Scholarly Essay
Middle power liberal
internationalism and
mediation in messy
places: The Canadian
Peter Jones
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of
Ottawa, ON, Canada
Canada seeks to increase its role in mediation as part of a renewed liberal internationalist foreign policy. This means confronting the question of how to manage the domestic
political consequences of engaging as a mediator with those violating cherished international norms, while also upholding the view that they should be punished. Key to
all this is the concept of impartiality, particularly as it relates to the objectives of
liberal internationalist countries. This paper explores multiple meanings of the term
‘‘impartial’’ as they pertain to mediation, particularly with respect to the question of
mediations involving those who have violated international norms. The paper then
explores whether increased support for ‘‘arms length’’ mediations, such as Track Two
diplomacy, might allow for more involvement in mediation, while avoiding direct
involvement in morally fraught situations. The paper concludes that Track Two can
be useful in developing a national capacity for international mediation, and that work
can also be done to make Track Two—which is currently based largely on Western
concepts—more indigenous. However, support for Track Two does not answer the
fundamental question of how Canada, as such, can be more active as a mediator if it is
not willing to engage with actors who have committed atrocities.
Mediation, impartiality, liberal internationalism, Track Two, diplomacy, Canada
International Journal
2019, Vol. 74(1) 119–134
! The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0020702019834724
Corresponding author:
Peter Jones, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, 120 University,
Ottawa, ON, K1N 6N5, Canada.
Upon assuming office, the Trudeau government issued instructions to the new
minister of foreign affairs (re-named global affairs), that efforts be made to recapture Canada’s place as an active player in international mediation, peacekeeping,
and conflict resolution.1 The new government believed it was following a proud
tradition. Certain segments of the foreign policy elites in Canada and other countries have traditionally prided their countries on being ‘‘helpful fixers.’’ Though not
without critics, the notion of themselves as ‘‘good states’’ has acquired a powerful
constituency in these countries. This notion holds that these states, as a form of
liberal internationalist activism, pursue an expansive conception of self-interest,
defined by advancing broader conceptions of justice and peace than those served
by more traditionally realist policies.2 At various times, niche activities, such as
peacekeeping and mediation, have been put forward as an integral part of this
liberal internationalist vocation.3 Amongst the many attributes which help these
countries play this role is held to be their ability to act in a manner that is viewed by
those in conflict as ‘‘impartial.’’
Of course, not everyone agrees that this is a benign expression of a desire to
pursue ‘‘purposes beyond ourselves’’4
—objectives beyond narrow self-interest,
which seek to incrementally strengthen a rules-based international order. Indeed,
a push-back has developed, which questions whether actions in this respect do not
constitute an attempt to foist upon the world a set of Eurocentric assumptions
about how the international system should be organised. In extremis, this line of
criticism charges that this is little more than a latter-day version of the kind of
1. The mandate letter of the first Trudeau-era foreign minister said that one of his priorities was to
‘‘increase Canada’s support for United Nations peace operations and its mediation, conflict-prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts[.]’’ Though the letter speaks of mediation in the
UN context, this has been interpreted as a call for Canada to be more involved in mediation
generally (confidential interviews with officials implementing Canadian mediation policy). For
the text of the letter, see (accessed 9
February 2019). There has been discussion in the past of whether Canada should develop mediation
as part of its foreign policy. For more, see P. Jones, ‘‘Canada and mediation: Issues and considerations,’’ Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Policy Update, January 2017, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.-
Canada_and_Mediation_Issues_and_Considerations.pdf?1485392280 (accessed 9 February 2019);
P. Jones, ‘‘Canada and international conflict mediation,’’ International Negotiation 18, no. 2
(2013): 219–244; F. Storie, ‘‘A Canadian international mediation capacity,’’ CIIAN News,
summer 2006,
(accessed 9 February 2019); and the special issue of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal on
Canada and mediation: vol. 19, no. 1 (2013).
2. The ‘‘good state’’ and the debate over the idea may be found in P. Lawler, ‘‘The ‘good state’ debate
in international relations,’’ International Politics 50, no. 1 (2013): 18–37. Not everyone agrees. See
H.H. Holm, ‘‘The myth of the responsive North,’’ Journal of Peace Research 29, no. 1 (1992):
3. See, for example, A. Chapnick, ‘‘The Canadian middle power myth,’’ International Journal 55, no. 2
(2000): 188–206; and the essays in A.F. Cooper, ed., Niche Diplomacy: Middle Powers after the Cold
War (London: Macmillan, 1997).
4. A concept often attributed to Hedley Bull. See S. Hoffman, ‘‘Hedley Bull and his contribution to
international relations,’’ International Affairs 62, no. 2 (1986): 179–195; and A. Burke, ‘‘The good
state, from a cosmic point of view,’’ International Politics 50, no. 1 (2013): 57–76.
120 International Journal 74(1)
self-justifying interventionism that was used by European colonialists in past
This paper discusses the desire of Canada to reclaim a role in mediation and conflict
resolution as a manifestation of a liberal internationalist foreign policy. In particular, it
will consider issues surrounding the question of impartiality in such situations. The
paper will explore the multiple meanings of the term ‘‘impartial’’ as they pertain to this
kind of activity. In this context, the paper will explore whether Canada’s dual impulses
to be more active in mediation, and to be a champion of various norms of behaviour,
are incompatible, particularly in terms of domestic political constraints. Though both
of these impulses may be attributed to a desire to act as a champion of liberal internationalism, they can be contradictory, and the Trudeau government appears unwilling
to make hard choices in the face of possible backlash from key domestic constituencies.
The paper will show that, historically, Canadian governments have been able to confront these contradictory pressures, but this one has not yet been prepared to do so.
Finally, the paper will explore whether increased Canadian support for ‘‘Track Two’’
could be a way of meeting expectations that Canada will be more involved in mediation, while also avoiding direct involvement in situations that could require Canada to
become directly involved with actors who have violated cherished norms.
Conflict mediation, liberal internationalism, and
Speaking at the height of the ‘‘Harper era,’’ some Canadian foreign policy analysts
and commentators stated that Canada’s image of itself as a ‘‘peacemaker’’ and an
‘‘honest broker’’ was largely mythic.6 The Harper government itself characterised
the era of ‘‘going along to get along’’ as a shameful period in which Canada had
cravenly failed to stand up for its values in the misguided hope of currying favour
with reprehensible regimes. As Foreign Minister Baird put it,
5. For more on these criticisms, see Lawler, M. Mazower, ‘‘Paved intentions: Civilization and
Imperialism,’’ World Affairs, Fall, 2008, available at:
paved-intentions-civilization-and-imperialism accessed 14 April, 2018).
6. Fen Hampson: ‘‘The notion advanced by some that Canada’s position as an ‘honest broker’ is now
deeply compromised is a partisan fiction. …We never were, and never will be.’’ Quoted in M.
Blanchfield and L. Goodman, ‘‘Harper’s Israel, Jordan visit more likely to resonate at home
than in the Middle East,’’ Ottawa Citizen, 25 January 2014. Janice Stein: ‘‘A nostalgia for some
romantic view of Canada as a peace-maker is misplaced. It describes a very brief period in the fifties
and sixties.’’ Janice Stein interview on ‘‘Power and politics,’’ CBC News Network, 19 December
2013. Conrad Black: ‘‘We have finally got beyond the self-righteous fairy tales about peacekeeping
and ‘soft power.’’’ C. Black, ‘‘A great moment for Canada,’’ National Post, 25 January 2014. These
quotes may be found in R. Paris, ‘‘Are Canadians still foreign policy internationalists? Foreign
policy and public opinion in the Harper era,’’ International Journal 69, no. 3 (2014): 285.
Jones 121
After the Second World War, some decision makers lost sight of our proud tradition
to do what is just and right. Some decided it would be better to paint Canada as a socalled honest broker. I call it being afraid to take a clear position.7
Harper himself said in 2011 that Canada would ‘‘no longer [seek] to please every
dictator with a vote at the United Nations…. I confess that I don’t know why past
attempts to do so were ever thought to be in Canada’s national interest.’’8
Explicit in this criticism of the ‘‘helpful fixer’’ role is the notion that it requires
nations to essentially remain silent on their fundamental values so as not to offend
questionable regimes in order to be acceptable as a mediator. The alternate view is
that countries which aspire to a mediating role do not have to abandon their
values, though it may be necessary to temper one’s public utterances from time
to time. Moreover, those who disagree with the Harper line take the view that
Canada’s actions as a ‘‘helpful fixer’’ were based not on a misguided altruism,
but rather on a hard-headed analysis of interests. These were held to be promoting
a rules-based, multilateral international order, which would offer protections to
smaller countries against unilateral actions by the bigger ones, and (during the
Cold War) helping to smooth over rough patches and crises that threatened the
solidarity of the Western alliance. Indeed, in the words of one of the architects of
Canada’s post-war foreign policy, this approach was always based on a ‘‘hardboiled calculation of the Canadian national interest.’’9
As the Trudeau government seeks to re-engage in international mediation, it
confronts a series of issues. Notably, for this paper, is the problem of how to
manage the domestic political consequences of engaging with violent actors for
the purposes of promoting compromise, while also upholding Canada’s commitment to various norms regarding the punishment of atrocities and other priorities,
such as women’s rights. The Trudeau government has made the promotion of such
norms a particular part of its approach to international affairs, and has loudly, and
to much applause from supporters, proclaimed their centrality to its foreign policy.
7. John Baird, ‘‘Address by Minister Baird at Religious Liberty Dinner,’’ Washington DC, 24 May,
2012, available at: (accessed 7 April, 2018).
8. Implying, of course, that Canada’s policy had been to appease dictators up to that point. Quoted
in P. Wells, ‘‘Why Harper wants to take on the world,’’ Maclean’s, 15 July, 2011, available at: (accessed 7
April, 2018), (emphasis added). For further discussion of the Harper government’s belief that
Canada’s foreign policy should eschew the ‘‘honest broker’’ idea, see A. Chapnick, ‘‘Middle
power no more? Canada in world affairs since 2006,’’ Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and
International Relations, summer/fall 2013, 101–110.
9. J.W. Holmes, Canada: A Middle-Aged Power (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), 6. For
more contemporary examples of this argument, see Paris, ‘‘Are Canadians still foreign policy
internationalists?’’ and P. Heinbecker, Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for
Canada (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2010).
122 International Journal 74(1)
The ‘‘feminist foreign policy’’ is a notable case in point, even if the government has
had some difficulty squaring the circle of its own actions when they appear to
contradict its rhetoric.10
Key to all of this is the concept of ‘‘impartiality.’’ The field of conflict resolution
has debated the question of whether an impartial mediator is better than a partial
one. Indeed, the very concepts of ‘‘neutrality’’ or ‘‘impartiality’’ are subtly different. The International Committee of the Red Cross has defined impartiality as nondiscrimination in responding to humanitarian needs: aid is provided to all who
need it, regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation. At the same time, neutrality is a conscious stance that takes no sides and makes no attempt to engage in
the political issues motivating the conflict.11 Other groups in the field have found it
more difficult to adhere to these strict guidelines, and do take sides when they see
atrocities being committed.12 This is a point of considerable contention between the
conflict resolution community and the community committed to international legal
processes devoted to the punishment of war crimes, often expressed as ‘‘the wellknown tensions between stability and justice.’’13 Babbitt points out that the concept of impartiality means different things to those who work in the field of conflict
resolution and those who work for human rights and international justice:
Both human rights and CR (Conflict Resolution) invoke principles of impartiality.
However, the concept had completely different meanings for practitioners in each
field. To a CR practitioner, impartiality requires an even-handed treatment of all
parties, regardless of their status or resources. For a human rights advocate, impartiality refers to the application of human rights norms, most of which are constructed
to protect the weak individual from the abuses of the state or other potentially exploitative authorities. Thus, the human rights result does not appear impartial, but instead
looks like (and often is) advocacy for one party over another. This presents a
10. For more on the feminist foreign policy, see Address by Minister Freeland on Canada’s Foreign
Policy Priorities, 6 June 2017,
by_ministerfreelandoncanadasforeignpolicypriorities.html (accessed 9 February 2019); and
Government of Canada Press Release, Canada Launches New Feminist International Assistance
Policy, 9 June 2017,
newfeministinternationalassistancepolicy.html (accessed 9 February 2019). For an examination
of what happens when the imperatives of this approach clash with other priorities, see S.
Vucetic, ‘‘A nation of feminist arms dealers? Canada and military exports,’’ International
Journal 72, no. 4 (2017): 503–519.
11. See D. Forsythe, Humanitarian Politics: The International Committee of the Red Cross (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
12. See the discussion in O.T. Ramsbotham, T. Woodhouse, and H. Miall, Contemporary Conflict
Resolution, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 320–321.
13. Ramsbotham et al., Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 210. See also the collection of essays in M.
Abu-Nimer, ed., Reconciliation, Justice, and Coexistence: Theory and Practice (Lanham, MD:
Lexington, 2001); and M. Deutsch, ‘‘Justice and conflict,’’ in M. Deutsch, P.T. Coleman, and
E.C. Marcus, eds, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. (San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 43–68.
Jones 123
conundrum for the CR practitioner who recognizes that social justice requires creating
a more level playing field, but who needs to maintain even-handedness to be
Beyond the question of whether a mediator can deplore the actions of a party to the
conflict and still remain a mediator, the issue of whether a mediator should be
politically neutral generates discussion.15 For those who feel that impartiality is
required, Kleiboer makes the case: ‘‘mediator impartiality is crucial for disputants’
confidence in the mediator, which, in turn, is a necessary condition for his gaining
acceptability, which in turn, is essential for mediation success to come about.’’16
Going further, Gent and Shannon studied the techniques of mediators, and their
choice of techniques. They found that ‘‘unbiased’’ mediators were more likely to
use techniques that produced agreements, while ‘‘biased’’ mediators selected techniques more likely to favour a particular outcome.17
On the other hand, many scholars and practitioners believe that biased mediators
can be more effective. Biased mediators are more likely to be personally invested and,
therefore, to devote themselves to this work over the long-term; they are more likely
to develop a relationship of trust, and, therefore, an intimate relationship, with at
least one side in the conflict; and they may have access to privileged information as a
consequence of their close relationship with one of the parties. Of course, counterarguments can be made that having a privileged relationship with one side will negate
the mediators’ ability to have such a relationship with the other. The advocates of
biased interventions do not believe this is the case, providing the intervener has a
professional reputation for running fair processes.18 In a study of mediator bias in
the outcome of 124 peace agreements between 1989 and 2004, Svensson found that
‘‘biased mediators positively affect the likelihood of institutional arrangements in
peace agreements… [while] neutral mediators tend to lead to outcomes without
provisions for political and territorial power sharing, third-party security guarantees,
government-sided amnesties and repatriation of civilians.’’19
14. E.F. Babbitt, ‘‘Conflict resolution and human rights: The state of the art,’’ in J. Bercovitch, V.
Kremenyuk, and I.W. Zartman, eds, The Sage Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Thousand Oaks,
CA: SAGE Publishers, 2009), 619. This is not just theoretical. See E. Aspinall, ‘‘Peace without
justice? The Helsinki peace process in Aceh,’’ HD Report, April 2008, pp. 1–44, which looks at
whether efforts to bring peace had come too much at the expense of justice for the victims of the
fighting in Aceh.
15. For example, A. Kydd, ‘‘Which side are you on? Bias, credibility and mediation,’’ American
Journal of Political Science 47, no. 4 (2007): 597–611.
16. M. Kleiboer, ‘‘Understanding the success or failure of international mediation,’’ Journal of
Conflict Resolution 40, no. 2 (1996): 369.
17. S.E. Gent and M. Shannon, ‘‘Bias and effectiveness of third party conflict management mechanisms,’’ Conflict Management and Peace Science 28, no. 2 (2011): 124–144.
18. For more on these arguments, see, for example, Kydd, ‘‘Which side are you on’’; P. Wehr and J.P.
Lederach, ‘‘Mediating conflict in Central America,’’ Journal of Conflict Resolution 53, no. 3 (2009):
446–469; and B. Savun, ‘‘Information, bias and mediation success,’’ International Studies Quarterly
52, no. 1 (2008): 25–47.
19. See I. Svensson, ‘‘Who brings peace? Neutral versus biased mediation and institutional peace
arrangements in civil wars,’’ Journal of Conflict Resolution 53, no. 3 (2009): 446–469. For others
124 International Journal 74(1)
In other words, while Gent and Shannon argue that unbiased mediators have
more ‘‘success’’ in terms of number of conflicts ‘‘resolved,’’ Svensson argues that
they pursue resolutions which are not likely to be long-lasting as they do not
address deep-seated problems. Biased mediators, on the other hand, will try to
address these problems as they have a higher personal commitment to pursue a
genuine resolution of the situation, although Beber questions whether those
making this claim suffer from a selection bias in terms of how they frame the
question, and finds that unbiased mediators are better.20 In effect, those who
argue for mediator bias are saying that it helps in staying the course, which is
required to transform a situation of conflict, while those who argue against it
are saying that it impedes a mediator’s ability to help those in conflict to
manage the situation, though not necessarily resolve it.
Lost in this debate is a more fulsome discussion of what ‘‘impartial’’ means
when acting as an international mediator. Most obviously, as expressed in the
above debate, impartiality means taking no overt position between the sides in a
dispute. But, as the Babbitt quote points out, impartiality in terms of mediation can
Mediator will favour the posion of
one party over the other, but will have
low sensivity over the
acons/conduct of one or both
Mediator may be paral to the posion
of one party, but will also be sensive to
the acons/conduct of both.
Mediator will be prepared to become
involved in disputes without
significant concern for the posions of
the pares or their acons/conduct.
Mediator will be sensive to the
acons/conduct of both pares, but not
parcularly paral to either’s posion.
Parality/sensivity of the mediator with
respect to the POSITIONS of the
conflicng pares.
Parality/sensivity of the mediator with respect to the
ACTIONS or CONDUCT of the conflicng pares as they
relate to norms/values.
Figure 1. The impartiality matrix.
who challenge the traditional notion that mediators should be ‘‘neutral,’’ see B. Mayer, Beyond
Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004); S.
Cobb and J. Rifkin, ‘‘Practice and paradox: Deconstructing neutrality in mediation,’’ Law and
Social Inquiry 16, no. 1 (1991): 35–62; and T. Princen, Intermediaries in International Conflict
(Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
20. See B. Beber, ‘‘International mediation, selection effects, and the question of bias,’’ Conflict
Management and Peace Science 29, no. 4 (2012): 397–424.
Jones 125
also be thought of as taking no overt position in terms of the actions taken by those
involved in the fighting. Though the difference between the two interpretations of
impartiality may appear subtle, it is important; one may decline to publicly take a
side on the specific positions taken by the sides in a dispute, but this does not mean
that one accepts the actions taken by either or both protagonists if they violate
international law or one’s values. Impartiality may thus be thought of as a matrix,
with one axis, or side, relating to whether or not one is partial with respect to the
positions or objectives of the parties, or sides, in the dispute; and the other axis
relating to whether or not one is partial with respect to the actions that have been
taken by the parties in the dispute as they relate to cherished norms and values—in
a sense, the degree to which a potential mediator is sensitive to such issues.
As the matrix points out, a country that is willing to be impartial (or has a low
level of partiality, as the matrix puts it) along both axes of the matrix—the lower lefthand box—is likely to be able to become involved as a mediator in the maximum
number of disputes, without particular concerns for either the positions of either
side, or the actions they have taken during the conflict. Following on from
Svensson’s analysis, they are also likely to push for any outcome that stops or
moderates the fighting, even if it does not address longer-term issues, and, therefore,
is more likely to lead to a resumption of the conflict down the road. A mediator in
the upper left-hand box will favour one party over another in terms of their positions
in dispute, but have low concerns over the actions taken by either or both of the
parties in the conflict. A mediator in the lower right-hand box will be sensitive to
whether either or both parties have violated international norms, but not particularly
partial to the position or objectives of any of the parties. Finally, a mediator in the
upper right-hand box will be sensitive to both the implications of the conduct of the
parties, and also to the question of which one of them succeeds.
Canada’s dilemma: Real or constructed?
Historically, Canada’s approach to conflicts, even when it sought a mediator role
over the years, has rarely been thought to require it to abandon its principles.
Throughout the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, for example, even in those periods
when Canada sought a role as a quiet helpful fixer (in both official and Track
Two capacities), it maintained a steadfast public position against both terror and
the construction of settlements on occupied territories, and also tried, publicly at
least, to remain somewhat ‘‘even-handed’’ in its views on the claims of both sides.
In doing so, Canada occupied the lower right-hand box of the impartiality matrix;
sensitivity or partiality to the violation of norms of behaviour, coupled with relative impartiality between the positions of the sides in conflict. What outraged the
Harper government, and its ideological supporters, was Canada’s determination to
avoid overt and unquestioning support for one side—Israel. In other words, the
Harper government sought to carve out a space within the impartiality matrix
whereby it was highly sensitive to the morality of the actions of one side
(the Palestinians), but not so much the actions of the other (the Israelis), while
126 International Journal 74(1)
also being biased towards outcomes that favoured Israel. The box in the matrix
that corresponds to this position is a version of the upper left, which would combine a high degree of favour of the one party in terms of its position, and bias
against the other party in terms of its actions. Thus, even though Canadian governments of all stripes have unstintingly supported Israel’s right to exist, failure to
loudly support Israel’s methods of responding to Palestinian ‘‘terror’’ (or ‘‘resistance to occupation,’’ depending on your point of view), coupled with failure to
support Israel’s positions in the negotiation itself, is what was criticized by the
Harper people as ‘‘going along to get along.’’
The key difficulty, it seems, lies not so much in threading one’s way through the
minefield laid out in the vertical axis of the impartiality matrix introduced in
Figure 1. Successive governments have been able to do that, when they wanted
to. Rather, the difficulty for the Trudeau government arises when it comes to the
need for mediators to talk to regimes and actors who have egregiously committed
terrible atrocities and violated norms and values, which this government in particular has identified as lying at the heart of Canadian foreign policy: the horizontal
axis of the impartiality matrix. Of course, this problem is not new, or restricted to
mediation; those seeking to do humanitarian work in conflict situations must often
deal with the very actors who have committed humanitarian abuses in order to gain
access to, and work in, these areas—a problem sometimes referred to as ‘‘the
dilemma of ‘dirty hands.’’’21
Using the impartiality matrix as an analytical tool, it would seem that the
Trudeau government’s attitude to Canada involving itself as a mediator is highly
dependent on considerations emanating from the lower right-hand box (high sensitivity to direct involvement with a party or parties who have violated international norms). In practice, for example, this seems to mean that the Trudeau
government has difficulty in imagining Canada engaging directly as a mediator
with actors who, for example, have used rape or sexual violence as weapons in a
conflict. Depending on the circumstances of the conflict, Canada might also occupy
the upper right-hand box, if its policy in that particular circumstance led it to
favour one side over the other.
All of this poses difficult questions that the Trudeau government has yet to fully
grapple with. For all its rhetoric about wanting Canada to take a place at the
forefront of mediation and peacebuilding, the Trudeau government has serious
concerns about the domestic political repercussions of talking to such groups,
and has thus far been largely content to fund others to do the real work in the
field.22 Beyond exposing a deep reluctance to confront hard choices, the dilemma in
21. See J. O’Hagan, ‘‘‘With the best will in the world …’? Humanitarianism, non-state actors and the
pursuit of ‘purposes beyond ourselves,’’’ International Politics 50, no. 1 (2013): 131.
22. Anonymous interviews with Canadian officials developing policy towards Canada’s involvement
in mediation. For more on the issue of ‘‘talking with terrorists’’ and other insalubrious actors, and
the necessity for mediators to do so, by someone who did just that on behalf of the UK government, see J. Powell, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts (London: Vintage Books,
Jones 127
which the Trudeau government has located itself raises the question as to whether
or not contemporary liberal internationalism suffers from a fatal flaw of being too
many (good) things to too many (good) people. If the tried and true liberal international imperative of acting as a mediator or peacemaker, which necessarily
implies talking to combatants who have done nasty things, brings one into a
paralysing conflict with another tenet of the liberal international creed, support
for international justice, and women’s rights, what does this say about the future of
the field? Under such circumstances, governments like Canada’s may be forgiven
for throwing up their hands. In effect, this contradiction between imperatives raises
the problem of whether liberal internationalism, by being too broad a church, has
not so diluted itself as to be unworkable in practice. Can any moral and policy
framework survive if it cannot take action in one of its key areas for fear that doing
so will violate another of its precepts, no matter what it does?
The answer lies in the reality that liberal internationalism has always been highly
adaptive and flexible. As the editors of this special edition note,
while we may debate the fine lines of what constitutes liberal internationalism in an
analytical sense, its practical use demonstrates just how flexible it is: it can be invoked
for multiple purposes, and it can be used to create public support for a broad range of
different, even contradictory, foreign policies.23
It seems, then, that even the horizontal axis of the impartiality matrix—the one,
which this paper holds, has been at the heart of the Trudeau government’s reluctance to fully engage in mediation—need not be so absolute or limiting in practice.
As David Petrasek notes in his paper in this special edition, the commitment of the
West in general, and Canada in particular, to human rights has never been so firm
as some would have it; rhetoric aside, we have always practiced a contingent form
of support for human rights that recognises the reality of juggling what are sometimes competing imperatives.24
The key, of course, is a decision to act, knowing that some will be offended no
matter what one does. Absent a willingness to make such a decision, an exquisite
paralysis forms, one which favours sweeping statements of intent without real
actions that might offend, or appear to offend, this or that vocal constituency
that one has identified as a key priority.
Track Two diplomacy: A ‘‘work-around’’?
Nevertheless, it does seem to be the case that the Trudeau government, at least to
this point, is reluctant to confront these choices in a way that will allow it to fully
engage in the mediation space, preferring to give support to others to do this work.
23. R. Abrahamsen, L.R. Andersen, and O.J. Sending, ‘‘Introduction: Making illiberal internationalism great again,’’ International Journal, this special issue.
24. D. Petrasek, ‘‘Not dead yet: Human rights in an illiberal world order,’’ International Journal, this
special issue.
128 International Journal 74(1)
This raises the question of whether there might be other ways for Canada to support Canadians involved in mediation. One method could be ‘‘Track Two diplomacy.’’ Track Two is a loose concept which has evolved since the 1960s.25 At its
most ambiguous, Track Two can cover a wide variety of interactions. Generally
speaking, as applied to conflict resolution activities, the field is believed to have
originated in the 1960s with John Burton’s early work to stimulate dialogues
between influential, but non-official, participants from countries in conflict in
Southeast Asia.26 Crucially, such dialogues provide a space within which the participants are encouraged to engage in an analytical, reflective, and problem-solving
exchange over the issues in dispute and their underlying meanings. The intention is,
thus, not so much to bargain over positions as to explore whether or not a new
understanding of what the conflict is about can be agreed on and then used as the
basis for the joint development of potential solutions.
The term ‘‘Track Two diplomacy’’ was introduced in the early 1980s by Joseph
Montville, a US diplomat who was interested in this emerging field and sought to
introduce it to his colleagues as something new in the field of conflict resolution.27
There was no magic in the term ‘‘Track Two,’’ as Montville simply used it to refer
to all dialogues involving influential but non-official people, which were designed to
grapple with concrete issues that were proving difficult to resolve on the official (or
Track One) level. While a single, all-encompassing definition of Track Two has
proven elusive, it can be defined as:
Unofficial dialogues, generally between two antagonistic parties, and often facilitated
by an impartial third party and involving individuals with some close connection to
their respective official communities, focused on cooperative efforts to explore new
ways to resolve differences over, or discuss new approaches to, policy-relevant
Within this wide field, a number of sub-fields have arisen. So-called ‘‘Track 1.5,’’
for example, refers to dialogues in which all or many of those participating are
actually officials who are acting under instructions. Usually due to problems over
such things as diplomatic recognition, it is not possible for them to meet in a
normal diplomatic context, and so what has been called the ‘‘polite fiction’’ of
25. For general histories of the evolution of the concept, see P. Jones, Track Two Diplomacy In Theory
and Practice (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015), chapter 1; R.J. Fisher, ‘‘Historical
mapping of the field of inter-active conflict resolution,’’ in J. Davies and E. Kaufman, eds,
Second Track/Citizen’s Diplomacy: Concepts and Techniques for Conflict Transformation
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 61–77; and C.R. Mitchell, ‘‘From controlled
communication to problem solving: The origins of facilitated conflict resolution,’’ The
International Journal of Peace Studies 6, no. 1 (2001): 59–67.
26. J.W. Burton, Conflict and Communication: The Use of Controlled Communication in International
Relations (London: MacMillan, 1969).
27. J.V. Montville, ‘‘Transnationalism and the role of Track Two diplomacy,’’ in W.S. Thompson and
K.M. Jensen, eds, Approaches to Peace: An Intellectual Map (Washington: US Institute of Peace,
1991), p. 255.
28. Jones, Track Two Diplomacy, 24.
Jones 129
their meeting in their ‘‘private capacities’’ in an ‘‘academic setting’’ has been
devised.29 Another iteration of the field is what has come to be known as ‘‘Track
Three.’’ This refers to dialogues which specifically do not feature officials or those
who are close to governments and have influence. Rather, Track Three dialogues
feature civil society and grassroots actors in interactions intended to effect
‘‘bottom-up’’ change in conflict situations.
While iterations of the field such as Track 1.5 and Track Three have their place,
the norm when using the term Track Two is a type of problem-solving dialogue
involving non-officials, but people with close ties and influence with their respective
Track Two, though not a panacea, has played a notable role in the resolution of
several conflicts around the world, and has helped the international community to
manage others.30 For Canada, which professes a wish to be more active in the
mediation space, but also seems reluctant to become directly involved in dialogues
with those who violate international norms (reluctant to suffer the problem of
‘‘dirty hands’’), sponsorship of Track Two activities is attractive, though it will
require a series of long-term and quiet commitments. Such dialogues offer an arm’s
length way to support mediation, while not necessarily requiring Canadian government involvement with such groups. In this way, the problem of having to
confront the difficult moral issues presented by the second axis of impartiality
developed in this paper can be avoided, or at least pushed down the road. If a
Track Two dialogue progresses to the point that such a group (or some within such
a group) is prepared to begin to change its policies, more official involvement can
come then as the dialogue transitions from Track Two to Track One.
Track Two, in its various forms, cannot make peace in itself, nor would its serious
proponents claim it can. Rather, it should be seen as a complement to official diplomacy that can help to initiate and sustain dialogues in difficult places. Indeed, those
countries which are Canada’s peers in the liberal internationalist group, and which are
active in mediation, have a long history of also supporting Track Two in a serious and
29. S.A. Nan, D. Druckman, and J.E. Horr, ‘‘Unofficial international conflict resolution: Is there a
Track One and a Half? Are there best practices?’’ Conflict Resolution Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2009):
65–82; and J. Mapendre, Consequential Conflict Transformation Model, and the Complementarity
of Track One, Track One and a Half and Track Two Diplomacy (Atlanta, GA: The Carter Center,
30. See, for example, D. Lieberfield, ‘‘Evaluating the contributions of Track Two diplomacy to conflict termination in South Africa, 1984–90,’’ Journal of Peace Research 39, no. 3 (2002): 355–372;
N. O’Dochartaigh, ‘‘Together in the middle: Back-channel negotiation in the Irish peace process,’’
Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 6 (2011): 767–780; A. Bartoli, ‘‘Mediating peace in Mozambique:
The role of the community of Sant’Edgidio,’’ in C.A. Crocker, F.O. Hampson, and P. Aall, eds,
Herding Cats: Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World (Washington: US Institute of Peace Press,
2003), pp. 245–273; P. Jones, ‘‘U.S. – Iran Track Two from 2005 to 2011: What have we learned?
Where are we going?’’ Negotiation Journal 30, no. 4 (2014): 347–366; G.E. Schweitzer, Scientists,
Engineers and Track Two Diplomacy: A Half Century of U.S.-Russian Inter-academy Cooperation
(Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2001); and M. Evangelista, Unarmed Forces:
The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
130 International Journal 74(1)
sustained way as they realise its place in an overall national effort to foster multi-level
national mediation capability.31 Thus, a policy of sustained and ambitious support for
Track Two could be a way forward for a Canadian government that is not yet ready
to become an actor itself in this space.
Of course, deliberately and systematically supporting Track Two as a substitute
for engagement in difficult situations can lead to criticism that countries which do
so are deliberately failing in their responsibility to intervene in situations of suffering and conflict, beyond ‘‘safe’’ interventions. In her stinging indictment of the
actions of Western governments during the African Great Lakes conflicts of the
1990s, Fabienne Hara regards their sponsorship of Track Two (which she refers to
as ‘‘parallel diplomacy’’) as having simply been a way for these countries to say to
domestic audiences that they were doing ‘‘something,’’ when they knew a largescale military intervention was necessary to stop the atrocities but were unprepared
to make that commitment.32 Hara criticizes what she calls the ‘‘industry’’ of conflict resolution for both having used these crises for their own benefit, and also
being the agents of a new form of Western intervention in the developing world:
For the sake of attracting the attention of financial backers, and thus ensuring institutional survival, several organisations desperately want to be seen at the forefront of
the conflict resolution and prevention ‘‘industry.’’… Agents of parallel diplomacy are,
for the most part, the inventors and players of a new kind of intervention by Northern
countries in Southern countries. It is still a case of agents from Western civil society
crossing over borders, no longer to save people (in a religious sense), but this time to
teach them to make peace and reach a Western style consensus…. The field of conflict
resolution has until now been dominated by Anglo-Saxon influence and marked by
the rationale of democratic systems. Its operating concepts and lexicon are mostly
inspired by theories developed by Americans. All these methods aimed at conflict
resolution by means of dialogue are based on the precept that it is legitimate to include
the authors of a violence perceived as obscene and primal in a rational process leading
to a consensus.33
This criticism that an overreliance on, and misapplication of, Western methodologies, concepts, and actors has introduced flawed assumptions to the peacemaking
31. The most famous example, of course, being Norway’s support for the ‘‘Oslo process,’’ which began
as a Track Two and then evolved into an official dialogue. But there have been many others.
Canada and others in this group of countries have quietly supported several Track Two discussions, including some undertaken by the author of this article. For example, a multi-year set of
dialogues between Indians, Pakistanis, and Afghans has received support over the years from
Canada, Denmark, and others: see (accessed 9
February 2019). See also a project to bring together Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the
future of the Old City of Jerusalem:
(accessed 9 February 2019). More broadly, Switzerland and others (including Canada) support
the work of various institutions and groups engaged in this work, such as the HD Centre in
32. F. Hara, ‘‘Burundi: A case of parallel diplomacy,’’ in Crocker et al., Herding Cats, pp. 135–157.
33. Ibid., 151.
Jones 131
and peacebuilding field is not new.34 Nor is it confined to peacemaking. The field of
humanitarianism has been grappling with similar issues. Alejandro Colas has
argued that the liberal internationalist underpinnings of humanitarianism have
strayed from their roots of ‘‘mobilising for the democratisation of international
relations,’’ and have simply become an Anglo-American project for a renewed
hegemony, ‘‘or, to give it its true name, imperialism.’’35 Here, too, we see a searching debate over whether the NGOs that are active in the field have not themselves,
as Hara charges is the case with ‘‘parallel diplomacy’’ NGOs, become agents of
Western governments in this respect—perhaps in many cases unwittingly, but
agents nonetheless.36
To help address this, Canada could also develop a leadership niche in supporting the development and evolution of the concept and practices of Track Two itself.
There is, for example, no think tank or institute specifically devoted to the issue
anywhere in the world. There is truth in the criticism of Track Two as being primarily Western and ‘‘Anglo-Saxon’’ in its development and operations. While this
does not invalidate it, or the conceptual and practical work that has been done to
develop the field, there is a need to do more in terms of indigenising and expanding
its concepts.37 The classic ‘‘problem-solving’’-oriented dialogue approach that
underpins much of the field, for example, may not be strictly applicable in all
cultural situations.38 At the least, fresh perspectives are required regarding the
intellectual ‘‘frameworks’’ that the field takes in analysing and assessing conflicts.39
Work is also required to encourage greater participation by women in such dialogues, which tend to be dominated by men—especially dialogues devoted to hard
security issues. Consistent support for the development of the field is, thus, another
area that Canada could take a leadership role in, as part of a wider effort to develop
peacemaking and peacebuilding capacity, both in terms of physical capacity, but
also intellectual capacity in the sense of developing the concepts and practices of
the field.
34. See, for example, R. Paris, ‘‘Peacebuilding and the limits of liberal internationalism,’’ International
Security 22, no. 2 (1997): 54–89.
35. A. Colas, ‘‘Taking sides: Cosmopolitanism, internationalism and ‘complex solidarity’ in the work
of Fred Halliday,’’ International Affairs 87, no. 5 (2011): 1056.
36. O’Hagan, ‘‘‘With the best will in the world.’’’
37. A forthcoming edition of the journal International Negotiation that I am editing will feature a
number of papers on emerging ‘‘best practices’’ in the field of Track Two. One of these, by Susan
Allen of George Mason University, will look specifically at emerging best practices in the field of
local ownership of Track Two dialogues.
38. Kochman, for example, notes that the kind of detached, orderly, turn-taking style that problemsolving dialogues require may not be appropriate in all cultural settings. See the discussion of this
question in P. Jones, Track Two Diplomacy, 121.
39. Cuhadar and Dayton have looked at the conceptual frameworks on which Track Two practitioners rely, and found them to be largely Western developed and oriented, in their article, ‘‘Oslo
and its aftermath: Lessons learned from Track Two diplomacy,’’ Negotiation Journal (April 2012),
pp, 155–179. Cuhadar is further developing and expanding on this work to explore whether other
frameworks can be developed which are less Western-centric in an article being written for the
forthcoming edition of International Negotiation on best practices in Track Two.
132 International Journal 74(1)
The Trudeau government came into office proudly proclaiming that it would recapture the liberal internationalist legacy, which it held to be at the heart of Canada’s
interests and values. One aspect of this was a commitment to significantly re-engage
in the peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding portfolio. Thus far, it must
be said that relatively little concrete work has been done. In fairness, the international agenda has been busy; no one foresaw Trump and his vow to scrap the
North American Free Trade Agreement, which must be a more important foreign
policy priority for Canada than anything discussed in this paper. That said, we are
still waiting to hear what the government plans to do about the mediation agenda,
if anything.
If it is to play a serious role in this space, Canada will need to find a way forward
on what this paper has called the horizontal axis of the impartiality matrix: the
need to be able to work intensively with those who have violated the norms and
values that this government holds to be at the very centre of its approach to the
world, even as Canada remains constant to those values. There is no other way to
mediate a conflict than to talk to those doing the fighting, and they are rarely
people who have acted as we might want them to, especially in today’s messy
world of intra-state conflicts, civil wars, and ethno-religious fighting. However,
this government appears reluctant to involve itself directly in situations that will
require direct engagement with such actors.
Quiet, long-term Canadian sponsorship of unofficial mediations (Track Two),
and of research and action into how to make such dialogues more productive and
relevant, could be a way to, at least partially, square this circle. Track Two has
certainly proven to be an important part of the mediation and conflict resolution
toolkit, particularly in terms of getting initial conversations going with those who
cannot, at least in the beginning, be reached by Track One. Significant and consistent support for such initiatives, and for work to further develop the field, would
be a worthwhile contribution to the international mediation effort. Sponsoring this
kind of work is not the same as Canada directly playing a role in mediation; it is a
part of the mediation agenda, but not all of it. Perhaps it is all the traffic will bear
for the moment.
However, even if Track Two provides a ‘‘way out,’’ Canada’s lack of action
raises questions as to whether the country has tied itself in too many knots to be
effective. In stating that it wishes to be a more active mediator in support of an
activist liberal internationalist foreign policy, but then showing a reluctance to
engage with the sorts of actors that one must in order to actually fulfil this role
because of concerns over the domestic political repugnance at their actions (which
violate other aspects of the liberal internationalist creed), the Trudeau government
is stuck. Conflict resolution experts and practitioners have long understood the
dichotomy between the need to work with, and even make deals with, those who
violate international norms in order to manage conflicts and end them, on the
one hand, and the desire to see such people in front of international tribunals on
Jones 133
the other. Such experts and practitioners, who often claim to be involved in peacemaking in support of liberal internationalist goals, have tended to make their peace
with this difficult moral question by arguing that it is better to try to stop a conflict
in order to save those yet to be harmed, than to insist on justice for those who are
already victims, if such an insistence will prolong the conflict and the suffering. But
this approach is hotly contested by other equally good liberal internationalists who
say that it is morally wrong and only encourages others to embark upon killing
sprees, secure in the knowledge that priority will be given to making deals once the
time comes to end the fighting. The correct stance, so far as this group is concerned,
is a robust advocacy of such norms, including a refusal to be seen as working with
those who violate them.
This issue thus raises questions as to whether ‘‘liberal internationalism’’ itself
has not become so broad a church that these internal contradictions threaten to
impede the ability to take action. As has been argued in this paper, these contradictions need not cripple a country’s ability to pursue different aspects of the liberal
international project, even seemingly opposed ones, simultaneously. Historically,
this has never been impossible. But it requires that a government be prepared to
make decisions and confront the pressures of pursuing contradictory imperatives
and interests. It will be interesting to see if the Trudeau government, if given a
second term in office, makes any progress in finding a way forward.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Author Biography
Peter Jones is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and
International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Track Two
Diplomacy: In Theory and Practice, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press,
134 International Journal 74(1)