A “back channel” is an unofficial means of communication between two nations or two political entities. “Backchanneling” is also used as a verb, to refer to the act of holding behind-the-scenes talks.
Back channels are often used when two governments don’t have formal diplomatic relations with each other. The United States and North Korea, for example, often rely on back channel diplomacy when they want to exchange messages. They have a few long-established informal “channels” of communication. One is in New York, where North Korea’s ambassadors can meet with US officials at UN headquarters. (North Korea does not have a diplomatic presence in Washington DC, and the US doesn’t have a diplomat stationed in Pyongyang.)
Even when a high-profile meeting does take place between US officials and North Koreans, that meeting has normally been preceded by extensive backchannel communication. That’s because the public meetings are rare and are usually high-stakes. Both nations rely on backchanneling to help prepare ahead of time and lay ground rules.
Before the historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, for example, the two countries held private talks to plan out all the details. Preparatory back channel talks typically cover issues like location, timing, and topics to be included.
The US government uses back channels in its communication with Iran, Cuba, and other nations or groups which it doesn’t have formal relations with. In some cases, third parties – countries which have diplomatic relations with both of the countries – can facilitate discussions.
Further back, private channels have sometimes paved the way to establish diplomatic relations between two states. During the onset of World War Two, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration used back channels to make contact with the Soviet Union. The State Department was not involved in the private talks, which eventually led to formal diplomatic relations between the US and the USSR.
During the Kennedy administration, Robert Kennedy served as an informal go-between during negotiations between the US and the USSR. Those back channel talks helped diffuse tensions over the Cuban missile crisis and eventually led to the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba.And during the Nixon administration, the US and Soviets kept a shaky peace thanks, in part, to an ongoing back channel negotiation between Henry Kissinger and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
Since 2016, there have been a number of concerns raised about the private channels of communication used between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s team. Before Trump’s election, members of his campaign reportedly had close contacts with Russian officials and with “operatives” linked to Russia. These contacts were not disclosed to those outside of the campaign, but at least nine other campaign staffers were aware of them.
After Trump was elected, Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, reportedly discussed the possibility of setting up a back channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, told Moscow officials that Kushner had made that suggestion to him personally during a meeting in Trump Tower in December 2016. Kushner later denied the report.
It is unusual for a president-elect to set up a back channel with another state. However, PBS notes that it’s not unprecedented; Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama were all accused of doing just that.