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Citizen diplomacy complements the formal diplomacy of government officials. It builds trust and mutual understanding based on face-to-face relationships among citizens of different cultures, regions, and religions. Humanity gets a chance to speak when ideology is put on hold by creative human contact.

Esalen’s Soviet-American Exchange Program — Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy’s earlier incarnation—played an important role in bringing an end to the Cold War. By nurturing a network of deep human relationships, by holding annual conferences and other meetings that built upon those relationships, by creating and maintaining The Luchkov Library of Psychological Literature at Moscow State University, and by hosting Boris Yeltsin’s first visit to the United States, we created a crucial communications backchannel that served the needs of the 1980s and 1990s.

Supplementing official summitry, groups of different professionals, from psychologists to astronauts, have been meeting for years. By letting the commonality of their professional—and human—interests speak louder than the differences between their nations and cultures, the members of the Track Two network have spanned the globe with bonds of growing friendship and mutual understanding. Track Two Diplomacy flies beneath the radar of official treaties, age-old enmities, hardened ideologies, and partisan politics. When people with similar interests can talk face-to-face about the things that interest them, “Faces of the Enemy”—the title of a book and video born of Track Two Diplomacy—are replaced by human faces and real communication.

There is impressive evidence that Esalen’s Track Two work contributed significantly to the transformation of the Soviet Union and Russia’s relationship with the U.S. Now, relations between Islam and the West are strained. Indeed, we in the US may be more in need of building friendship and understanding through citizen diplomacy than at any time in the past century.  It is clear that Track Two diplomacy has a place and a very important contribution to make between Israelis and Palestinians and among the Abrahamic traditions in the US and beyond.

The so-called “wars” we are asked to fight may be un-winnable without new thinking and new practices like citizen diplomacy. We are not fighting along established geo-political battle lines. We are struggling for hearts and minds, commitment, understanding, and intelligence. There are plenty of opportunities for inter-cultural maneuvers—highly focused, citizen-led efforts that fly below the radar of official, high level diplomacy.

Rooted in the context of Esalen’s explorations of human potential, Track Two will continue to give voice to the growing constituency of individuals who feel disheartened and powerless vis-à-vis governments that don’t get it. Citizen diplomacy involves non-governmental individuals and groups that aim to fill the moral and intellectual voids of official peacemaking leadership. Track Two's major goal is to re-humanize relations that are dysfunctional. It works to make relationships better.

In April 2006, Esalen and Track Two sponsored a 25th reunion of the many pioneers who then chronicled the principles they have distilled from their work with Russia and the former Soviet Union. These principles, they believe, can be applied to other problematic relationships around the world, over the long term. More than thirty Russians and Americans contributed to the conversation during the reunion week at Esalen, the meetings facilitator, Jay Ogilvy—took notes and wrote up the results as follows:


1. Dream the dream, even if it is “impossible.” You must have an overarching goal, but no cherished outcome.


2. You can do things that governments can’t. It’s important not to give power away to the leaders as if they knew what they’re doing.


3. Know that everyone wants something greater to emerge.


4. Believe your instincts, not your government, or your media, or your conditioning.


5. Find allies. Develop personal connections, and trust. We all have friends in curious places. Respect the importance of community.


6. Collegiality is crucial.


7. Diversity is essential. Don’t be afraid to gather people who don’t like one another.


8. Get good people together. A small group can make a difference.


9. It is important to create a safe space and have expert facilitation.


10. Become engaged, and then see the possibilities. Do your homework, but adopt beginners mind. Don’t imagine that you can complete a strategic plan and come in with the right answers.


11. Be prepared to be surprised by what you find:


Listen carefully. Listen to what wants to happen. Listen for a conspiracy of opportunities.


Tolerate ambiguity. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.


Unexpected benefits are as important as the expected ones.


Aim for a balance between surrender and action.


12. Work from a non-adversarial place. This means:


Never stimulate factionalism.


Conduct bi-national or multi-national, not unilateral planning of projects.


If you have an axe to grind you might be ground down.


Don’t do it for them lest you end up doing it to them.


Instead of facing each other, sit shoulder to shoulder and face “the problem” together.


Always speak from equality.


You cannot condescend.


13. Practice empathy. In whatever way possible, become the other. When we humanize the other, we humanize ourselves.


14. Show up and keep showing up. Perseverance furthers. The antidote to the biggest force is gentle contact. Large institutions are like inertial masses resting on frictionless surfaces. Lean against them long enough and they will move. Hurl yourself against them expecting immediate results and you will only bloody yourself.


15. Always ask: Who is doing this? The internal work you do on yourself prepares for the external work you do in the world. Beware of ego. You must be willing to be anonymous.


16. Engaging in this work is an adventure. Enjoying it is a matter of attitude.


17. Find the acupuncture points. Look for the best leverage points. Look for where self-interest aligns with common interest.


18. Think out of the box! Exercise creativity on-the-spot and in real time.


19. Conduct a multi-pronged approach with several simultaneous agendas.


20. When you do exchanges, pick topics that both sides are good at: e.g., movies, environmental issues, astronauts and cosmonauts.


21. Look for metaphors and symbols of transformation, e.g. teenagers from two countries climbing a mountain as an example of citizen “summitry.”


22. Be a catalyst for others. Give away all that you have so that others may spread the work. Remember Lao Tzu: “That leader is worst whom the people fear; that leader is better whom the people revere; but that leader is best of whom they say after he or she is gone, we did this ourselves.”


23. In all things, practice care and give a damn. But also care in a less Teutonic, warmer way, for example observing the birthdays of close foreign colleagues.


24. Success brings its challenges. Beware of grandiosity when playing on a very big stage.


25. You are bound to fail from time to time, but failure is an essential part of success. Successful capitalists look for leaders who have already had at least one failure. Failures can be turned into later successes through learning.


META RULE: you can’t know which of the above principles will best apply in each new situation.

In 2009 at a conference at Esalen Institute to further the work of the International Abrahamic Network (IAN), participants who identify with the Abrahamic faiths (Jews, Christians and Muslims), added the following principles with the IAN philosophy in mind: 

Share wisdom without proselytizing


Bring our blessings and privileges


Seek the truth in relationship


Plant seeds for later generations to harvest


Transcend categories


Don’t fill in the blanks too quickly


Go into the unknown


Unity is found in diversity


Importance of face-to-face contact in the age of the Internet


Giving the other the freedom to be heard


Practice humility and discernment


Practice strategic patience


Opening to wounds and healing is risky


Do not exercise leadership by forcing authority on others


Honor differences


Include religious, secular, and atheists in Abrahamic work.

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