Track Two Politics

Nowadays, diplomacy is usually done between states, with all the trappings of sovereignty on grand display. Sometimes, though, those states – big as they are – find themselves incapable of threading the needle of negotiation. Perhaps they’re too large, not seen as a valid representative for one of the aggrieved parties; perhaps they are, on the other hand, seen as being too much of a representative for one of the parties, and thus incapable of being adequately objective in the reconciliation problem.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes the state is no longer the proper actor to resolve a dispute. And in those cases, states can take a step back, leaving a void to be filled by civilian actors: academics, community leaders, religious figures, or other popular leaders. That’s Track Two diplomacy – actors that don’t have the same responsibilities as the national government can hold discussions in a less regulated environment, advancing points and floating ideas that might be politically unpalatable for a government, but that must be said in order to properly resolve the issue. A bridge is built on a more individual level, and only then opened to the public.

Helmut Smith makes, in a way, this point when he discusses the post-Holocaustic reconciliation, and the massive role played by Jewish returnees in creating the room for these discussions to even happen. “It takes a village to create a nation’s memory,” he titles his Zocalo essay; without the low-level reconciliations between Jews returning to their ancestral villages and those villages’ attempts to make amends, it is difficult to imagine the Holocaust miniseries – which a number of historians of Germany indeed cite as a turning point – getting the oxygen needed for the beginnings of reconciliation.

The role of civilian experiences in national politics is echoed in Werner Sollors’ examination of ‘the Fragebogen’, a deeply invasive standardized questionnaire used by the Allied occupiers to identify and deplatform as many Nazi-aligned Germans as possible. Because the questionnaire was ubiquitous, a necessary step in securing any kind of employment or public office, it became a cultural touchstone in postwar Germany: effectively everybody was subjected to this systematized probe at one point or another, and so it formed the basis for a kind of cultural pushback against American occupation – especially given a sense of injustice, that they were being forced through this humiliation while ‘the real Nazis’ escaped punishment.

In both cases, there is a cultural shift built against the state directive; and the changes sparked by these societal ruminations ended up having great repercussions at higher levels. National politics builds off the local.

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