border guards to shoot them." An inefficient bribe system, he says, explains how border guards could kill 1,000 unarmed people in the last decade.

The ugly immigration politics on the western side of the fence, where popular sentiment runs decisively in favor of walling off Bangladesh, have made a bad situation worse. The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)

The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India's already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbors, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have "no business to come to India." The opposition BJP isn't rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party's leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with antipersonnel mines. If the predictions come true for immigration from Bangladesh, Roy says, India's population of 900 million Hindus will have no choice but "to convert or jump into the sea."

Kristian Hoelscher

The border itself has hardened into a grim killing field. Although border shootings are officially recorded by Indian officials as "shot in self-defense," the Masum and Human Rights Watch report found that none of the victims was armed with anything more dangerous than a sickle, and it accused the Indian Border Security Force of "indiscriminate killing and torture."

Most of the dead are farmers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In January, Bangladeshi soldiers told us, six Indian soldiers lured a Bangladeshi farmer named Shahjahan Ali into a swath of no man's land along the border. They stripped him naked, beat him, broke his legs, and mutilated his genitals before throwing him back into Bangladesh, where he bled to death from his injuries. "It's like they are drunk," says the Bangladeshi soldier who found Ali. "Like they are on drugs." Powerless to fire back without creating an international incident with their vastly stronger neighbor, the Bangladeshi border guards can do little more than pick up the bodies.

Felani's death, however, galvanized Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption "Stop Border Killing!" on seemingly every available wall in the capital city of Dhaka. Shamsher Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and current vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says, "The fence is our Berlin Wall." The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn't kill anyone on the border.

But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable.

Correction: The version of this story that appeared in the July/August 2011 print edition of Foreign Policy neglected to credit the Bangladeshi organization Odhikar as a co-author, along with the Indian organization Masum and Human Rights Watch, of a December 2010 report on the India-Bangladesh border cited in the story. The online version has been corrected.

Kristian Hoelscher