Trackless Diplomacy – At Play in the Fields of the Lord’s Resistance Army

… the peacemaker must ‘wage’ peace.
– Ben Hoffmann
Peace Guerilla – unarmed and in harm’s way, my obsession with ending violence
By Ben Hoffmann, Ph.D., The Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation, Ottawa, 2009 206 pp., $12.96 (Cdn)
A review for Peacehawks by Jamie Arbuckle


This book is the story of Ben Hoffman’s efforts to end a nineteen-year old war between Sudan and Uganda. His chief instrument in this was the Nairobi Agreement, which had been mediated by former President Jimmy Carter in December, 1999. Ben, working on behalf of the Carter Center (, was to oversee the implementation of the Agreement. To do so, he would have to end the guerilla war being waged by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army against the Government of Uganda, from safe areas within and with the support of Sudan. Kony’s LRA was an especially vile band, kidnapping children for “warriors” and “wives”. Kony himself, as Ben makes graphically clear, was mad, bad and dangerous to know. And get to know him Ben did, with all that entailed. If you take nothing else from this reading, you will empathize with the courage and the self-reliance required for this sort of intervention.

Ben Hoffmann is one whom we unhesitatingly call brilliant. We have worked and learned with him on occasions precious to us, and regard him as one of the best leaders we have ever followed. We had long respected his intellectual courage, and this book makes clear as well his physical courage. The story is told with cinematic sweep and a sense of excitement and adventure, and indeed Ben’s negotiations with Kony to free the kidnapped children are to be encapsulated in a movie, “Girl Soldier”, which is based on another book, Stolen Angels, by Kathy Cook (Penguin Global, 2009).

Ben was eventually forced to concentrate his efforts on ending Sudanese support for Kony and his LRA, and this was achieved. He later concentrated even more fully on negotiating the peaceful release of the abducted children, before overt military action against the LRA would result in a bloodbath of Kony’s “fighters” – who were those children. In this he was not successful, and the reasons for this go to the heart of essential limitations on what is called Track II Diplomacy.

What is now known generally as Track I Diplomacy is the recognized and traditional intergovernmental and diplomatic intercourse between and among states, either bilaterally or, often, multilaterally, through international bodies such as the United Nations, or regional organizations such as the EU or the AU. Track II , as it has come to be known, is on the other hand an informal diplomacy, usually by non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics, retired public figures, social activists – a variety of unofficial third parties, and that includes the Carter Center. As Diana Chigas has described it:

In this model, informal intermediaries act between conflicting parties either by hosting and facilitating talks or by providing unofficial shuttle diplomacy…. Former President Jimmy Carter and the Conflict Resolution Program at the Carter Center at Emory University are (an) example of mediation by non-governmental actors. Carter consults with governments, as well as relevant governmental and intergovernmental organizations, but acts in an unofficial capacity, albeit with official blessing. His status as a former president of the United States gives him legitimacy and entry at the highest levels. Yet acting as an unofficial mediator, he is free to initiate discussions, facilitate communication, and explore new ideas. (See Chigas, Diana . “Track II (Citizen) Diplomacy.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003

And in this very description lie the real limitations on Track II diplomacy, in the phrases “with official blessing”, and “legitimacy and entry at the highest levels.” This was always shaky ground for Carter and for his Center, and there were abundant signs of that support waning throughout the period covered by this book.

Early meetings with the U.S. State Department were disappointing: “… we went away with little hope that President Clinton’s administration was likely to make the shift in policy that we called for … Albright’s promise of follow-up contact was never realized in the months of March and April 2000 …Carter was very disappointed.” Later in that year, Ben received a “discrete message that Canada was not happy with The Carter Center’s role as mediator, stating that we were a nongovernmental organization and not a state actor.” And shortly thereafter, “Egypt was … also making noise that perhaps The Carter Center was not a legitimate mediator between two nation states.” The U.S. Government’s reservations about Track II diplomacy were being registered by those and other Track I players, and the Carter influence was in fact shrinking; the levers were fewer and shorter than they had been at opening of play a year earlier.

Ben senses this almost immediately: “I was really being impeded by my own limitations as a mediator with no real clout to push these men and their governments to go where I wanted them to go.” And Carter also realizes that he needs greater legitimacy, and that the source of this can only come from the Track I diplomatic world. Admitting that he had earlier “struck out” with Madeleine Albright, Carter approaches Colin Powell with much more confidence, and their meeting in March 2001 seems to go well – there is talk of appointing an Envoy, and Carter seems a likely prospect for the appointment. This has a downside, however: it is made clear that if Carter is to be a Special Envoy, he will have to be “tied to the (State) Department” – “they did not want any ‘Lone Rangers.’” Doubts set in almost immediately on both sides: was this a viable appointment for a Republican administration? And in Atlanta the Carter Center staff was contemplating the impact of such an all-absorbing appointment on their other programmes.

But then came 9/11, and attitudes hardened, issues became more black and white, Vice-President Cheney talked to former President Carter and “it did not go well;” “Carter had been dismissed as a bleeding heart liberal”. And on the playing fields the clocks ran on into 2002, when it was decided to launch Operation Iron Fist: the Ugandan Army would, with permission, enter Sudan to “rescue” the children held by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

If there is one clear lesson to be drawn from this tale, it is this: Track II diplomacy succeeds only when it is a continuation of, and supports and is supported by, official international, Track I, diplomacy. Where Track I diplomacy is clear and resolute, Track II diplomacy can play a valuable supporting role; where Track I leadership is absent, Track II can annoy and worry the target, but is usually little availing. Warned off the course by the American, Canadian and Egyptian governments, and finally more or less abandoned by the Bush administration, somebody at the Carter Center should have been in a position to recognize the sounds of silence – they were Track II dips, and they were on their own in a very bad neighborhood. Ben recognized the seriousness of their second strike-out in Washington: “I felt checkmate.” But immediately, and characteristically of him, he wonders, “Could we do anymore? Could we do any different?” It is perhaps revealing that Ben, who surely knows all that we have said here, never mentions Track I or Track II diplomacy (there is no index in Peace Guerillas, so we might have missed it).

The contrast between Carter’s efforts in Sudan, on the one hand and, on the other, Richard Holbrooke’s “mediation” which led to the Dayton Accords in Bosnia Herzegovina, are striking, especially in the degree of support (and direction) Holbrooke received from those “highest levels” of the U.S. Government. Although the comparison is less than totally precise, as Holbrooke was with the State Department at the time of his appointment, Holbrooke was granted by the U.S. Government just that recognition and legitimacy that was later denied Carter, and you don’t have to be a great Holbrooke or Dayton fan to recognize that the respective conduct and outcomes of their efforts reflected these differences.

Ben has written an outstanding book: it might have been an adventure novel, except that it is an utterly convincing, because utterly authentic, real life account of what might usefully have been more clearly recognized as Track II diplomacy. The pity of these brave and bold efforts is that the author of the Carter Doctrine of 1980 did not realize the fragility of his efforts twenty years later. The Carter Center surely ought to have realized the duality of the challenges they faced: the most obvious one was of course in Africa, but of equal if not primary importance was the challenge in Washington to which, as Ben said, “all roads lead.” It was just that theirs didn’t.

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