The Track Not Taken

By Mcdonald, John | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Track Not Taken


Mcdonald, John, Harvard International Review


Personal Reflections on State Department Intransigence and Conflict Resolution

Fifty years of experience dealing with a variety of bureaucracies have led me to conclude that no bureaucracy ever changes voluntarily. When a small shift does occasionally take place, it is usually because of pressure from an outside source or, less frequently, because of leadership from the top of an organization. The field of foreign affairs is no exception to this rule. For 15 years, I have sought to change the way the US Department of State's bureaucracy thinks about and manages international ethnic conflicts. The State Department has failed to acknowledge, institutionally, the positive role that non-governmental organizations, skilled in the art of conflict resolution, can play in this critical and sensitive arena.

Tracks That Meet

In 1983, toward the end of my 40-year diplomatic career, I was assigned to the newly formed Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, one of the State Department's most innovative structures. I began to explore the role of private citizens in the field of foreign affairs. Some months before, my friend and colleague, Joe Montville of the State Department's Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, had coined the phrase "Track Two" diplomacy, another name for citizen diplomacy.

Track One diplomacy, the object of most of my career, is formal, official, government-to-government interaction between designated representatives of sovereign states. Track Two, on the other hand, is nongovernmental, informal, and unofficial. It entails interaction between private citizens or groups of people within a country or from different countries, all outside the formal government power structure. Track Two aims to reduce or resolve conflict by decreasing the anger, tension, and fear between peoples by improving communication and understanding of the other side's point of view. In no way is Track Two a substitute for Track One; instead, it complements and parallels the goals of Track One.

I pursued my interest in citizen diplomacy at the Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs and organized the first symposium on Track Two diplomacy in February 1985, bringing together a number of eminent Track Two practitioners--all private citizens--to tell their stories. The book overviewing the symposium, called Conflict Resolution: Track Two Diplomacy, was ready for publication a few months later but was not published by the State Department until May 1987. The State Department had a turf problem: certain officials did not want a government publication acknowledging that there is an alternative way to do diplomatic business. This basic stubborn attitude has not institutionally changed since 1985. There have only been a few exceptions to this inertia over the past 15 years.

The United States Information Agency (USIA) has, for example, managed to shift its thinking dramatically. In February 1994, I learned that the agency's new director was interested in innovating in the field of conflict resolution. I briefed ten USIA employees about the field in March, and on May 16, 1994, the director approved the creation of a new, agency-wide Conflict Resolution Project Team and asked its members to meet with experts in this field. Unfortunately, the team collapsed in a matter of months, the victim of transfers and budget cuts. However, one arm of USIA, the International Visitors Program, moved enthusiastically into the arena. Over the years, it has brought several hundred leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to the United States to learn about conflict resolution and Track Two diplomacy.

But the agency's efforts were not well appreciated. On September 20, 1996, USIA tried to impact the State Department's thinking by hosting a seminar at the State Department on "Public Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution: Linking Track One and Track Two Diplomacy." It was a failure--ten people showed up.

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