- Thomas Merton
Director of the International Conflict Resolution Program of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and Chair of the Columbia University Conflict Resolution Network
Topics: track I diplomacy, track II (citizen) diplomacy, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
Interviewed by Susan Allen Nan and Andrea Strimling — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
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Q: I think we can begin now. How have you been involved in the interactions between Track I and Track II? What have you seen? What has worked? What hasn't worked?
A: I think the best way for me to start is a line that I'm in a sense ??? for Africa. And when he was presenting there was a meeting in 1992 at the USAIP symposium in July of 92 on ??? peace and he was presenting our work as ??? ??? in Mozambique and he said "this is the first time that a Track II organization is leading a Track I process" and I'd never heard that expression before. I was a younger colleague at that time. ??? sentence with organization??? For a few years but to be totally honest, I was not aware even of the expression. We were coming from a non-Engligh speaking culture, we were not exposed to the work of Joe Montreal and Ken Lenin? And others and we didn't know there was such a distinction. We were doing work that was clearly political in nature and was clearly societally sensitive and it was clearly geared towards the identification of little or no communication that could eventually lead to the unified independent and peaceful Mozambique that we see today. But we didn't have any clue that it was an attempt to distinguish in a way the 2 contributions, there was 1 for us. There was a sense of unity that was derived by the final goal of attaining peace as something that clearly supercedes any specific contribution. It was very clear to us that peace was in a way more found and given to those that were seeking it and honestly enough. So our role was more to facilitate the undoing of delineation and hassles and hargles that would prevent these from emerging rather than something that would impose peace on a situation. And in that framework we were clearly in conversation with a state organization, with political actors that did have the power to make the peace happen but especially interesting for us, they had the power to not make it happen and to keep the conflict going. So I thnk it's important to start from that observation because it is a follow of language. When we addressed the issue of collective participation in peace processes, especially in successful peace processes. Through the rubric of Track I/ Track II, we had already identified categories that were created in Norht America and make sense in Norht America where you do have a certain institutional strength and where you do have a certain language. Now it's very clear athat there is still society everywhere in the world and that there are political insolutions and arguments everywhere in the world but I just wanted to give you this to appreciate how new some how all of these ideas are. I think it's important for us to appreciate how it plays out differently in different parts of the world. The other observation is that from ?org? that was identified by ?Gestor Vidal? Has a Track II condition leading a Track I process is a catholic organization that doesn't have official role in any way, it's an NGO. It has a very catholic traditional dealing with political representation. The catholic church is one of the oldest institutions, it is clearly perceived to be the oldest of all in the world. The family I'm living with, languages in practice of international diplomacy that really was exposed to very early on where a significant part of this patrimony. So for us to deal with states was just a normal thing. It would've been funny otherwise. Sometimes I discuss this with John Paul (Lederach) and for a Mennonite to get involved in international politics requires an enormous change and an enormous investment in differeing yourself from your own tradition that tells you that power is bad and most of the time insolutions, political insolutions are oppressive realitites that tend to enforce you and make your life miserable. So for a Mennonite, for many Mennonites, what John Paul is doing, he is exceedingly daring. Because he would be better off not doing anything at all. Being peaceful on your own, you're always at peace with anybody. But we are here getting involved, doing something in the world requires a level of political consciousness and understanding of political realities and especially insolution of realities that it's quite a departure from the tradition. For us, it was more the reinterpretation of something that has been there for a while. The pope speaks with Gorbachev with a lead that no other leader may have. You have a place to start. And that fact that our involvement in Mozambique was in many ways mediated through the Bishop of Bayor? Who was a friend of ours who became Bishop because when the Portuguese got the news that the leftist group of soldiers with power had decided to get **rid of the colony, the Vatican changes policy to only have white Portuguese bishops in the colony and appointed this poor guy who was one of the few native Mozambique black priest. And this is how we got involved with the priest becoming a bishop and the bishop playing a role of expressioning the needs and mediation, cultural representation that was essential throughout. It started in the mid-70s and it was included October 4, 1992 and still continues today. Why I'm saying this is because I think there are realitites like a local Bishop or a local minister that fell easily into the Track 1/Track II diplomacy structure that we may want to help official communities to appreciate. That is to say, when you have a person like Bishop ??? in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], who is he? Is he an NGO, what is he? And he's clearly not the "official" static almost rigid secular state formation that counts, but more lively in the making of gaining presence of communities as they are. So what I see as important in the NGO state debate is the NGO side represents more easily the dynamism, the effort to bring about change in a situation that are simply unbearable. I think that sometimes, as in the case of Mozambique, this process can be exceedingly successful, sometimes it's simply indispensable. One of the reasons ?Santa org?? got involved in Algeria when we had the Platform for Peaceful Resolution of Algerian ?Tribes? in 1995, it was simply because Algerians couldn't meet in Algeria and welcomed immigration of the community because we were in touch with Muslims from the Middle east that were doing some Christian movement dialog with us. And the result was this incredible document of socialist, nationalist and islamist? Algerians all gathered together in a Catholic convent discussing human rights. Sometimes thing happen in a non-official setting because they can not happen otherwise, there's simply not the space. The NGOs sectors can provide the quaker model of ?re-armament? And the ??de-moralizing??, I have demonstrated some of these all over again. Especially the moment of ?condition? you can not pay attention to the margins of society where space is created for a creative solution to emerge, to a situation that are available to the population. So I think htat what I hope this occasion will give us is a sense of the situation and that the debate is not just between American organizations seeking funding from the state but that the NGOs sectors is actually representing a much larger sector of society that are frequently at odds with structured form of a state that doesn't necessarily dialog with its citizenry easily. So in many ways NGOs are better positioned than others, I wouldn't necessarily frame it in an either-or in a no position of, but more in this collaborative, I would say that what I saw in Mozambique, at ??Osama-gia?? Was this moment when the official diplomacy recognized that there are certain limitations that pertain to rigidity that pertain to the black opportunity, and involvement that pertain to the narrow focus on national interests and that the NGO sector actually has lots to contribute in terms of articulating the needs of society that are going through deadly conflict and violence. So I think the proper mentality is very much there. **My experience is also that usually states, when they are led by result-oriented individuals, they tend to dialog with the NGO sector and the independent sector very well. Sam Noone? Doing work for the UN in Somalia was working better than the American military in many ways, prior to the invasion. He was having consultations and these things, it's not by sense that the soldiers in Salvador or ?Bahimi? in 1980 and Afghanistan and so on has a very keen sense of involving the independent sector because if only this we understand that in a situation of flux, of transition, you do want to have contributions from all different areas. So the areas I know the best as I said, are Mozambique, Algeria, I know a little about Kosovo but I would say that USIP is most aware of the work in Mozambique; they have worked very well. There is a chapter in ?Hurting Cats? Irving Carts? If it is of any interests, I'd be happy to elaborate further on the certain intuition that were born there.
Q: OK, well, I have that chapter and I think that as we move forward through shaping what focus your remarks would take and how they would fit with the rest of the agenda that I should probably read that chapter again.
A: I'm definitely happy to do something new. As I said, I think that the problem is that it is to important not to take the occasion.
Q: If you could not repeat the chapter but build on it through your comments today. That's really helpful to hear about the Track I/Track II distinction wasn't clear at all in Mozambique.
A: No, it was practiced, but not understood in many ways. Not real.
Q: So it sounds like you have a clear vision of government and NGOs working well together and successful because you have experienced that happening. I think your experience is very much a success story.
A: Yes, and I think we frequently have some sort of political community or moral community, I think that all the success stories I know, in El Salvador, Mozambique. All these have a very strong political component, that is to say, you have a situation in which the understanding of different roles and contributions go back to involving the peace process is clearly enough to address a point, induce collaborative processes. I think the intuition that Track I needs Track II and Track II needs Track I is very basic and I think that everyone can grasp that when they realize how much better a situation is when you do have full investment from civil society, from NGOs, from churches, from all sectors of society. Many observers make the point that many peace processes like Oslo and Israeli peace process fail when they do not have that kind of support. So I think that the division, the model, the ideal of a collaboration, of a complimentality is very much that and the more we can do that day to stress that not only as a possible future that I ???, certain areas, in certain moments, in certain situations, successfully for ???, the NGO sectors and the Track I the better it is for us. I think anyone has anything to gain by quarreling or competing. I think that the point is that what I perform at this collaboration and it clearly must be based on trying ??? what are the ??? and challenges of the two sectors that can contribute to the over all???
Q: Your comments have actually raised another question for me which is that it sounds like in your Mozambique work and in Algeria too, that it was really clear there were things that the NGOs could do that the governments were not in the position and were not structured to do and that the two needed each other. What form that cooperation took would be of interest in terms of what are we suggesting for other conflict areas where it is clear that civil society does need to be engage in some way. What form does that take? Is it leaders of the NGO after it meets with various ambassadors ??? capital where the conflict is happening? Is it headquarters kinds of activities at the UN? Is it personal relationships developing with trust between the various actors; do they trust each other and can focus each other? What is the form that the cooperation takes?
A: I think that it is hard to define ??? of something that will necessarily express cooperation in the sense that as we all know very well that something that works in one setting may not work in another. Everything is context dependent. The most important valuable has to do with confidence or has to do with relevance. I think that the imperative in transitional situations, in conflict resolution transitions, in peace processes, is what is useful to the process. Whatever is not central, whatever is not positively contributing to the process is simply dismissed. It doesn't matter if it comes from the UN Secretary general or the US President it just doesn't work. You can try to impose that on situations but it will not be effective. The same works for the NGOs even worse because the NGOs do not have a power base that can impose it???. So I think that what the for??? In a way seems to allude is that the NGO sector ??? is supposed do work that is consistent with their own mandate independently of the Track I, almost independent of Track I, that would be my ??? at least. Because of the specific contribution competence and relevance are built in. What happens is that you end up having the right relationship, you end up being the only quaker person who knows the rebel in that area or you end up being the only well-known scholar who has adapted to that language or you ended up being the only one who experimented for five years a very successful ??? development process that allows communities to end their internal conflict.
Q: ???following your mandate and doing it well?
A: It will position yourself to be relevant to the Track I community and then there is an opportunistic element that if you want it is something a little bit of a, it is a mystery if you want. But how does it happen that John Pentergast ??? became the assistant secretary for Africa or now he is working for ICG, International Crisis Group. But before he was in the NGO sector. He was working for the Center of Concern and he working out of the ??? in Africa and he became an expert and he knew the area and his knowledge became relevant and significant for the government. Then President Clinton invited him to join the National Securtiy Council. Now that morphing is happening all the time. Sometimes it takes the form of joining the government. Sometimes it takes the form of joining the NGO. Sometimes it takes the form of doing something together because it is needed. Sometimes the activities that can be designed NGOs that are purposely doing that, designed to do that and have a mandate to do that and this can have a double agenda. An example more related to the work at Columbia University. When the State Department gave us the first contract to do work in Iraqi???, they were clearly concerned about the very tense relationship between the ??? and the ??? that were fighting eachother and militarily on the ground. These were two Kurdish groups killing each other at the time in which the Americans wanted them to be united to fight against Saddam, 95-96. We at the Columbia University Center for Conflict Resolution were mandated to teach and do urgent conflict resolution. So we were asked to see if there was an interest among the three universities in Northern Iraq to establish conflict resolution center in ??? universities. That was our job, but it clearly had a political implication. The ??? joined ??? effort 2003. It was clearly not only functional Columbia work but we have no doubt that the informal channels that ??? communication, the training we gave, the classes that we explained and all that contributed to certain conflict resolution activities. We were doing what ???. I mean doing Track I work but it had a Track I effect and I think there is much that many are doing around the world that has exactly the same relevance. Things you do, Search for Common Ground is another example. Much of what they do is not necessarily ??? first of all ??? amount obviously Track I. But when you have a very successful TV show that shows Macedonian kids of Albanian descent I ??? can get together. You probably do have an effect. I am joking but if the producer of that program became the minister of culture we would not be surprised. You see the idea? You know, ??? is now going to be assistant secretary for humanitarian affairs at the UN, I don't remember, but he used to be the deputy foreign minister for Norway and was heavily involved in, actually it would be nice to invite him. Because the advantage of Yen is for the last few years he has been with Norwegian Red Cross so he has been in the NGO sector. Not defending the fact that the Red Cross has a very long standing independent independence in different stages but I think it would be nice to have somebody from the Red Cross speaking because he gives a very good historical perspective of how a neutral ???state actors is actually needed in the moment of conflict. So it could be an interesting contribution.
Q: I think that is a really good suggestion and his name has come before and we want to consider what the whole agenda will look like and it is helpful now knowing the kind of comments that you would be making to know what else would be needed in the mix so we get a breadth of perspective for the day. This is really helpful and really interesting and will be very helpful in shaping the approach we will take at this symposium especially Track I and Track II not even seeming at all distinct. That is very powerful.
A: I would say this is almost an ideal. You know you want to work these processes in which everybody is contributing to something that is higher and greater then any ???. It is a successful peace process to whom should the credit go? I don't believe in the one man show kind of deal but I do believe in collective decsion making processes that do actually shape the emergence of peaceful resolution.
Q: Well thank you so much for sharing those comments and thank you so much for holding November 24 to speak. As we speak to every potential speaker and turn up the agenda I think then we will have a clear idea of what we would ask you to speak and how long your remarks would be and so on. ???
A: I would be more then happy to do it.