Multi-Track Diplomacy: Seen Through the Eyes of the Practitioner

June 28, 2012 // 9:15am12:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Africa Program
Middle East Program


Multi-track Diplomacy:

Seen Through the Eyes of the Practitioner


Thursday, June 28, 2012 from 9:15am-12:30pm

5th Floor Conference Room




Yair Hirschfeld, Professor, University of Haifa and Director, Economic Cooperation Foundation, Tel Aviv

Jerry White, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, U.S. Department of State

Norrin Ripsman, Professor, Concordia University, Canada and Northern Illinois University

Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel

Sheldon Himelfarb, Director, Centers of Innovation, U.S. Institute for Peace

Rebecca Subar, Senior Partner, Dragonfly Partners LLC 


Steve McDonald, Consulting Director, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


On June 28th, the Leadership Project brought together a diverse panel of experts from the U.S. government, academia and practitioner organizations focusing on negotiation, mediation and peacebuilding to conduct a workshop on multi-track diplomacy. The panelists brought their rich experience as practitioners of conflict resolution to focus on lessons learned and assess how best to employ the tools of multi-track diplomacy.

Steve McDonald, Director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, placed this discussion in the context of the first of two workshops relating to multi-track diplomacy, the second discussion scheduled to take place in October 2012. McDonald remarked that “it is imperative to remember that multi-track diplomacy is a partnership of all tracks” and that we have seen many examples of diplomacy that were unsuccessful because multiple tracks were not married. From his own experience working specifically in negotiations in Burundi, McDonald recognized that “this coordination is essential.”  He cited the track two effort of Sant’Egidio in Burundi in 1998 which brought some of the antagonists together in Rome, but without coordination with the official facilitation leader, President Nyerere of Tanzania. This spawned suspicions from the track one teams, and undercut some of their on-going efforts, setting back the peace process.  However, when the Wilson Center started its effort at building trust, communications and collaborative capacities in 2002 among the very same antagonists, the effort was fully coordinated with the donor and facilitation nations and parties, so that it complemented the track one efforts.

Preparing Multi-Track Diplomacy Building Blocks for a Peaceful Israeli-Palestinian Two-State Solution – Lessons Learned from the 2003-2009 Experience

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has experienced many failed attempts at negotiation in the past twenty years, which illustrates how the inability to employ multiple channels of diplomacy can result in a sustained disintegration of a peace process. Even though a coordinated effort has not yet been seen in this conflict, Yair Hirschfeld believes that with multi-track diplomacy, “we have a real chance of overcoming the deadlock.” In order for this to be viable though, he argued that there must be a stable “security environment,” a strengthening of public diplomacy between now and the November 2013 elections in Israel, an improved method for mitigating threats, recognition of “the right to return,” and an increased emphasis on “people-to-people” diplomacy. Hirschfeld stressed, “You cannot impose an outcome of the core issues on either side,” and thus, there must be a back channel dialogue between United States, Israel, and Palestine on how to define the core issues. Ultimately, while resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an extremely complex goal, Hirschfeld concluded, “There is serious possibility for headway… and we cannot give up before we try.”

Challenges and Dilemmas in Pursuing Public Diplomacy

Jerry White, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the U.S. State Department, spoke from his experience in both the private and public sector as to the importance of multi or “omni-track diplomacy.” He stated, “In many areas, the State Department is not as comprehensive as Yair pointed out and we pick out certain parts,” yet there is a definite need for multi-track options if the Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations is to produce measurable results within a short period of time. White also exemplified the success of multi-track diplomacy in his own experience when working on the issue of land mines in Israel. He stressed the importance of reframing the narrative and having an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders present in order to foster a “shift from a soldier issue, owned by the military, to a humanitarian issue.” 

The Tools of Economic Statecraft in Supporting Palestinian State-Building

Norrin Ripsman, Professor at Concordia University and Northern Illinois University, concentrated his discussion on economic statecraft in support of conflict resolution and stated, “Peacemaking begins with states rather than societies.” Engaging society is still “critically important,” yet peacemaking “cannot begin to gain traction without a well-institutionalized state.” He contended societies are often hostile to peace efforts, and therefore must be included after states have reached an agreement privately. Furthermore, Ripsman commented that states are necessary for peacemaking as they are “less swayed by emotion” and are more flexible than society, they have “access to instruments of policy,” they can make “credible policy commitments to another side” and have the ability to socialize a peace deal after the fact.  Ripsman suggested that economic aid to the Palestinian Authority would help institutionalize the Palestinian state and thus advance the peace process. This institutionalization means the Palestinian Authority would be able to reward supporters of the peace process, maintain internal order and gain the authority to “be supported as the legitimate instrument of policy making by constituents,” especially in the face of Hamas.

Communication and Media as a Peace-making and Diplomacy Tool

Sheldon Himelfarb, Director of the Centers of Innovation at the U.S. Institute for Peace, emphasized the importance of technology and social media in multi-track diplomacy when he remarked, “It is a whole new world for us in peacebuilding.” Himelfarb argued there is no issue today that cannot be “inflected by new media and communication” as “we are all media makers for a global audience.” The increasing use of cell phones for crowdsourcing information also plays a significant role in peacebuilding. To support this statement, Himelfarb provided the recent examples of monitoring and mapping election violence in Kenya in 2008, critical relief information after the earthquake in Haiti, and the crisis in Libya during the revolution. He concluded this is only the beginning for the role of such technology innovations in peacebuilding and “diplomacy in the 21st century is absolutely no longer just the province or the responsibility” of state to state diplomacy.

Lessons Learned from the 2003-2009 Experience in the Middle East

Dan Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, discussed the Bush administration’s experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted the positive outcomes of this involvement, including that the Bush administration was the first to formally accept a two-state solution and it gave precedence to the idea of Palestinian state building as beneficial and necessary. However, Kurtzer also evaluated the negative effects of this involvement, including the failure to prevent the intifada and the overall lack of a strong voice in this conflict, with the Bush administration becoming a bystander. This resulted in a situation where there were “any number of moments that were missed or may not have even been recognized” as opportunities for peace. Kurtzer judged, “It all adds up to a very severe indictment of the Bush administration.”

Comparative Analysis in Negotiation and Mediation Training: Why Context Matters

Rebecca Subar, Senior Partner at Dragonfly Partners LLC, emphasized the need for multi-track diplomacy in situations where joint action by states is not feasible, as in a situation where a group “perceives itself as less powerful than its adversary, that party will not see its prospects for a negotiated deal as positive,” and therefore must resort to other less socially acceptable, or even illegal, diplomatic tools. In this case, there may be unilateral action by a group, such as the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. or the protests by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in order to “equalize power,” and improve their position in more formal negotiations in the future. In the case of the IRA, there was an asymmetry of authority in negotiations. Therefore, the IRA first gained power by engaging in armed violence and then, later, was able to collect political power and transform into a political party after the Good Friday Agreement. Although we can make human rights and morality claims, Subar stressed that we cannot dictate what sequence a peace deal takes until we look at the situation from the rebel group’s perspective. Subar also discussed the third channel to negotiations of “unilateral action for the purpose of prevailing” where actors employ alternate methods of diplomacy, not in order to equalize power and thus engage in formal negotiations, as the second channel attempts, but rather to succeed exclusively through channel three. Subar emphasized that while many of us have a bias for formal and traditional negotiations, “we have to broaden our strategic frame to accommodate the realities of rebel parties.”

The discussion focused on issues of trust-building, to which Steve McDonald expanded on his own successful experience in Burundi where he found that “trust-building is really important, but you have to have the buy-in” of state actors as a precursor or it will not succeed. He juxtaposed his successful experience in Burundi with continued difficulty in the Democratic Republic of Congo where President Kabila has refused to buy into the trust-building process of the leadership workshops McDonald’s program conducts there, and has not, therefore, allowed a high-level of engagement. He reflected that one possible explanation for the dismantling of peace processes and the multitude of so-called “repeat offenders,” may be due to the various levels of leadership that did not support or attempt to build trust from the beginning.




5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Event Speakers List: 
  • Yair Hirschfeld // Public Policy Scholar
    Senior Lecturer, Department of Middle Eastern History, University of Haifa, Israel.
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary for Partnerships and Learning in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the Department of State
  • Professor in the Political Science Department at Concordia University and a visiting Professor in the Political Science Department at Northern Illinois University
  • S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Princeton University; and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel
  • Director of the Centers of Innovation at the United States Institute of Peace.
  • Senior Partner, Dragonfly Partners LLC
  • Steve McDonald // Public Policy Scholar
    Former Director, Africa Program, Woodrow Wilson Center.
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