Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Peter Jones

Peter Jones is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is deeply involved in running Track Two dialogues in Asia and the Middle East, and also writes and teaches on the subject. His latest book is entitled Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice.

Recently I asked Jones about what he was reading. His reply:
I travel a great deal for my work, and am a voracious reader on planes. Most of my reading has to do with my chosen field; conflict resolution and particularly the question of how one opens and sustains dialogues between peoples in conflict. This is a harder issue than commonly supposed. Intractable, longstanding conflicts create significant pressures to keep going; once the dynamic and logic of war are deeply entrenched it is politically and emotionally easier to continue fighting than it is to step back and consider alternatives.

I am presently reading a fascinating account of behind-the-scenes dialogues between a senior Indian intelligence official and Kashmiri militants during the period when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India. It is entitled Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. The author, A.S. Dulat, was a lifelong member of India’s intelligence community, who rose to the very top of that community and spent many years working on the Kashmir problem. The book outlines how Dulat came to the view that only through dialogue with the militants could the conflict be managed and resolved and tells the story of how he launched and conducted such a dialogue, which came very close to a breakthrough.

His honest and at times painful account of the process does not pull any punches – these were not easy talks and the people at the table on both sides were no angels. Both sides in the dispute had committed harsh, even unspeakable acts against the other and against innocent civilians. Often, in my own experience, it is a very special sub-set of such people – some of those who have done the fighting and killing – who are the ones who come to the conclusion, after many years of fruitless and bitter fighting, that there is no other way forward than compromise and dialogue. This precisely mirrors my own experiences of running so-called “Track Two” Dialogues between people in conflict, including some on this issue which have included Dulat himself.

The book is thus a fascinating account of behind-the-scenes talks as seen by one who was an instrumental player. But it is also a meditation on how someone who has spent his life fighting can come to the view that dialogue offers the only way forward; an amazing personal journey. Dulat shows that, on many occasions, what been firm and longstanding Indian beliefs about the motivations and character of leaders on the ‘other side’ were found to be wrong once he got to know them, and how the other side came to revise its opinions of Indian leaders and a positions. These revelations would not have happened had the two sides not been talking.

Through all the fighting and bloodshed, Dulat came to the view that the Kashmir problem could never be resolved unless India accepted the need to talk directly to the militants, and also to the country which supported many of them; Pakistan. Even though the talks he writes about ultimately failed to resolve the issue when other events intruded, Dulat believes they created a set of ideas that will ultimately be the foundation of such a resolution.

A book I have recently finished reading is Frederik Logevall’s very interesting Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. This is a very readable and yet also scholarly account of the final years of the French experience in IndoChina, and of how the US came to be sucked into that conflict.

After World War 2, France was keen to re-assert its Great Power status and overcome the legacy of surrender and occupation. Many senior French officials saw a vigorous assertion of Imperial greatness as one means to do this. This view ran smack up against the emerging desire for liberation, which would spawn the de-colonisation movement of the 50s and 60s throughout the developing world. While many of these movements were simply the indigenous expression of a desire to throw off colonialism, it was the misfortune of these movements to be active at just the time the Cold War was settling its grip over international affairs. Though many of them were hardly committed Communists, the language and concepts of the era meant that their struggles would be interpreted through the Cold War prism.

This is very much what happened in French IndoChina. Reading Logevall’s account, one is struck by the many instances when senior figures in the French government and the Viet Minh tried to talk to each other to find a way forward. It is clear that Ho Chi Minh, though a socialist, had little interest in being entirely cooped up within the Communist world; he tried in the early years of the struggle on several occasions to have quiet talks with the French and the Americans to see if a way could not be found to peacefully disengage France from Vietnam, but also leave in its wake a neutral country that would not be a ‘threat’ to broader US interests in the Cold War. Minh eventually accepted large-scale Chinese and Russian aide, but only after he felt that all hope of dialogue with France and the US was dashed.

We will never know, of course, if such an outcome was really Minh’s objective, or if it would have been possible. On every occasion when talks might have taken place, events conspired to create countervailing pressures. Sometimes these were just circumstances. More often than not, it was high-ranking people who simply did not want to compromise. At key moments, for example, leaders of the French colonial administration in Vietnam took a hardline, believing they could ‘win’ in military terms, and also that France’s larger interests in re-establishing itself as a Great Power required that it show the world that a leading European nation could not be defeated by an ‘inferior’ people.

What is particularly interesting is the clear picture that emerges of many senior US officials coming rapidly to the view that France’s position in Vietnam was increasingly militarily and politically untenable and advising Washington of this quite bluntly. And yet, time and again, what were perceived to be larger US interests in the geopolitics of the Cold War meant that Washington supported hardliners in Paris, even when they knew it was an increasingly hopeless cause. The US was keen to shore up France as a European ally against perceived Soviet expansionism, both in Asia, but also in Europe itself. It was repeatedly argued that this ‘bigger picture’ required that France not be seen to ‘lose’ to a Communist insurgency. And yet, that is exactly what ultimately happened, but not before the US had become so enmeshed in that conflict as to lay the foundation for its own disaster in Vietnam.

Embers of War does not provide any firm answers as to whether the tragedy of the US involvement in Vietnam could have been avoided. The world is too complex a place for that. But it does raise the intriguing question of whether an alternate path, a path of dialogue and compromise, might have worked. At the least, this book shows quite convincingly that there was a window when it could have been attempted; feelers were put out and were understood as being such by at least some people. There were discussions of whether dialogue and compromise might be possible, but these were always drowned out by the voices of those who argued that ‘bigger’ interests required a tough stance.

Embers of War, and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, both show us that dialogue between enemies is possible. It is never easy and requires remarkable and courageous people. But there are moments in most conflicts – though perhaps not all (what compromises could have been made with the Nazis?) – when alternate paths can at least be explored. It is the job of statesmen, diplomats and people of vision to be on the lookout for such moments, and to recognise when larger interests require a leap of courage.
Learn more about Track Two Diplomacy at the Stanford University Press website.

Jones is also the author of Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War.

The Page 99 Test: Open Skies.

The Page 99 Test: Track Two Diplomacy in Theory and Practice.

--Marshal Zeringue