FORMER President Jimmy Carter is demonstrating both the possibilities and the limitations of citizen diplomacy in his current efforts to bring peace between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in Eritrea. Americans have long been fascinated with the idea that the private citizen can play a role in the resolution of international issues. People-to-people movements seek to build bridges between populations of nations in conflict. Think tanks and foundations bring representatives of opposing sides together for conferences. Academicians create a new discipline in ``conflict resolution'' based on the principle that outside experts can give governments tactical advice to assist in difficult negotiations.
Much that such efforts accomplish is useful. In settings less constrained by official limits, better understandings regarding the politics and the concerns of another nation can be conveyed to the policymaker. Ideas can be tested without the risk of political commitment. But on issues that involve deep divisions between nations and between governments and their people, the contribution of citizen diplomacy is, at best, marginal.
The case of Jimmy Carter is different. He brings to his efforts the aura of the American presidency, reinforced by his own personal accomplishment of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt. His experience also leads him to be cautious in predicting the outcome.
The issue he has chosen to address - the conflict between the people of Eritrea and the government of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa - is difficult and of long standing. Eritrea, a long, largely arid plateau, bordering the Red Sea, was under nominal Ethiopian rule until the 16th century, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. In the 19th century it became a battleground between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Italy. The Italians ultimately prevailed and used the territory as the base for the 1936 invasion of Ethiopia. After World War II, Eritrea was put under United Nations trusteeship. In 1962, in a move engineered from Addis Ababa, the assembly in Eritrea voted to unite with Ethiopia.
Ethiopian rule was never accepted by the bulk of the population, roughly divided between Christians and Muslims. Armed resistance began one of the longest civil wars in current history. At one time four different liberation movements existed, assisted variously by Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The primary one today - whose representatives have been meeting with representatives of the Ethiopia government and Jimmy Carter in Atlanta - is the Eritrean People's Liberation Front.
Several factors have combined to create support on both sides for Carter's intervention. The Marxist Ethiopian government has failed militarily to conquer the territory. Its Soviet and Cuban allies have been unwilling to use their forces for other than logistical support in Eritrea. The Ethiopian regime, troubled by famine and economic decline, is seeking better relations with the West. Because the issue is considered an internal one by the Ethiopian government, other governments are reluctant to get involved. It is not considered an appropriate issue for either the United Nations or the Organization of African Unity.
The first round of talks in Atlanta ended with agreement on a communiqu'e on Sept. 19. That final statement illustrated some of the problems in such an effort. Paragraph 2 spoke of the agreement of the parties ``to make only constructive statements in the press or public so long as the peace process is proceeding in a positive fashion.''
Although the two sides agreed on the Atlanta site, they clearly wished to move the action back to Africa and ``sites for [subsequent] negotiating sessions will be Nairobi, Khartoum, San`a, Cairo, Arusha and Harare.'' It was decided that an African co-chairman would join President Carter, but agreement was not reached on a name. The two sides agreed to have observers at the subsequent meetings but could not agree on their selection or their role. Although not mentioned in the communiqu'e, differences continue over the ultimate relationship of Eritrea to the government in Addis Ababa; this issue is at the heart of the matter.
Nevertheless, bringing the sides together in Atlanta was a remarkable accomplishment. The resolution of other international issues has often been impeded because not even the time and place of a meeting can be resolved.
Citizen diplomacy can contribute to peace, but very special conditions must prevail and the opposing sides must have confidence in the person or persons who bring them together. The difficult issue of Eritrea is far from solved, but Carter, working with patience and on the basis of his unique experience, has created momentum that could lead to a solution.