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Q&A: Informal Mediation and Diplomacy

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In the western world we’ve come to regard professional diplomats and mediators, often employed or supported by governments, as the main agents of international diplomacy. When these brokers fail to achieve their goals, which is not infrequently, it is not from any lack of skill or influence they bring to bear on their work. Sometimes they may simply not be the right people - with sufficient personal relationships or stakes in the issues - to bring about a successful deal.

This inspires a question: what if, in some cases, the best intermediary is not a neutral career diplomat or mediator, but rather any influential and well-placed person with the right skills, relationships and a deep personal stake in the issues that goes beyond the success of the discussions? Sometimes, a more organic approach, embedded in cultural and commercial ties, may do the trick.

This is what Serkan Yolaçan argues. Yolaçan, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore, studies mercantile and religious networks as channels of informal diplomacy across West Asia. His book project The Azeri Triangle: Informal Diplomats across Iran, Turkey, and Russia connects the modern histories of three major states through an ethnographic and historical study of a diasporic society and its cross-border engagements. 

We spoke to him about his understanding of informal diplomacy.

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Tell us about your findings regarding how 'cultural brokers' have been successful in playing a mediation role between Iran and Turkey, and Turkey and Russia.

Conflict resolution is only one part of a broad range of interstate mediations I look at in my book. Some of these cases concern backdoor economic engagements such as the infamous ‘gold-for-gas’ trade between Iran and Turkey from 2012 to 2013. To circumvent the biting US sanctions on Iran, Turkey transferred billions of dollars’ worth of gold for Iranian natural gas via Dubai. The entire operation was carried out on the back of an Azeri businessman who held Turkish and Iranian passports and had business and family ties in Tehran, Dubai, and Istanbul. His ability to gain the trust of both the Turkish and Iranian leaderships was in no small measure tied to his roots in the Iranian city of Tabriz, his family business in Tehran, his business experience in Dubai and Istanbul, his marriage to a popular Turkish singer, and his reputation as a lyricist in the Turkish music industry. Thanks to his cultural and economic immersion in both countries, he could offer himself as an informal link by which two neighbor states could circumvent the economic straightjacket put on them by the US sanctions.

The role of business people in interstate mediation extend to cases of conflict resolution as well. For example, when Turkey and Russia had a diplomatic falling-out after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015, the Turkish side couldn’t find a way to reach Putin through formal diplomatic channels. After months of failed attempts, they turned to Cavit Çağlar, a Turkish businessman who had $500 million investment in Dagestan and long-standing close relations with the then head of the Dagestan Autonomous Republic, Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was appointed to that position by Vladimir Putin. The relationship between the Turkish businessman and the Russian statesman became the informal channel through which the two parties could negotiate over the fine details of Erdogan’s ‘apology’ letter before it was officially conveyed to Putin. Çağlar later received the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin for his contribution to the normalization of Turkey-Russia relations.

In my book, I look at several other historical and contemporary cases of informal diplomacy in which business people, scholars, pilgrims, and religious leaders play significant roles.

 

How common, as far as you know, are such brokers – either in that part of the world, or in other regions?

I think they are more common than we believe. The problem is that their brokerage between states rarely unfolds in broad daylight. In fact, invisibility is often essential to their efficacy. Part of the problem also lies with us, scholars and analysts, who look at economy, culture, history, and international relations as separate fields of inquiry and expertise. To illuminate the world of such brokers and explore the full scope of their operations, we need to work across these fields. Religious affinity, bilingualism, business relations, historical memory, family history and even personality are all relevant if we want to understand how certain individuals acquire the confidence and capacity to bring states together beyond institutionalized channels of formal diplomacy.

At the end of the day, states are made up of people and some of these individuals are also part of religious communities, kinship networks, or business circles that may span across multiple countries. Once we realize that states operate within this larger social world of cross-border interaction, then we begin to see such brokers popping up everywhere.

 

What tends to be a broker’s qualities and motivations? Does their involvement in mediation stem from their own initiatives, or is it governments that tend to find and use them?

It is usually an interactive process. In the case of Turkey-Russia crisis, for example, it is the Turkish political leadership that reached out to the businessman Çağlar. But the reason they could think of him in the first place has to do with his earlier engagements with the Turkish state and his organic ties with political leaders in the former Soviet Union. The initiative can come from the potential broker as well, especially when that person has business to protect in both countries that are in conflict. Not only would a successful mediation ensure political patronage from both sides, it would also crack the door open to further, lucrative business opportunities.

Brokers do not only come from business circles though. Religious leaders, reputable scholars, and even popular artists can find themselves in that position - either by accident or as part of a choreographed strategy. What such brokers have in common is that they tend to have an entrepreneurial personality, harbor personal ties to political figures, be plugged in cross-border networks, and have stakes on both sides of the border. Their expansive social world become an asset for states when they need informal channels to deal with other states.

It is important to remember that precisely because their expansive social world cannot be controlled by any one individual state, such individuals can easily become a target of suspicion as well. The kind of brokers I am talking about are risk-takers, whose wealth and reputation hang in the balance.

 

Are certain cultural contexts and political systems more fertile ground for these sorts of informal dealings?

Yes. There is definitely a systemic dimension to it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Western democracies have been an exception to the rule in this regard. In countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, where you have long histories of state-building and constitutional continuity, the exercise of political power and foreign policy has been tied to certain protocols. And when such protocols are breached, as we see in the case of Trump, it causes outrage. It is not difficult to see how such protocols can be so restraining for a figure like Trump, who prefers to handle politics like he handles his business, that is, through personal relationships, risk-taking, bargaining, and the use of middlemen.

If formal diplomacy works through institutionalized channels and impersonal language, informal diplomacy unfolds through incredibly personalized relationships built on mutual trust. And whom to trust better than family? It is hardly a coincidence that leaders like Trump and Erdogan prefer to work closely with their sons-in-law, who serve as close confidantes in addition to holding official government positions.

Informal dealings become the norm in political environments where power is nestled in the hands of a strong leader, a family, or a clan. Today we are witnessing a proliferation of such environments in tandem with a changing international order. As strategic unions forged during the Cold War are unraveling, it allows states to take part in multiple and often contradictory alliances. This global environment demands a good measure of elasticity, swiftness, and even creativity from political leaders, who find themselves limited by formal procedures which are originally put in place to ensure a check on executive power. Demands of a changing international order push leaders to personalize political power at home because stronger grasp on the inside brings them confidence and agility on the outside. Informal dealings dovetail these internal and external dynamics and open up a space for culturally embedded, entrepreneurial individuals to act as informal diplomats.

 

You have also mentioned the concept of doubling, whereby business people or others play a double role, one often implicit. Is this an art? Is it something people can learn?

I use the word doubling to mean acting in additional capacity to one’s explicit occupation or official status. Take pilgrims, for example. Pilgrims often carry goods and money as they move across borders. When this pilgrimage economy reaches a certain volume and regularity, those pilgrims can act as creditors and merchants, charting commercial corridors between countries that may otherwise be in conflict. At times states use these sacred and lucrative routes for sending messages of goodwill or for political propaganda, and when that happens, pilgrim-cum-merchants serve in yet another capacity, that of a cultural diplomat. Of course a number of other, illicit roles may become available for such individuals who could refashion themselves as mercenaries, spies, or smugglers.  

On the level of the individual, doubling demands an entrepreneurial personality, imagination, and social skills. But such individual virtuosity does not come out of nowhere. It often develops in culturally eclectic, socially expansive worlds where long-standing ties to multiple countries can be harbored side by side. Because expansive social worlds are built over decades or even centuries, a historical perspective is essential to understanding the conditions and possibilities for doubling. And historical studies show us that diasporic societies and borderland populations are more likely to produce the type of international brokers I talk about. Informal diplomacy is often carried out by such local cosmopolitan figures.

 

What are the implications of your findings for professional mediation, especially in the West? Do you see that the more culturally embedded broker might begin to impinge on the professional mediation organizations of the West? Will they work in tandem?

Culturally embedded brokers operate on completely different premises than professional mediation organizations. The latter’s asset is impartiality to the parties in conflict, whereas the former has often strong stakes in the case. Because of this key difference, I don’t see any reason why one would impinge on the other. But for the same reason, it is hard to imagine them interlacing very well.

Having said that, professional mediation organizations can learn a great deal from studying the role of culturally embedded brokers in informal diplomacy. Not only can such cases illuminate resources and actors that may otherwise be in the blind spot of professional observers. They can also provide insights into the inner workings of a changing international order. By willing to explore these new horizons, I think The Conciliators Guild is setting up a good example to be emulated by other organizations in the West.

 

Do you think there is a risk in some of the cases that you cite, or in future cases, that such informal diplomacy erodes international norms and helps create a more chaotic, even corrupt, international atmosphere?

Yes. And that is the other side of the coin we haven't really touched upon. At the end of the day, an informal diplomacy is an improvised solution to a problem that cannot be solved with the existing tools of formal diplomacy. And as improvisers, informal diplomats have a lot in common with both jazz players and master criminals. So it can cut both ways. 

The absence of monitoring and accountability makes informal dealings between states susceptible to corruption and illegal conducts. Too much of it would certainly erode existing international norms and institutions that serve as yardsticks for the global management of interstate relations. On the other hand, such erosion is precisely what we would expect from transitional periods when the old international order has died and the new is yet to be born. The recent Canada-Saudi spat, the near-collapse of Turkey-US partnership forged during the Cold War, and the heated discussions as to the respective roles of the United States and China in the global arena are all signs of a changing international order where states are reassessing old partnerships and negotiating new terms of engagement. In such an open and undetermined international atmosphere, informal diplomacy affords states a wider field of maneuver to explore their options, try out future partnerships, and flex muscles. In that regard, informal diplomacy is a symptom, not the cause.  

Because it resists institutionalization, informal diplomacy by itself cannot be the basis of an international order; it can only operate alongside formal diplomacy, or when diplomacy fails. It comes to the forefront only in transitional periods when such failures become commonplace. Once a new international order takes shape, we can expect informal diplomacy to take a back seat once again.  

 

How do younger people interested in international relations learn the way of mediation and of conflict resolution that you are suggesting? In a way, it is anti-theoretical (and anti-academic) and very linked to practise and knowledge of local culture. Its real life characteristics are its strength, but is there a method?

We as the public get to hear about informal diplomats every now and then when an international news story breaks on some backdoor dealing between states. Because the media naturally focuses on the criminal and scandalous aspects of such cases, we also tend to think of them as marginal cases, glitches in an international order. Actually such cases offer a window of opportunity to study informal diplomacy, not as a failure or a problem, but as a common phenomenon with a thick social basis. Unfortunately scholars have not teased out such cases to the point of renewing our conceptual understanding of international relations, and therefore we have no models to be followed by practitioners including professional mediation organizations in the West. At least not as yet.

Younger people who are interested in international relations and conflict resolution should not be discouraged however. You’ve put it very well: the real life characteristics of informal international mediation are indeed its strength. Historical memory, cultural tastes, social contacts, family reputation, religious background, linguistic ties, and business interests all play a role in the cross-border interactions of informal diplomats. Narrow disciplinary perspectives will certainly fall short of capturing this rich world. To start with, then, students of international relations should aim at wholistic perspectives that seamlessly move between economy, religion, kinship, politics, and history. 

During much of world history, interstate mediation through culturally embedded, local-cosmopolitan figures has been the norm, not the exception. So what we are witnessing today is the return of a long-term pattern that had become sidelined by the norms and protocols of the post-WWII international order, which professionalized diplomacy to an unprecedented extent. Studying that history is a good starting point for anyone interested in international relations, because that history will offer lots of insights for today.

The post-WWII order is disintegrating. Who could have imagined that a NATO member could buy missiles from Russia, or that a GCC member state could be embargoed by other member states? Clearly such geostrategic unions and the treaties that underwrite them tell us more about the past of international relations than its future. The new world order taking shape before us is likely to be driven by strong leaders who will take part in multiple alliances and manage their contradictions through partial, transactional engagements. All that demands a good measure of diplomatic elasticity which cannot be maintained through traditional diplomatic tools.

So we should expect to see a wide range of informal interactions and mediations that do not conform to norms and standards put forth in textbooks, court rooms, and official statements. Students should approach informal diplomacy as a constructive feature of a changing world order rather than as a lapse in the existing international order.

 

The Conciliators Guild aims at highlighting hidden motivations and factors in politics and international relations. Much of our work focuses on the role of basic emotional needs and their expression, or in certain basic paradigms of group behaviour. However, culture is also a massive hidden fabric in which we operate, often unconsciously. It seems to us that this is the power of what you are presenting: how implicit cultural knowledge, and natural and functional networks, can play a massive role in helping mediation succeed. Can you comment more on this and where more work needs to be done to elucidate this important variable?

I think the first step I would propose is to shift the focus from states to networks, because it is through the latter that states engage with the world around them. It is critical to understand the wider geography of human connection and mobility in which states design and carry out their cross-border operations and build economic and cultural hinterlands beyond their sovereign domains.

The problem is that we often see networks from the eyes of the state, that is, in terms of a single function they seem to carry out: business, religion, terrorism, education, and so forth. But such a functional view falls short of capturing the rich reservoir of human connections that underpin such networks. So to assess the conditions and possibilities for informal diplomacy, we need to move the debate from networks of function to networks of people. In other words, we need to go deeper.

When we cut deeper, we begin to discover cultural and historical layers made up of shared memories, languages, kinship ties, faith, and mythologies. These enduring relations constitute a thick social basis stretching across multiple states. In times of peace, states use this connective social tissue to build cultural and economic influence beyond their domains. And in times of conflict, they use it as a backdoor to explore their options freely without committing to a formal peace process. Taking place out of the public eye, this sort of informal diplomacy is a low-cost, low-risk initiative for states. To understand the conditions and possibilities of such initiatives, we need to develop a historically informed view of human networks and mobility. Culture is important in this regard and central to the way states interact in the 21st century. 

John Zada