Back channel diplomacy essentially means creating a channel of communication with another government or with representatives of another government, that is discreet, that doesn’t go through the official channels of diplomatic cables, of using ambassadors and more formal methods of communicating

A distinction should be made between back channels that are intended to permit states and statesmen to probe quietly whether a change in policy is possible, which will then be subject to public scrutiny if agreement is achieved, and those back channels that are intended to remain secret forever and may speak to a desire to conduct a secret foreign policy.  Crucially, ‘back-channel diplomacy’ relates to talks that are not merely kept from the view of the public; they are also, and perhaps even more importantly, deliberately kept out of the view of much of the political and bureaucratic structures on each side that would normally be involved in negotiations. This is done for many of the same reasons as these talks are kept away from the public; there are interests and constituencies that resist change, especially on matters of great significance. Importantly, then, back channels are meant to obscure the fact that far-reaching policy changes are being explored, not just from outsiders (the public), but also from insiders (much of the political and bureaucratic elite). Back channels can be facilitated by intermediaries, or they can be direct conversations; sometimes they will be both at various times. The keys, however, are secrecy (both from the public and from much of the official structures of the governments involved), and the fact that those participating are explicitly acting on behalf of some in their governments. Often, back channels are denied even as they are happening. Proponents of back-channel diplomacy regard this as essential. Back channels take place between long-standing adversaries who have publicly stated that they will ‘never’ talk to each other. How shall such states, or other groups, begin to explore whether a change in position might be possible if they would have to repudiate publicly a long-standing and widely-held position in order even to begin such an exploration?


  • Greater flexibility, as talks can begin and proceed without preconditions. Back channels reduce the so-called ‘entry costs’ of a negotiation. Participants do not feel so much pressure to ‘play to the gallery’ or to be seen as defending long-standing positions, but are able to explore new possibilities informally.
  • Back channels can help elites on both sides to take the measure of each other. Often, in situations of long-term conflict, the two sides are captive to myths and narratives about the other.
  • Back channels provide a degree of ‘cover’, especially in cases where a political leader confronts a long-standing commitment ‘never’ to talk to the other side. The ‘cover’ that is provided to leaders has to do with constituencies on their own side who would make political trouble if news of the talks ever got out — the problem often known as that of ‘spoilers’.


  • The existence of back channels that are known to only a few can generate significant confusion, particularly if they go on for a long time. Among other dangers, this can lead to situations of ‘forum shopping’, where parties are tempted to go back and forth between different negotiating venues in search of better deals.
  • There is a danger that a back channel intended to be an ‘end game’ becomes, in  an ‘endless game’ — a process whereby parties believe that they do not have to reach agreements because the negotiation is secret, so they avoid confronting the deeper challenges. Sometimes this leads to incremental approaches, whereby one back channel begets another. Secrecy becomes ever harder to maintain, but it is simultaneously harder to reveal the back-channel process, as it has become so loaded down with multiple aspects that its revelation becomes even more potentially explosive.
  • Just as back channels can permit a negotiation to avoid the problem of spoilers, so too can they lead to a particularly vociferous mobilization of spoilers when their results become public. Those opposed to the concessions required to reach a deal will oppose them whether they are reached in open diplomacy or via a back channel, but there seems to be a particularly strong opposition to secret deals based on talks from which those opposed to the idea were deliberately and successfully excluded.

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