Citizens Step In to Solve Strife Between Nations

Private efforts boom as official budgets bust

A new breed of American diplomats is emerging - but they don't work for the State Department.

Increasingly, private groups - specializing in resolving ethnic and religious conflicts - are sprouting up to fill a void created by cutbacks in budgets for American foreign aid and United Nations peacekeeping.

Since these citizen groups first appeared about 20 years ago, they have earned the support of many governments - and even the grudging respect of some State Department officials.

"Foreign-aid cutbacks will increase the level of responsibility of these groups. [They] will fill a leadership gap," says Joseph Montville, director of the Conflict Resolution Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Unlike official government negotiations, these meetings are usually private. They include everything from cultural-awareness education to seminars on how to ease tensions.

One of the earliest successes of conflict-resolution groups dates to the 1970s when several private organizations set up informal workshops for Israelis and Egyptians. Participants were encouraged to bridge their historical and cultural animosities.

Earlier this decade, private groups paved the way for the signing of the 1993 Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

The number of US-based groups and academic centers devoted to resolving conflicts has increased from 52 in 1992 to 200 in 1995, almost 300 percent, says Mary Lord, director of ACCESS, a nonprofit information service on international affairs. She attributes the rapid growth to two factors: a rising number of ethnic conflicts around the globe and the refocusing of American political and strategic interests in the post-cold-war era.

Since 1993, the State Department has closed 30 foreign posts, and its work force has dropped nearly 10 percent. Its international affairs budget was reduced to $18.5 billion in 1996 from $20.2 billion in 1995.

Financial concerns also have forced the UN to curb its peacekeeping. As of April, the UN was no longer able to pay its bills with funds from its regular budget. It has been borrowing from its peacekeeping funds.

Governments "can't do it all," says David Shorr, director of Ethnic Conflict Programs at Search for Common Ground in Washington, a leading conflict-resolution group. "The realities of the post-cold-war world lead to the question: Is foreign policy the sole property of the official apparatus?"

State Department officials have not always looked favorably on private groups, accusing them of ineffectiveness and meddling in business best handled through official government channels (also known as "Track One" diplomacy).

While several current State Department officials say privately that these criticisms still exist, they also acknowledge that some private groups are playing vital roles in resolving the world's conflicts.

"There is no question that there is more understanding than when I left government," says Harold Saunders, a former assistant secretary of state who now is director of international affairs at the Kettering Foundation. "There is a much closer relationship between [these groups] and the State Department."

Former US Ambassador John McDonald, co-founder of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy in Washington, agrees. "The State Department is beginning to realize that we can play an important role as peace-builders," he says.

Although there is no substitute for leadership by governments, unofficial contacts - "Track Two" diplomacy - offer some advantages over traditional methods, advocates say:

*Private groups can devote time and resources to cooling global "hot spots" before they erupt into full-scale conflicts. Governments tend to focus on areas only after a crisis has erupted - as the American excursions into Somalia and Haiti demonstrate.

*Private groups are often better able to serve as objective third parties because they don't answer to domestic constituencies.

*Informal and unofficial meetings led by conflict-resolution groups allow opposing parties an opportunity to hash out their differences away from the media spotlight.

*Because many of today's conflicts are within a single country, international laws and norms prohibit foreign governments from becoming involved unless they are invited in.

As a result, private groups are finding themselves in new roles with greater responsibilities. Mr. Shorr reports that his organization has grown more than 10-fold over the past five years. Since 1991, it has worked on resolving conflicts in the Middle East, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Burundi, Ukraine, and Angola. While a few such groups receive public money, most are funded primarily by private sources.

One place where private groups have been active is Cyprus. The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, together with two other private groups, formed a consortium to train Greek and Turkish Cypriots to teach conflict-resolution techniques to their own communities.

"Thank you very much," a participant from a previous workshop told the organizers. "You did something great for world peace."

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