New Leaders Forum

Think Tank Diplomacy

Why Track II diplomacy initiatives will be increasingly important for peace and stability in Asia-Pacific.

By Eddie Walsh for

A few weeks ago, I filed a story announcing the launch of the Pacific Partners Initiative (PPI) by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). PPI is the first Washington based policy and think thank forum dedicated to providing a sustained high-level policy focus on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island Countries. It also incorporates trilateral ‘Track II’ dialogue as a mechanism for addressing regional security issues.

While meeting with US Ambassador (Ret.) John W. McDonald, chairman and CEO of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, to talk about his organization’s peace-building efforts in India-Pakistan, I also had an opportunity to briefly discuss PPI.
An expert on multi-track diplomacy, McDonald is one of the few diplomats in D.C. who can claim decades of expertise in Track II diplomacy and is therefore a key resource on such topics. According to him, Track II diplomacy initiatives such as PPI will be increasingly important to the maintenance of peace and stability in Asia-Pacific – despite the fact that ‘governments rarely recognize the value of non-governmental actors in diplomacy.’

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In McDonald’s view, too many critical security issues facing the region are undermined by government officials who are prone to making inflammatory statements and refusing to compromise due to domestic considerations. He says that non-Track I mechanisms, such as Track II think tank dialogue, could help expose errors in judgment by government actors and ensure that conflict resolution remains on-track despite potential short-term missteps along the way.
For McDonald, issues such as Kashmir, the Liancourt Rocks, Burmese authoritarianism, and the modernization of the Chinese navy are prime regional opportunities for Track II diplomacy. However, he also cautions that the long-term viability of regional Track II initiatives likely will be dependent upon their short-term success. In his view, real world impact, rather than policy briefs and analytical reports, are the best way to garner legitimacy and relevance with government actors. He believes on-the-ground wins help initiatives overcome the ‘huge gulf that exists between the two tracks.’
As a consequence, McDonald suggests that PPI shouldn’t limit its trilateral dialogue to think tanks, which have ‘little experience running on-the-ground projects.’ And he is also sceptical over whether governments, which he refers to as talkers, can be relied upon as implementation partners given that they ‘usually don’t appreciate the advice of Track II actors’ until much later in the process. Instead, he suggests that PPI should immediately ‘bring in non-governmental actors, who can put into practice future recommendations made by the think tanks, as partners.’
McDonald also maintains that PPI should reach out to other multi-track partners, such as business leaders and media, and bring them into the process as early on as possible. He sees these actors as partners rather than competitors for Track II actors.
So what should be on the agenda for PPI in the first year? McDonald suggests that the focus should be on what governments can’t or will not make long-term commitments to resolving. Long-term commitments extend beyond just peacekeepers and other actors who combat violence. Peaceful resolution, then, ‘requires bringing opposing sides together to discuss their problems face-to-face,’ not just maintenance of the status quo. With this in mind, the Papuan conflict should be high on PPI’s agenda.

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Still, as optimistic as McDonald is, he warns that Track II actors can’t sign peace agreements or enact more permanent resolutions to conflict. Ultimately, that will take the concerted will of governments throughout the region. This is an issue that PPI and others will have to confront once they’ve gained more traction in the region.
Eddie Walsh is a freelance journalist and academic based in Washington DC. His work has been featured by ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe, and The Journal of Energy Security. He is currently DC / Pentagon correspondent for The Diplomat after recently completing post-MA coursework at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter: @aseanreporting.