Expert Interview with Stephen Del Rosso on Supporting Track Two Dialogues

Ottawa Dialogue’s Fall 2021 Newsletter features an interview with Stephen Del Rosso, Director of the International Peace and Security Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Our interview includes discussions on his transition from Track 1 work to Track 2 and 1.5, what it means to be a grantmaker versus a facilitator, past and possible upcoming shifts in the Track Two field, and his insights into supporting a Track Two endeavour.

1. You are currently the Director of the International Peace and Security Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York, having previously worked at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and The Pew Charitable Trusts. You were also a career diplomat for almost a decade with the U.S. Foreign Service. What made you initially interested in Track Two, and at one point did Track Two begin to occupy such a major part of your professional scope?

I left government and started in philanthropy at the end of the Cold War, which was a very interesting moment – there was heady optimism, perhaps irrational exuberance about what was happening. I had known of some Track Two between the US and the Soviet Union, like the Dartmouth Conference, for example. As a diplomat, I wasn’t directly involved in the negotiations in Central America that advanced the Contadora Peace Process there in the 1980s, but I was certainly aware of them and was dealing with people who were directly involved. I also had some experience in arms control – again, not a major player but as an observer and later working on building interagency consensus for treaty ratification. So, I was mindful of what was going on in both official and unofficial channels as well of some success stories leading up to the Oslo Accords, the cease fire in Northern Ireland, the end of apartheid in South Africa, etc. This was a bright shining moment for Track Two.

In addition, when I began working at Pew in 1991, the foundation had recently started a program to advance political and economic reform in Eastern and Central Europe. One of the obstacles to that reform was ethnic conflict – once the lid was pulled off after the demise of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, ethnic conflicts erupted and threatened to erupt in various places. One of the main focus areas of the Global Security program I was asked to develop at the time dealt with these types of conflicts in this region. This opened-up a world of non-governmental actors for me, many of whom were defined as “conflict resolution practitioners” and had been working on these sorts of issues across the globe for many years.

2. (a) Do you consider yourself a Track Two facilitator?

I don’t consider myself a facilitator as the term is commonly used in the field. Our philanthropic foundation has been able to fund a number of Track Two dialogues, and interestingly, most of them have not involved professional, third-party facilitators. I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to participate in these events and have benefited from the experts who have organized them but have not been a facilitator in the sense you are asking.

That being said, in my role as a grantmaker, I’m a facilitator in a different way – a facilitator of others doing that work. Also, keep in mind that Track Two is only one mode that Carnegie Corporation of New York supports in our far-ranging International Peace and Security grantmaking program, but this is an area where philanthropy can really help because there is no single funder responsible for supporting Track Two.

(b) In your experience, how was the transition from Track 1 to Track 2 peacebuilding? What were the major differences that you observed as a third-party observer?

In observing Track One processes, I recognized some of their limitations. Not only were they convened under the klieg lights of media attention, but most of the talking points presented by American negotiators were necessarily limited – they weren’t allowed to stray too far off from the official reservation. So, I was very aware of the differences between Track One and Two. There are advantages to Track Two that leaders in the field have long described – opening-up and maintaining channels of communication when formal relations are limited or non-existent, seeding ideas that might not be ready for primetime – this is the classic checklist of why Track Two can sometimes complement Track One. Another is dealing with sensitive issues that just can’t be broached in Track One. This leads to one of the big challenges with Track Two – how do you get those insights onto the Track One negotiating table? However much empathy or relational change occurs in a Track Two dialogue, how do you translate these into the policy space? This is the well-known transference issue. Yes, our Track Two grantees always brief government officials in a variety of agencies and departments, but you never know definitively the extent to which there is policy uptake of these insights.

Also, I have also noticed that, while some more enlightened officials may see the benefits of Track Two, others may be reluctant to fully embrace this activity because it is out of their direct control. Although channels of communications exist between policymakers and Track Two participants, there is also a degree of wariness in official circles about these activities. Interestingly, I know several former government officials who, when they were in government, were not big fans of Track Two, but, when they left government, were some of the most enthusiastic participants. Now you can speculate as to why that might be the case, but the fact that people voted with their feet by attending these events suggests they found them useful.

3. (a) How has the pandemic impacted your work?

Almost all human beings, of course, have been impacted by COVID-19 in some way. Particularly for our grantees attempting to organize conferences, travel to sites, conduct field research, etc., the pandemic has complicated their ability to achieve their initial goals. But we and they have adjusted. This is especially true for Track Two grantees who have transitioned to remote dialogues. Beyond concerns about the security of internet transmissions possibly inhibiting discussion, as you know, some of the most interesting and useful discussions at in-person Track Two dialogues take place at their margins, at more relaxed and informal coffee breaks or dinners, perhaps lubricated by a glass of wine or two that may allow people to speak more candidly. These can’t be replicated in a virtual environment.

Those Track Two organizers facing challenges and opportunities with remote work aren’t alone. Although, in many cases, more attendees can be present remotely than in-person, and this can be a definite advantage, it can also be a disadvantage in terms of focusing the discussion and allowing everyone a chance to speak. At the same time, there are also obvious cost savings with remote work when travel and accommodations are not involved. And getting visas for participants to travel to dialogue sites is not an issue.

(b) Do you see remote peacebuilding and online dialogue facilitation continuing beyond the pandemic?

Going forward, maybe technology will allow something that mimics in-person dialogue to some degree. For example, I think virtual reality will make great leaps in the next few years. From what I’ve seen, while we might not be able to pass a drink to someone, perhaps some of the best elements of informal interaction that happen outside of the plenary could be replicated with virtual reality. But even before this technology advances, I am aware of at least one organization that had been convening in-person Track Two dialogues pre-COVID, that has decided to hold these exclusively remotely for the next couple of years, regardless of the of the path of the pandemic. I think that, weighing the pros and cons, some other organizations, will decide to go hybrid, given what they’ve learned over the past year and a half. While there may be some technological challenges involved, I’m also hopeful that technology can assist this process.

4. What advice would you have to up-and-coming facilitators, Track Two scholars and peacebuilders who are looking to find funding and/or support for their projects? Where is the “starting point” for young peacebuilders in 2021?

Well, for a variety of reasons, it’s a challenging time for philanthropy, given the burgeoning number of problems facing the world. There also aren’t many funders of Track Two, and one reason may be the perennial challenge of evaluation. In terms of any advice I might offer, there have been so many Track Twos, and while these are typically off the record discussions, there also has been a lot written about them – like Peter Jones’s work, for example. For early career experts, there is a wide and deep literature that didn’t exist twenty, or even ten, years ago from which they could benefit and learn. Recognizing that there is no cookie-cutter approach, and that the context of each conflict needs to be understood deeply – in terms of culture, history, and other aspects – an empathetic and clear-headed, would-be Track Two facilitator or participant should have some familiarity with both the documented record or analysis of certain dialogues and the relevant case-specific background material.

5. Throughout your career in Track Two, what has been the largest shift in the field throughout the years? (i.e., the rise of China, gender mainstreaming, technology’s role in conflict, etc.)?

It’s an interesting question. The biggest shift I see is that there seems to be an increasing number of conflicts all over the world that require attention. I know that there is debate about whether conflicts have actually declined, but the internet age has certainly brought them more quickly to our attention and there is some evidence that conflicts within states have been rising. Back in the day, Track Two was largely peripheral – it wasn’t fully embraced beyond intellectual leaders in the field. Now, it has become a more mainstream approach to try and resolve, manage, or transform conflict. It’s a credible tool in the toolbox that society and governmental and non-governmental actors have now embraced it or at least no longer see it as a wallflower at the dance. While the number of conflicts in the world may be on the rise, there is also just more knowledge to be mined when it comes to Track Two. So yes, while it is never a substitute for official negotiations, there are many instances where Track Two can definitely be helpful. I’ve seen surprising openness to Track Two processes in some formal talks, and even some interest on the part of Track One negotiators in hearing lessons learned from Track Two conversations.

So, the shift is: Increased need for Track II, but also more nuanced understanding of Track Two and what it can accomplish. This would appear to offer more opportunities for early career professionals in the years to come in this field.

6. What are the largest changes in the field that peacebuilders and Track Two scholar/practitioners can expect to see in the next decade?

As I’ve suggested, there is a lot to be learned from what’s happened before – I truly believe that and don’t mean it to sound patronizing. Particularly for people just entering the field, they can gain an appreciation for the limits and possibilities for Track Two from this experience. Tangible outcomes, for example, are very rare and cannot be the standard to judge Track Two.

(b) The question on evaluation that you mentioned seems to be a huge upcoming question in the field.

An emphasis on accountability and attempts – beyond an instinctual belief about the value of Track Twos – to get some empirical data around its efficacy will continue to be important, notwithstanding the fact that Track Twos, by definition, don’t tout their proceedings publicly. This could be an area for major contributions from early career professionals. Identifying results but also exploring the question of how to define results are big questions since these are often intangible in Track Twos.

Another factor is timing. Sometimes the seeds that are planted early on in a Track Two discussion may not come to fruition during the assessment period of a grant, but only five or ten years later. There is a temporal issue when it comes to Track Two that works against narrow evaluative metrics. I empathize with any Track Two practitioner trying to make a case to funders, because this work is not measured in the same ways as other grants.

And further complicating matters, while the practice of Track Two is definitely evolving, so too is the “chess board” on which the Track Two pieces are played.

Stephen Del Rosso

Del Rosso is Director of the International Peace and Security Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Previously, he was Director of Programs at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and managed The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Security Program. Del Rosso served a decade in the U.S. Foreign Service with overseas assignments in Central America and the Caribbean, and in Washington in the Operations Center and as staff officer to Secretary of State George Shultz, among other assignments. He was also a Presidential Management Fellow at NASA, news producer at VOA, and staff assistant to British Member of Parliament, Julian Critchley. Del Rosso holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania; a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he was an Earhart Fellow; a diploma in international studies from the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins SAIS; and a B.A. from Tufts University.