Importance of informal diplomacy never greater

Jackson Calder looks back on his experiences partaking in Track II dialogues over the past two years and how they have inspired him to further develop his interest in international relations. In 2019 Jackson was the recipient of an Asia New Zealand Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant.
Jackson Calder

Jackson Calder: "... it is now more important than ever that nations make the most of every mechanism available to them in forging trust, connections and new agreements..."

As we emerge from COVID-19, New Zealand is currently reassessing the geopolitical environment and laying the groundwork for a new era of international engagement, in which Track II and Track 1.5 diplomacy play a significant role.

While official government-to-government diplomatic meetings are the usual avenue for international cooperation, they are often removed from wider public engagement.

COVID-19 has shrouded the global strategic environment in uncertainty, and it is now more important than ever that nations make the most of every mechanism available to them in forging trust, connections and new agreements in the hope of producing a more resilient and robust international system.

In early 2019, at the start of my postgraduate year, I attended a Track II dialogue with Asia New Zealand Foundation and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV). That experience gave me a true appreciation for how the setting, tone and diversity of opinions at the table can assist in developing confidence and maturity in our bilateral relationship.

Even though I was just a student at the time, I was treated as a genuine stakeholder in the discussions and was encouraged to share my perspectives and insights.

Opportunities for Track II diplomacy are much more common than most may think, hence why they hold so much untapped potential.

In February 2020, Victoria University hosted the QS Subject Focus Summit on Politics and International studies, which procured top experts from throughout Asia-Pacific to deliver seminars and develop connections with New Zealand stakeholders.

Attendees to the three-day event included professors from top universities in Singapore, Japan, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Chile and Taiwan – representing an immensely diverse pool of expertise and experience.

The summit attracted attention from Track 1 officials as well, with numerous ambassadors and diplomats present throughout the event, including from U.S. and Israel. However, it was the attendance and speech by the Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi that truly highlighted the political capital and influence that such events can have.

Although there was no formal roundtable dialogue that usually characterises a Track II or 1.5 event, attendees interacted regularly in-between seminars to share knowledge and build connections over cups of tea and refreshments.

These corridor discussions provided students and the public alike a rare opportunity to engage with experts and practitioners on policy discussions.

This, at its core, is an effective form of public diplomacy. The hosting of conferences, summits and roundtable dialogues allows a wide range of stakeholders to feel engaged in politics, security, foreign policy and trade debates.

Jackson Calder standing in front of a large ASEAN logo and ASEAN nation flags

Jackson: "Ultimately, the way Track II positioned me as a stakeholder in international relations inspired me to continue developing my expertise..."

Through my postgraduate research field trip in 2019 to Jakarta and Hanoi, I accrued even more experience in, and appreciation for, public diplomacy and Track II.

In Jakarta I attended the Conference on Indonesian Foreign Policy (CIFP), the largest event of its kind in the world.

There were booths set up by Canada, Australia, China and the European Union, who were all conducting proper, organised public diplomacy. However, I found myself to be the only New Zealander present among the crowd of Indonesian students, ministers, diplomats and scholars.

Throughout the day, I was approached by many attendees who, upon learning I was from New Zealand, assumed that I was an official representative and proceeded to ask for my views on many world issues.

After emphasising that my perspectives were personal and indeed not the official position of my government, I engaged in comprehensive and valuable discussions with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and roles. All were friendly and many asked what New Zealand is like and expressed their desire to travel, leaving me feeling like I had accomplished something diplomatically and contributed a small amount to my country’s positive international reputation.

Later in Hanoi, I attended the General Conference of the Council For Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), an event that was certainly closer to Track 1.5-level.

Around me were experts from top global think-tanks, such as the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), alongside foreign policy, security and trade officials representing every corner of the Asia-Pacific.

Upon approaching a member of the DAV who I had met earlier that year in Wellington, I was humbled to see that he remembered me, and we discussed my research and the progress his organisation was making on Vietnam’s foreign and security policy. This illustrates the profound value of Track II diplomacy – forming people-to-people connections, sharing expertise and building trusting international relationships, all without the bureaucracy of official diplomatic channels, pre-determined talking points and the presence of the media.

These incredible experiences proved to me that just one Track II experience can ignite a passion and prepare you for much larger diplomatic undertakings.

My one-day dialogue with the DAV in Wellington provided me the confidence and knowledge to spend over three weeks in Southeast Asia, where I built an invaluable network of people that presented me with amazing opportunities for further engagement.

Ultimately, the way Track II positioned me as a stakeholder in international relations inspired me to continue developing my expertise, and reassured me that I could have a tangible influence on foreign policy throughout the Asia-Pacific.

The current expansion of New Zealand’s diplomatic infrastructure is a promising step in advancing government collaboration with academic institutions, think tanks, and businesses to ensure that we create robust, trusting and mutually beneficial connections as we strive to evolve and adapt to this era of unprecedented geopolitical flux.

Jackson Calder recently completed his dissertation for a Master of Strategic Studies from Victoria University of Wellington. His project analysed how countries of Southeast Asia are managing competition for natural resources. 

Late last year, Jackson traveled to Indonesia to research the country’s approach to regional strategic connectivity initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Jackson received a Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant to help him conduct research in Indonesia.