Assigning special envoys and special representatives helps in tackling major foreign policy issues, and the approach will almost certainly continue to be used as conflicts span borders and threats proliferate. That means identifying the correct envoy for any particular conflict is essential, according to a panel of experts who made recommendations for more effectively applying this foreign policy tool during a discussion at USIP.

President Barack Obama meets with Sudan Special Envoy Ambassador Princeton Lyman in the Oval Office, April 1, 2011.
President Barack Obama meets with Sudan Special Envoy Ambassador Princeton Lyman in the Oval Office, April 1, 2011. Photo Credit: White House/Pete Souza

The designated envoy must be empowered by the president and secretary of state, have the authority and the lead in policy formulation, and be given the latitude --and possess the willingness -- to take risks, even extending to engaging  undesirable parties to the conflict if necessary, according to the panelists at the Dec. 19 event. The panel was led by Ambassador Princeton Lyman, a former special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan who now serves as a senior advisor to the president of USIP, and Ambassador Bob Beecroft, a former head of mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The two co-authored a study of special envoys for USIP and the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Sometimes it’s the special envoy’s responsibility to deal with people that the U.S. government ordinarily would not touch with a 10-foot pole.

Yet those traits are often in conflict with standard bureaucratic structures and formal policy prohibitions. The State Department is starting to take note of the importance of greater risk-taking as it undergoes its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), said Tom Perriello, a former congressman who serves as the special representative in charge of the project.

A special envoy has to “take some risks” to be successful, Lyman said. Indeed, it is their ability to take these risks that constitutes one of the benefits of naming a presidential or secretarial-level representative to address specific conflict zones.

The backgrounds of envoys traditionally reflect a set of qualifications that prepare them for such a position. Experience in foreign affairs is surely desired. In some, but not all cases, they have had experience in the region or with the conflict to which they are assigned, earning them a deeper understanding of its nuances as well as credibility with the players in the field. Quite often they have risen up through the State Department and are thus familiar with Washington’s bureaucracy. Knowledge of the policymaking environment and a respect for its internal processes are incredibly valuable in such a position.

However, a good envoy needs to be willing to take risks. An envoy too entrenched within the system may not be willing to do so for fear of the expense to their career or professional standing.

Dealing with undesirables

One area where risk can be is highest is in dealing with war criminals or designated terrorists who are central to the conflict, meetings that could run afoul of standard U.S. policies in the case of sanctions or terror listings.

“Sometimes it’s the special envoy’s responsibility to deal with people that the U.S. government ordinarily would not touch with a 10-foot pole,” Beecroft said. “The question is how you define the relationship with these people, and how much you tell Washington about what you’re doing.”

Many envoys have spoken publicly about such engagement with groups or individuals ranging from the Afghan Taliban to Balkan war criminals or Sudanese officials indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Dan Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel, told the USIP audience that an envoy should be allowed to contact key players despite U.S. policy prohibitions if the peace process requires it, especially in cases where communication channels already exist.

The CIA, for example, was in contact for years with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) even though U.S. policy forbade traditional diplomatic engagement. For Kurtzer, this meant America “had a channel to communicate, but no way to deal with conflict resolution.” Such situations represent a clear opportunity for envoys to contribute to the peace process, in part because their mandate falls outside the normal diplomatic bureaucracy.

State Department offices and officials with responsibility for core values such as democracy and human rights have legitimate concerns about such contacts. Negotiating with undesirables runs the risk of unintentionally legitimizing them or opening the door for publicly embarrassing the envoy or the United States.

Risk-reward equation

Envoys need to balance this tension by respecting the legitimacy of these varied and multiple interests and finding a path to a cohesive and effective policy. This requires a certain diplomatic talent mixed with an acceptance of personal and political risk.

 “What’s the strategy? What are you getting for it?” said David Abramowitz, vice president at Humanity United, at the USIP event. ”There has to be significant conversation about [who] are the right people to do these jobs, because there are risks.”  

Ultimately, the panel said, an envoy has to be authorized to make the decision of whether or not to engage once such concerns have been carefully reviewed and debated.

“If you don’t give an envoy authority, you shouldn’t bother,” Lyman said. And the State Department, an institution that heavily vets any statement and engagement, is starting to understand that its officials have to become more flexible to fully benefit from the special envoy model.

“State is decades behind in terms of internal reform,” Kurtzer said. The resulting policy gridlock in which all interests get equal weight means the department is relying more on special envoys to strike the balance between conflict resolution and America’s central values.

Under the QDDR, the State Department is working to address some of these concerns to advance diplomatic objectives overseas.

To Perriello, diplomats and the department supporting them have to realize it’s “not about succeeding 100 percent of the time. It’s about taking risks and having them pay off over time.”

Hanne Bursch is a program specialist for special initiatives at USIP.

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