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Intermediaries in International Conflict

Intermediaries in International Conflict

by Thomas Princen

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Few scholars have attempted to evaluate critically the role mediators play in managing international conflicts. Thomas Princen examines where mediation fits in the larger realm of diplomatic practice, going beyond the usual state- centric focus to account for the mediating activities of a wide range of actors-from superpowers to small states, from international


Few scholars have attempted to evaluate critically the role mediators play in managing international conflicts. Thomas Princen examines where mediation fits in the larger realm of diplomatic practice, going beyond the usual state- centric focus to account for the mediating activities of a wide range of actors-from superpowers to small states, from international organizations to nongovernmental groups.Few scholars have attempted to evaluate critically the role mediators play in managing international conflicts. Thomas Princen examines where mediation fits in the larger realm of diplomatic practice, going beyond the usual state- centric focus to account for the mediating activities of a wide range of actors-from superpowers to small states, from international organizations to nongovernmental groups.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is a 'must read' for students of international negotiation and conflict resolution. Princen has systematically examined a dimension of international negotiation that traditionally has been explored primarily by historians and the legal profession, namely, the role mediators play in managing international conflict."—Linda P. Brady, American Political Science Review

"In the context of international politics, Princen provides enlightening answers to how intermediaries learn, how they develop their role, and how they function in the context of both the international system and domestic politics. The work draws from extensive contemporary research in the field of conflict resolution and will replace Oran R. Young's The Intermediaries: Third Parties in International Crises (1967) as the definitive text."Choice

"Princen's book is an excellent—indeed, outstanding—work of its kind.... [Policymakers], like scholars, can draw on such work most profitably to deepen their understanding of this important international process."—Alan James, Survival

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

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Intermediaries in International Conflict

By Thomas Princen


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07897-7



In the closing decade of the twentieth century, East-West tensions may have eased but international conflict and violence are far from over. Regional conflicts and other so-called minor disputes will continue to attract the attention of major and minor powers alike. Many of these conflicts arise from clashes among newly formed states as in much of the Third World or from religious and ethnic tensions as in the Middle East, the southern Soviet Union, and Sri Lanka. And as in Poland, the Philippines, and Argentina, much of the conflict arises less from external threat than from a struggle for domestic control and economic advancement.

Managing these disputes by force or its threat or by international law becomes increasingly difficult in a system of assertively independent states. Many of these conflicts may retain an East-West dimension but their indigenous sources will remain prominent. Nationalist demands for autonomy and self-determination rooted in ethnic sentiments or economic deprivation make military intervention costly and often counterproductive. But if military intervention is increasingly unattractive, other forms of intervention, forms that rely less on force and more on persuasion and bargaining, become increasingly attractive.

One is the intervention of intermediaries, third parties who intercede for the purpose of influencing or facilitating the settlement of a dispute but who do not impose a solution. They are actors with incentives to be involved but without direct interests in the disputed issues. Relative to the disputants' balance of forces, their domestic politics, and the peculiarities of each side's decision-making processes, their interventions are rarely determining factors in the outcomes of conflicts. But in many conflicts, especially intense conflicts driven by domestic turmoil, intermediaries are not insignificant either. They may provide just enough incentive to settle or, more subtly, just enough change in perceptions and attitudes to tip the balance from a contentious to a cooperative approach to resolving the dispute. The difference they make is not so much between who wins and who loses or how much is gained and lost. Rather, it is between settling early rather than late or between trying one more round at the negotiating table rather than initiating hostilities or between searching for the preconditions for negotiations rather than getting tied up in the procedures of negotiations. When the difference between violent and peaceful settlement of a conflict turns on seemingly minor questions of procedure or saving face, intermediaries can push the parties—sometimes gently and unobtrusively, sometimes with concrete inducements—toward conciliatory approaches.

The Prevalence of Intermediary Intervention

If intermediaries can make a difference, why do we not see more of them? Does the evening news neglect them or are they just too few and far between to capture our attention? In part, the answer is that the work of intermediaries cannot compete for the headlines with force reductions or toppling regimes or trade imbalances, not to mention invasions and the everyday violence in the world. But, in part, the apparent neglect derives from what intermediaries do. Few interventions exhibit the drama of Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy or Jimmy Carter's Camp David negotiations. Many more involve slow and painstaking work with few breakthroughs or outright successes. Much of the work is, by its very nature, quiet and behind the scenes. Oscar Arias may grab the headlines when he outmaneuvers the United States in Central America and lands a peace agreement along with a Nobel Prize. More often, such work is quite uneventful. For most of Chester Crocker's tenure as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, his attempts to mediate a settlement in southern Africa merited back-page news, if anything. His eventual success did make the front pages, but fleetingly. So did a number of other recent efforts: the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war arranged by UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar; the commencement of talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the United States facilitated by Sweden; and the Soviet agreement to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan as facilitated by UN representative Diego Cordova. Still, these interventions commanded the headlines largely because they involved major powers or major conflicts.

Lesser known interventions, some regionally prominent, some conducted by major powers, others by minor actors, were, by their frequency and quite possibly their impact, no less important. Among states, India arranged negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and rebel Tamils. Indonesia mediated among the countries of Indochina and between Vietnam and the United States regarding Cambodia. Algeria successfully mediated several hostage crises including the taking of U.S. embassy personnel in Iran. Both Saudia Arabia and the Soviet Union have mediated talks between Iraq and Turkey over water issues. Saudia Arabia and the Soviet Union mediated an agreement among Syria, Turkey, and Iraq to restore water flow to Iraq after Syria constructed a dam on the Euphrates River. Even Cuba, known for its military interventions in Africa, mediated in the Iran-Iraq war and has conducted talks between factions of the PLO. As for nonstate actors, in the Soviet Union, the popular fronts of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia established talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Nicaragua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo mediated talks between the Sandinista government and U.S.-sponsored rebels while Mennonite officials mediated talks between the Sandinistas and the Moskito Indians. In El Salvador, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, served as a mediator in the first substantive negotiations to end the civil war there. Quakers have served as message carriers and conciliators in the India-Pakistan conflict, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe, the Nigerian civil war (see chap. 9) and, most recently, the Sri Lankan civil war. Catholic Church officials mediated between the Polish Communist government and the Solidarity labor union. And in a rare instance of interstate mediation by the Vatican, Pope John Paul II intervened to avert a war between Argentina and Chile and then achieved a settlement through formal mediation at the Vatican (see chap. 8). Private individuals have also participated as intermediaries, often to facilitate official interactions. Journalist John Scali carried messages between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Educator Brian Wedge interceded in the Dominican Republic after the U.S. invasion of 1965 to establish a dialogue and break a stalemate between the competing sides. Academics like John Burton and Herbert Kelman have facilitated talks among leaders of Cyprus, Israel, the PLO, Argentina, and Great Britain. Most recently, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter held talks between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean rebels.

Although the level of success and impact varies considerably in these cases, the fact is that intermediaries are ubiquitous actors in the management of modern international conflicts. A number of studies suggest the extent. In ten disputes in Latin America from 1925 to 1945, 35 countries served as intermediaries; and after 1945, in just 13 disputes there were 63 mediation attempts. In 77 major conflicts between 1919 and 1965, 49 involved mediators, and in a different study researchers found that 255 of 310 conflicts between 1945 and 1974 had some form of official mediation (by a regional or international organization). Although definitions of "mediation" may vary, intermediaries clearly are prevalent in modern international conflict. This is even more true when unofficial and behind-the-scenes intermediaries are added to the picture.

Intermediaries are not unique to twentieth-century diplomacy, of course. The practice can be traced back to the earliest times. Until the nineteenth century, mediation was an informal process often crossing over into arbitration when practiced by monarchs and popes. In the Congress of Vienna of 1815 and the Congress of Paris of 1856, compulsory mediation was legally introduced to impose the duty of collective intervention by the great powers. Mediation was also provided for in nineteenth-century treaties between greater and lesser powers, often between a European power and a lesser state of Asia. In practice, mediators intervened to prevent a disruption of the balance of power or to restore a balance. Conducted by great powers or by concerts of powers in conferences or congresses, mediation, consequently, was another form of coercive intervention, one in which interested parties were sometimes excluded.

Contemporary intermediary interventions differ from those of the past in at least two respects. First, before the twentieth century, only states intervened as mediators and only powerful states at that. Today, as suggested above, small states, international organizations, and a variety of transnational actors intervene regularly. They do not change the balance of power nor do they impose solutions, but they do intervene in the affairs of states to effect change. What may be most distinguishing is that they must gain the parties' acceptance, something a European concert of powers had little concern for. Second, influence by intermediaries large and small, state and nonstate, entails more subtle processes than the use or threat of force. It may involve offers of aid (or threats to withhold aid) or simply the appropriation of decisions about negotiating procedures. However contemporary intermediaries influence protagonists in a dispute resolution process, their impact depends not solely upon their position as a great power but upon their position of being in the middle.

This book, then, is an attempt to characterize the peculiarities of this position and to lay out what is distinctive about intermediary intervention as a method of international conflict management and, more generally, as a decision-making process. It is too easy to view intermediary intervention as either an adjunct to the real negotiation—a convenience for the negotiators or a technical corrective for imperfect negotiating—or as a loose form of an essentially legal process—like adjudication or arbitration but without the decision-making authority. To do so misses important features of the intervention, especially the relationship between the intermediary and the disputants and the impact that has on the disputants' interactions. These features must be considered explicitly to assess the potential and the limitations of the process.

As a first approximation, intermediary intervention can be thought of as one of three forms of negotiation. Some negotiations are direct and bilateral. Others are multilateral where one member "mediates" in the sense of bringing others together to form a coalition. In such coalitional bargaining, all parties in multilateral negotiations are potential mediators. But they are not "in between"; they are not intermediaries. Negotiations with a third party who is not a direct party to the negotiations is what I term intermediary intervention and is the subject of this book.

The Function of Intermediaries in International Conflict Management

Why are intermediaries so prevalent in international conflict management? One reason relates to the twin tendencies in international affairs toward decentralization on the one hand and institutionalization on the other. With no central authority, states act on the basis of self-help. At the same time, they coordinate their expectations by creating institutions, whether formal organizations or, more informally, regimes and conventions. Institutions are feasible when dealing with ongoing relationships and issues that recur, such as those in trade disputes or alliance politics. Disputes that are essentially one-time affairs, however, cannot be institutionalized. Japan and the Soviet Union, for example, have never signed a peace treaty owing to their failure to agree on the ownership of a few islands off the coast of Hokaido. This is a one-time affair; once a treaty is signed, it is unlikely to arise again. Its management, therefore, cannot be institutionalized. It can be viewed as one of many items in the ongoing relationship between Japan and the Soviet Union and, as such, decisions on this issue will cast a shadow over future issues. But future issues are unlikely to be of the same sort, that is, a territorial question. Rather, they will be over trade or fishing or a military build-up. Thus, a regime is not about to be created to handle territorial disputes when there is only one foreseeable dispute of this nature. Nor will the two parties create a regime to resolve all future issues to which this territorial issue is presumably casting a shadow. That is what diplomacy under normalized relations is about. The resolution of this dispute is best viewed, therefore, as a one-shot, single-play game in which all the usual bargaining dynamics manifest.

So where do intermediaries come in? The answer parallels that of the question, Why international institutions? Disputing parties negotiate more effectively if they have converging expectations over the set of norms and procedures governing their negotiations and if information is as complete as possible. This is true whether negotiations are highly formalized as in trade negotiations under GATT or informally arranged, ad hoc and one-time affairs as in territorial disputes. As elaborated in chapter 3, the intermediary's unique position in the bargaining relationship affords it the ability to, one, encourage expectations to converge around its proposals and, two, to pool information. The intermediary, in short, serves as a regime surrogate in disputes where institutionalization is impractical.

A second reason intermediaries are prevalent in managing contemporary international conflict is because the international system and diplomatic practice have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century. In the classical, European great power system, relations were managed by less than a half-dozen states. Diplomats, many with familial ties, were part of an elite corps of professionals who operated on the basis of a common set of norms and principles. Members of this "career caste" conducted not just the affairs of their own states, but saw as their duty to manage the system, as well. Negotiations were facilitated by mutual expectations to be accommodative and flexible. And because negotiators were only accountable to a monarch or an emperor and public opinion and mass media were minor concerns, they could operate in secret and with each other s confidence. As a result, when a negotiator needed a concession or wanted to explore a novel idea, he (they were all men) could do so without losing face or risking exploitation. He also had little reason to fear being branded "soft." Appeasement was still an honorable term and a common practice. In short, negotiators, although charged with advancing their own states' interests, enjoyed an environment where communication was relatively effective and agreements were expected to meet all sides' interests.

Modern diplomacy is not so tidy. With the proliferation of international actors, both state and non-state, and the expansion of issues, negotiations are necessarily more complex. One result is that procedural disagreements have become much more common. Craig and George note that "the tenacity with which one side or the other argues over seemingly minor procedural matters has taken on new dimensions in an age when passionate ideological and other differences have displaced the cultural homogeneity that facilitated diplomatic processes in the European system."

In addition, official negotiations are conducted as much by heads of state and politicians as by professional diplomats. As such, they are continually subjected to the pressures of public opinion and domestic politics in their own countries. Gaining favor at home becomes the first priority, not reaching mutually accommodative agreements. The mass media play a prominent role so that grandstanding and tough talking become the dominant mode of discourse. The result is that public pronouncements are directed more to constituencies back home than to negotiators across the table; they neither speak to each other nor do they genuinely listen. In short, effective communication and realistic empathy are rarities in modern international negotiations. In Robert Jervis's words: "In almost no interactions do two adversaries understand each other's goals, fears, means-ends beliefs, and perceptions. Empathy is difficult and usually lacking.... The fine-tuning of policies and the subtle bargaining tactics that would be called for in a world of clear communication cannot work in our world."


Excerpted from Intermediaries in International Conflict by Thomas Princen. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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