Successful Tactics of Twilight Negotiators

“Twilight diplomats” tend to make or break international negotiations, despite rarely garnering the acclaim of their more public-facing counterparts, write members of the Negotiation Task Force.

International agreements involving multiple countries are complicated by the presence of numerous constituencies with competing demands and differing legal systems. Even bilateral agreements, such as the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, are incredibly complex and historic feats to achieve. Most literature focuses on the Kissingers, Bakers, and Shevardnadzes credited with these achievements, overlooking other key individuals working behind the scenes. These actors might not receive the fame or notoriety of their Foreign Ministers or Special Envoys, but they exercise skills that can make or break the deals. As the world continues to become increasingly complex and interconnected, these negotiators working in the background are ever more instrumental in crafting and implementing policy. We call their environment “twilight diplomacy,” which we define as both diplomacy in today’s darker world and diplomatic efforts by individuals operating behind the scenes, or twilight negotiators. 

To better understand the dynamics of twilight diplomacy, we examine the final 2019–2020 period of the negotiation process between the United States and Sudan that culminated in Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) List. This negotiation is a fascinating example of diplomacy in today’s VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—world. The process began as a claims settlement between the two countries in 2018 with the goal of removing Sudan from the SST List, ultimately expanding from these two issues to include compensation for victims of multiple terror attacks and the Abraham Accords of 2020. Twilight negotiators played a critical role in bridging the gap between the tangled initial stages of negotiation and the completed deal in December 2020. By analyzing this process, we can begin to understand the best practices for practitioners and students of modern international diplomacy.

Know Your Environment 

Twilight negotiators succeed in influencing negotiation because they fully understand the detailed substance of the deals in question. This understanding allows them to creatively utilize the diplomatic, legal, and financial tools at their disposal. In the case of Sudan, all parties, including the U.S. negotiators, recognized from the outset of negotiations that the Sudanese government was no longer willfully harboring terrorist organizations, the requirement for designation as a state sponsor of terror. Yet the removal of Sudan from the SST List remained elusive. Finalizing a deal with Congressional approval proved complex and contentious, as the SST designation had become an instrument for geopolitical goals, such as addressing human rights abuses in Sudan and compensation for victims of terror attacks. The instrumentalization of the SST List added new layers of complexity to an already complicated process, highlighting the need for twilight negotiators in managing the interconnected issues at play in the negotiations. 

The complex and inherently messy nature of modern international diplomacy makes twilight negotiators ideal deal-makers.

In the 2019–2020 period, twilight negotiators reached a deal that had eluded success for almost 20 years. These actors on the U.S. side had deep expertise in working with Sudanese counterparts, Congress, and the White House—a skillset no single principal possessed. Throughout deliberations, Congressional staffers and aides actively reported back to State Department officials the various demands and “red lines” of key members of Congress. On the Sudanese side, the two Ministers of Finance worked to explore realistic options for raising the significant capital required in the deal, while the Minister of Justice worked closely with the Sudanese Ambassador to the U.S. on pressing legal matters related to the deal. These top-level activities undoubtedly depended on the management and support of similar teams of staffers and lawyers as seen on the U.S. side. 

Room To Maneuver 

Removing Sudan from the SST list required constant effort from twilight negotiators. From their unique vantage point behind the scenes, these negotiators were able to perceive the otherwise obscure links between seemingly unconnected issues. In addition to connecting these issues, twilight negotiators could adapt to changes in the political environment as the salience of these issues constantly evolved. The complex and inherently messy nature of modern international diplomacy makes twilight negotiators ideal deal-makers; prominent figures under intense public scrutiny could not be active in every stage of negotiation without appearing inconsistent and unreliable. As previously disparate issues become progressively more interconnected, twilight negotiators will continue to play an increasingly important role in international diplomatic deal-making. 

Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Arvid Bell is a scholar and entrepreneur who specializes in negotiation strategy, crisis leadership, and international security.

A.M. in Regional Studies–REECA

Nora Cyra is a graduate of the REECA master's program with research interests in conflict resolution opportunities in the former Soviet Union.

A.M. in Regional Studies–REECA

REECA graduate interested in energy and economic issues across the former Soviet Union.