Jennifer Akin
Eric Brahm

January 2005


"A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip." - Caskie Stinnett

"Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way." - Isaac Goldberg

The art of diplomacy has a long-storied history. It is the practice of verbal discussion with the intent to influence, transmit a position or negotiate on a given issue or situation for a mutually acceptable outcome. It is often called an art because each situation requires a unique mixture of empathy, persuasion, bluster, and cajoling amongst other things. The sentiment expressed in the Stinnett and Goldberg quotes above is typical of how diplomacy has often been viewed. It has traditionally been a method of conducting interstate relations involving discussions and negotiations between heads of state or their representatives in order to advance national interests. As one may imagine, these efforts may not always be sincere. More broadly, however, diplomacy often involves efforts to keep channels of communication open between different sides of a dispute in the hopes that tension can be diffused and violence averted. Modern diplomacy is in many ways more complicated with intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved and the globalization of communication and transportation opening up new avenues for the conduct of diplomacy and helped new participants get involved.

Much of modern diplomacy continues to involve the interaction of state and/or official actors in what has become known as Track I diplomacy. These diplomats are acting in an official capacity with the authority and on behalf of the state or IGO they are representing. The entity they are representing may have a direct stake in the dispute or they may be acting as an intermediary. The goal, if a disputant, is to realize an outcome as favorable to one's side as possible. Third parties often become involved in the discussion in order to find ways through stalemates or to even get the parties talking in an effort at peacemaking. This being said, much of diplomacy is routine in order that issues do not reach crisis level.

There has been recognition that high-level official engagement is not always effective. Animosity and distrust may be too prevalent. The sides may question the motivations of representatives from third party states or from IGOs. In other instances, these third parties may lack a strategic interest or deem it too risky to get involved. Particularly in these circumstances, informal channels of communication can be effective at maintaining dialogue. These instances of Track II diplomacy are more subtle and personal, involving conflict resolution professionals from non-governmental organizations engaged in activity often through back channel measures. Track II diplomacy is important in maintaining support at the local level for negotiated agreements and terms to a peace settlement. Track II diplomats are also more often engaged "on the ground" in peacebuilding efforts in addition to their back channel peacemaking efforts.

"He who walks in the middle of the road gets hit from both sides." - George P. Shultz

With increased internationalism and globalization, the sphere of participants in inter-communal conflicts is expanding. Participants include not only state actors but also the opposition parties and adversaries within the conflict itself, not to mention regional, multinational and non-governmental organizations. Third parties in Track I and Track II diplomacy can provide several different roles in conflicts and in their de-escalation. They can fill the role of supporter or mediator during the peacemaking process. A third party supporter or mediator can provide space for and initiate negotiations or discussions, gather information, help penetrate emotional barriers, help expand the negotiable pie, represent absent persons or views, provide resources, create pressure to reach an agreement, and generate support for an agreement. They do this with the intent to de-escalate conflicts, reach and sustain agreements and prevent future conflicts from occurring.

There is continued debate about the particular roles played by Track I and Track II actors in conflict management. Table 1 suggests some ways in which the two can be distinguished, although this division is not always clear-cut. Track I and Track II cooperation can be an issue. While it is generally recognized that both actors fill useful functions, boundary issues and other role-related issues continue to create tensions between the two tracks. In fact, the interests and actions of those involved in different levels of diplomacy may often be at cross-purposes. If done effectively, however, Track I and Track II diplomacy can be mutually reinforcing processes in conflict management. Each track is effective in unique ways and, despite some overlap in methods used by both tracks, the role of Track I and Track II diplomacy cannot be entirely filled by the other.

Table 1:
Distinguishing Track I and Track II Diplomacy


Track I

Track II


Official Representatives,
Multi-national Organizations,
Adversarial Leaders
Unofficial Representatives,
Nongovernmental Organizations,
Regional and Local Leaders,
Grassroots Groups


Positive or Negative Incentives,
Political or Economic Support
Back-channel Discussions,
Education Programs,
Grassroots Reconciliation

Stages of Conflict

Present in all stages, but of particular importance during Peacemaking and Peacekeeping, when official actors determine cease-fires, peace accords, and terms to negotiated agreements. Present in all stages, but of particular importance during Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, when local and regional actors can detect early warning signs of violence, and can help foster personal reconciliation techniques between adversarial parties.

A number of practitioners and scholars have suggested that talking about Track I and Track II is, in fact, inadequate. What we often see is what Louise Diamond and John McDonald refer to as multi-track diplomacy where a whole range of actors with varying interests in the situation are involved at different levels to keep channels of communication open and hopefully de-escalate the conflict.

Use the following to cite this article:
Akin, Jennifer and Eric Brahm. "Diplomacy." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/diplomacy-intro>.

Additional Resources