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The merits of parallel diplomacy

Published on 23 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

If you want to go into an African village,

Always let someone from the village accompany you.

Houphouët Boigny – President of the Ivory Coast

Since their beginning in the Renaissance,[1] diplomats were an exclusive and tetchy lot. Seeing themselves as personal representatives of their sovereign, they seldom took lightly to free-lancers or the practice of parallel diplomacy. Arguably, these unsung (or vilified) heroes often did more to bring about peace than many a diplomat in uniform or coattails, standing on etiquette.

A very recent example of parallel diplomacy is the role Jean-Yves OLLIVIER,[2] a Frenchman, played in Southern Africa. Out of his own volition he got involved; his sustained efforts greatly facilitated the unraveling of the Gordian knot of hate and mistrust around apartheid. He much contributed to a peaceful evolution of a situation that seemed totally blocked. A documentary: Plot for peace[3] has been made on his role.

Since I have given links to his short biography, I shall limit myself here to some reflections on the merits of parallel diplomacy.


The man

Very young, he struggled through a traumatic experience: in a matter of hours, he became a pied noir refugee from Algeria. His family was one of about one million people who left the newly independent country with nothing but their clothes on their backs. Having entered the Southern African world beginning of the 80es as a politically well-connected businessman, he could feel in his bones the impending tragedy: an end to apartheid could be a repeat of his own tragedy. Alone, he dedicated himself to avoiding this – a commitment that took him about a decade to realize (while going about his commercial businesses). Diplomats seldom stay on the job that long, or work in solitary.

While many were baying for blood, oblivious to possible consequences, he developed a vision of reconciliation. He conceived and brought about a series of steps that eventually led to Mandela being freed. From the beginning, he was informally backed by Jacques Chirac, then French PM. After an unforeseeable false start, however, the French had given up. Alone, he confronted the emergency and brought about an unlikely reversal of fortunes. After that, he spun an ever more complicated spidery web of tentative commitments until momentum developed and the matter became “too big to fail.”

His professional background helped. He certainly was a good (grain) trader, but not a big one. In order to win out against corporate heavyweights in the business, he needed to supply a unique “added value.” He specialized in “damaged buyers,” who others shunned. To allow them to close the deal, he put together unlikely packages (and most likely shady combinations). He was improvising and multi-tasking on the go. African countries were such cases, and he got to know their difficulties, but also strengths and mentalities, intimately. As he moved into the political, the knowledge stood him in good stead.

The role of the intermediary

All diplomatic intercourse begins with the contingent and haphazard bootstrapping of reciprocal trust between principals – simple human trust. Prior to entering into the substance, principals will establish whether the opposite numbers “are men I can do business with.” At the outset, however, principals often cannot be seen to meet the opponent in person. Institutional rules inhibit it; face to face meetings may be risky, or may prematurely close options that are only dimly perceived. The most challenging, but also the most proficuous moment of diplomacy is the instant before diplomacy.[4]

Under such circumstances, a free-lancer has an advantage. He has nothing to gain, but everything to lose – his only capital is fleeting credibility. Any substantive interest, political or personal (let alone economic), would destroy his role. Participants must see as being solely devoted to process. As a trusted go-between, Ollivier could credibly bootstrap the beginnings of trust. Even-handedness, undivided attention to every detail of sensibilities and personalities, to customs – it is a high-wire act one performs best alone. Discretion and modesty are of utmost importance – there is nothing one cannot achieve if one lets others take the credit. It helps to have a network of personalities who advise and sponsor him, but in the end he is alone under the “white flag of truce.”

The engagement is unrelenting. Even in slack times, personal credibility must be sustained. In a world a difficult as that of conflict, rumors abound, disinformation proliferates. Distractions, glitches can be fatal. Plans mostly fail, so one needs to improvise with gusto and bravado. In the end, Ollivier’s reward was magnificent: rather than breaking up violently, apartheid simply crumbled. As the events unfolded, he was stepping back into the shadows (literally in his case: after the complex exchange of prisoners he has organized had been completed, he was left behind on the tarmac).


Strategic freedom

Often, negotiations are set-piece affairs that follow precedent. Freelance efforts allow unexpected degrees of freedom and diplomatic creativity.

The conflicts of Southern Africa were steeped in the Cold War paradigm. As Angola and Mozambique became independent in 1975, the Soviet Union stepped in through their Cuban proxies. The Americans covertly supported civil war in these two countries. The Cold War logic would have suggested that these principals agree to an overarching compromise, leaving the regional forces to pick up the pieces as best they could. After all, this is what had happened in Vietnam.

Ollivier took (stumbled on?) the opposite approach. Together with Chester Crocker, US Undersecretary of State, he engineered a novel solution. The Cold War powers took themselves out of the game first, leaving the regional powers to shape the peace as they saw fit (the big powers did not appear at the negotiating table). The Brazzaville Protocol stipulated the withdrawal of 50’000 Cuban troops in Angola to take place at the same time as South Africa withdrew behind its borders, freeing Namibia in the process. After the Cold War powers had stopped fanning the war, it was only a matter of time before a consensus could be found on a peaceful dismantling of apartheid.

Ollivier makes a further, interesting point. Political principals are often fronters for an informal elite setting the mood, the consensus behind the overt policy.[5] In South Africa, he argues, it was the Broederbond an informal group of power-brokers going back to the founding fathers of the Republic. Ollivier was able to reach out to them, and they could reach out to him informally, and through him relay to the outside world the changes in the making.[6]

Process or principle?

Ollivier is totally devoted to process – getting principals to strike a compromise. He never judges as to right or wrong. His judgments only come when principals renegade on their promises or loyalties. Their behavior destroys his currency – trust.

Ollivier never judges African heads of state. After independence they had to forge a state by choosing a path through uncharted territory: they did as best they could, under the circumstances. In so doing, he shuns causality in historical processes – the Western mindset. He shares the Africans’ “genealogical view of history” – one damned thing after another for short.

In his autobiography, I have come across an instance of “Process vs. (Western) principle” which has saddened me. In 2006, he engineered a meeting[7] between the former head of state of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, and the notorious warlord Joseph Kony in northern Uganda.[8] The meeting took place in the context of the Juba Talks.[9] Kony agreed to retire from the struggle if given 2’500 heads of cattle and three huts. Kony had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Den Hague, in 2005, however. Ollivier negotiated with the ICC on the terms of immunity. The tribunal rejected his request on principle grounds, and the terrible guerrilla went on for many more years.

Of course, we don’t know whether Kony truly intended to retire, and in any case he could have changed his mind. A conditional immunity would have taken care of the matter, however. It would have been worth the gamble to try.

It seems to me that years of slaughter of a hapless civilian population is a very high human price to pay for upholding the principle. Mediation and parallel diplomacy has the advantage that the outcome need not set a precedent, and thus would allow “no fault” solutions.[10] This kind of outcome may be the most important benefit of parallel diplomacy.


[1] Garrett MATTINGLY (1973): Renaissance diplomacy. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

[2] Jean-Yves OLLIVIER (2014): Ni vu ni connu. Ma vie de négociant en politique de Chirac et Foccart à Mandela. Fayard, Paris. Also: https://bit.ly/1FPXmSK

[3] Here the trailer to the award-winning documentary : https://www.plotforpeace.com/

[4] Since time out of time, women took on this role of bootstrapping trust between groups. Intimacy (even when forced) built trust. Women’s silent or subtle advocacy was unthreatening, though sustained and pervasive. Arguably, women were the first – and best – diplomats.

[5] In traditional societies, talking chiefs expressed the consensus of the group, but did not bring it about, or decided it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fa%27amatai

[6] On Pg. 298 Ollivier recalls having organized an informal breakfast in South Africa between Juán Manuel Barroso, then Portugal’s Undersecretary of State for Development, and Frederik de Klerk, who soon afterward would become PM of South Africa. At the breakfast, de Klerk detailed the roadmap of internal South African change.

[7] Jean-Yves OLLIVIER (2014): Ni vu ni connu. Ma vie de négociant en politique de Chirac et Foccart à Mandela. Fayard, Paris. (pg. 292 ff.)

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Kony

[9] https://bit.ly/1CNax7R

[10] My favorite example of the high cost of principle is the NATO intervention in Kosovo. It cost 50 billion dollars and more, and set back the region by many years. I wonder how much money it would have taken to remove Milosevic from the scene: one billion? The remainder could have gone into development of the region…

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