Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution

Lilach Gilady & Bruce Russett. Handbook of International Relations. Editor: Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, Beth A Simmons. Sage Publication. 2002.

The modern study of international relations originates in the twentieth-century experience of global war and the desire to avoid subsequent wars. This normative impetus still operates, but much of the literature is dedicated to the study of war rather than the study of peace, and even less is dedicated to the study of peacemaking. In this chapter we seek to return peacemaking to the heart of theoretical discussion by analyzing this literature, first within the context of the Kantian study of peace and then by reviewing it using the increasingly influential framework of the rationalist bargaining approach to the study of conflict. To do so we focus on mediation.

Whereas the analysis of bargaining is currently the citadel of the rationalist school, mediation and peacemaking are still strongholds of practitioners who rely mainly on psychological and sociological approaches. In this chapter we prefer not to view these approaches as incompatible alternatives, but rather to focus on overlapping and complementing dimensions of the rational choice school and the psychological-sociological approaches. We are aware that deep differences in the philosophy of science stand at the heart of these approaches, yet believe that some complementarities call for a closer dialogue between them. Social-psychological theories sketch the limits and boundaries of rationality. They provide tools to help us define cases in which rationality assumption may not apply, and to help us reach generalizations even under such circumstances. In this sense they are pivotal companions to any rational choice endeavor. By emphasizing the value of linking these approaches, we try to establish productive dialogues between different issue-areas, between theory and practice, and between different theoretical schools within international relations theory.

Third-party dispute resolution is one of the most common behaviors in international politics. Most violent or potentially violent conflicts in the twentieth century experienced mediation attempts, often multiple ones (Princen, 1992: 5). States, international organizations and private individuals are involved in numerous attempts to resolve international disputes without violence, or at least to minimize the level of violence resulting. A unified framework for the study of mediation in particular, and peacemaking in general, should interest practitioners and theorists alike. For practitioners, such a framework can offer new insights and more rigorous prescriptions; for theorists it can help fill a theoretical lacuna and offer pathways toward future research. We use the bargaining approach as a platform for a more unified review of the existing mediation literature in the hope of ultimately reaching such a framework. We open with a broad discussion locating peacemaking within recent developments in the more general study of peace. We then discuss some major problems and shortcomings of the peacemaking literature. We provide a short overview of both the bargaining and mediation literatures, and proceed to review and analyze the mediation literature, employing a taxonomy of conflicts suggested by theorists of the bargaining approach.

Peacemaking and the Kantian Study of Peace

If one simply equates peace with the absence of war, then the study of peace is just the mirror image of the study of war. In this sense, deterrence theorists are part of the study of peace since they are concerned with preventing the outbreak of war. However, the perspective that ‘to have peace one must have justice’ rejects any simple equation of peace with non-war, and is concerned with the distributional implications of policy for the expectation of a stable and non-coercive peace. In this perspective, nuclear deterrence or imperial dominance at best achieve a kind of ‘negative peace’ of structural violence rather than a stable or ‘positive peace’ of mutual conflict resolution (Boulding, 1979; Galtung, 1969).

Peacemaking, especially in the literature on third-party contributions to dispute resolution, is concerned especially with the conditions whereby mutually acceptable settlement of disputes can be achieved. Yet there are circumstances under which coercive settlement can be useful. Dominance by one party may actually help propel movement toward a settlement, as can the power of a third-party intervenor who is not neutral. This understanding informs recent developments in the role of United Nations peacekeeping, shifting away from traditional peacekeeping (impartial, largely nonviolent, with consent of the parties, only after a ceasefire has been achieved) to more active and vigorous efforts to enforce peace.1

The possibility of a serious military confrontation or war is inherent in international relations. Theories of peace need not contest the basic realist conception of international politics as occurring in a state of anarchy. Kant ([1795] 1970: 165) did not, saying that nations, ‘like lawless savages, exist in a condition of … war.’ But Kant and other liberals insist that not all states are equally in this condition with each other. In particular, those that share democratic institutions, are economically interdependent and cooperate through international law and institutions are constrained from fighting each other. Such states are in a state of peace with one another, constrained by norms and institutions from resorting to military violence and rarely even threatening to use violence against each other. For pairs of states where democracy, interdependence and joint international organization all are at fairly high levels, the chance of a militarized dispute arising between them is more than 70 per cent lower than for the average pair of states. This pattern of constraint on the probability of conflict held quite constant throughout the twentieth century. Even in relations with states where ties of shared democracy and interdependence are not strong, states that are themselves democratic and have open economies are somewhat more peaceful than the average member of the international system. Democracies are less likely to experience wars than are most kinds of autocracies, and–though there are obvious exceptions–less likely to intervene militarily in other countries to change their form of government (Russett and Oneal, 2001). R.J. Rummel (1997) concludes that in addition to relative peacefulness abroad, democracy is characterized by a ‘method of nonviolence’ at home. Therefore, when we look at peacemaking we need to consider what types of actors tend to select themselves into conflictual situations, under what conditions and to what extent the characteristics of the actors and conditions that led to the conflict affect third-party intervention. Different types of actors operate under different sets of normative and institutional constraints that affect their responses to various forms of peacemaking.

Third-party dispute resolution methods constitute one set of those normative and institutional constraints, and international organizations are some of the principal actors attempting to create those constraints and produce a positive peace. International organizations, a key part of this Kantian understanding, may play a legal role, adjudicating and arbitrating disputes. In doing so they reduce the cost of enforcing contracts, encourage their creation and promote exchange of concessions (Stone Sweet and Brunell, 1998). This in turn facilitates interdependence. Institutions like the European Court of Justice or the Permanent Court of Arbitration may incorporate a degree of voluntarism in states’ participation, and rarely is enforcement carried out by the threat or use of military force. IGOs can also mediate disputes or provide diplomatic ‘good offices,’ where the capability of enforcing settlements is explicitly absent (Abbott and Snidal, 1998; Bercovitch and Langley, 1993; Haas, 1993; Miall, 1992; Young, 1967). Manlio Brosio, as Secretary-General of NATO, helped mediate the dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus in 1967 and was able to avert widening of the war. Even while caring for refugees fleeing across inter-state borders from civil wars, as in Rwanda, IGOs may provide useful services of mediation.

The Kantian emphasis on democracy and nonviolent means of conflict resolution is also very relevant. Democratic government entails both cultural practices of non-violence and institutions to facilitate the peaceful settlement of conflicts of interest, in external relations as well as domestic politics. Pairs of democratic states more frequently seek third-party mediation (including adjudication and arbitration) for their disputes (Dixon, 1993, 1994; Raymond 1994), and were more likely to take their trade disputes to GATT panels for adjudication (Busch, 2000). The study of third-party participation in dispute resolution thus becomes an important next step in a Kantian research program, asking how dangerous disputes, or already violent ones, can be settled and the threat of violence sharply reduced.

We restrict our discussion here to those mechanisms for third-party assistance in dispute settlement–peacemaking–that do not depend on military coercion, and which seek to achieve some degree of actual resolution of the underlying conflicts. Thus we differentiate between peacemaking and other types of third-party intervention such as peacekeeping and peace enforcement. While in practice these categories are hard to identify and are sometimes employed simultaneously, ignoring their substantial differences obscures variance in the conditions under which they can most usefully be employed and conceals trade-offs between them. For example, if the Security Council has authorized a peace enforcement operation, the UN Secretary General may have great difficulty in retaining credibility as an impartial mediator (Skjelsbaek, 1991). While research on peacemaking seems like one of the natural next steps for the Kantian research agenda, its application is yet to be realized in a satisfactory way. To do so requires overcoming some deep-rooted problems of the peacemaking literature.

Problems in the Peacemaking Literature

Many theorists of international relations neglect peacemaking, leaving it to practitioners and to proponents of psychological and sociological approaches. The result is a literature with a relatively prescriptive and ad hoc case study approach that leaves a wide gap between it and mainstream concerns in international relations theory. That gap hampers dialogue and pushes the topic to the periphery, far from its real importance in the day-today practice of international relations. Theory regarding it has not evolved into coherent schools of thought with clear direction or a generally accepted framework. Indeed, recognizable theory of any sort is often lacking. How-to-do-it books of advice abound, but disparate propositions or hypotheses rarely cohere in a logical structure.

The reasons for these deficiencies are many. For some analysts the need for peacemaking already suggests a failure of the theoretical endeavor because war was not averted. They therefore direct their efforts toward means to release us from the need for peacemaking by preventing conflicts altogether. Yet peacemaking techniques are often employed to avert war: preventive diplomacy, mediation, arbitration and adjudication can take place before a single bullet is fired. Thus the notion of peacemaking need not imply the existence of an active war, but rather a conflict of interest that might deteriorate into war. Mediation in such circumstances is often quiet and unobtrusive, with little external manifestation of any sense of crisis, thus making it virtually impossible to bound the universe of cases and especially to identify successes. Nevertheless, third-party intervention is also widely employed long after violence has become intense, as a means to bring about a ceasefire and, ultimately, a peaceful settlement.

These distinctions in stages of the process of peacemaking alert us to a general problem in international relations theory–the analytical and empirical dangers of selection bias (Fearon, 1994a; Smith, 1996)–that is especially serious here. At each stage in the development and escalation of a conflict, any empirical evaluation of the benefits of third-party dispute resolution requires considering not just the success and failures of intervention at that stage, but the circumstances under which intervention was attempted as compared to those under which no effort was made. The conditions and influences that contribute to success at one stage may be very different from those at an earlier stage (Kriesberg, 1998). One might imagine that mediation at an early stage in a dispute would be most successful if undertaken by a recognizably neutral third party, but that once the conflict had become violent a third party who was partisan, but nevertheless prepared to enforce a settlement even on its favored side, would have more success. Or one might hypothesize just the opposite. The point is that to ignore these distinctions is to risk making empirical generalizations that could be extremely misleading.

For example, Raymond (1994) finds that democracies are more likely than dictatorships to seek international arbitration of their disputes, but not more likely (Raymond, 1996) to abide by the arbitrator’s decision. Selection bias, in the form of a difference in the type of disputes democracies and dictatorships are willing to submit to arbitration, seems a likely explanation. Busch (2000) found democracies more likely to take their trade disputes to GATT panels for adjudication, but no more likely to make concessions at that stage, perhaps because democratic governments might then incur high audience costs with their publics. The farther back one can go in the chain of causation the less the danger of distorting the results at the final stage. Simmons (1999) and Reinhardt (2001) also present analyses of arbitration outcomes that are sensitive to selection bias problems, as does Dixon (1996) for a wide range of third-party intervention techniques.

Our ability to understand peacemaking depends largely on our ability to understand the underlying processes of conflict the peacemaking is trying to overcome. While the study of war and conflict does show progress, we are still far from producing a coherent approach to the study of conflicts, and thus the peacemaking literature lacks a clear baseline in international relations theory to rely upon. In her review of the mediation literature, Marieke Kleiboer reaches a similar conclusion. She finds it to be suffering from conceptual confusion, over-determination and a difficulty in differentiating between evidence and conjectures. For her the source of these shortages lies elsewhere:

The three difficulties of current research on international mediation mentioned above are, in fact, caused by a more fundamental problem: the absence of more explicitly articulated theories on international conflict and its management of which mediation theory is a part. (Kleiboer, 1996: 376; also Kleiboer, 1998)

Kleiboer’s focus on peacemaking directs her to search for a better explanation for the origins of conflict. By contrast, Geoffrey Blainey, whose work on the causes of war is an important stepping-stone in the development of the rationalist bargaining approach, claims that our ability to understand the onset of wars depends on our ability to explain their termination (Blainey, 1988; also Wittman, 1979). Thus researchers of both conflict initiation and conflict resolution recognize the interdependence of these issues. Progress in the study of peace depends on a close dialogue with those who study war and vice-versa.

The remainder of this chapter follows Kleiboer’s and Blainey’s lead in connecting the study of peacemaking with recent developments in the study of conflict as part of international relations. The development of rationalist models of war, and especially progress in applying bargaining models from economics to the study of war, is one of the most interesting developments in the study of international conflicts (Banks, 1990; Kreps, 1990; Meyerson, 1991; Rubinstein, 1982). A bargaining approach offers a new analytical framework to the study of war, and the basis for a new reading of the peacemaking literature. Although we make some reference to the full range of third-party dispute resolution–from diplomatic good offices, through mediation, to the more coercive practices of arbitration and adjudication–we concentrate on mediation, as probably the best-developed body of work within the peacemaking literature. We also largely restrict ourselves to violent conflicts between states, ignoring most intra-state conflicts and conflicts with little potential to become violent. This limitation makes theoretical as well as substantive sense. For example, in civil wars the stakes are more nearly indivisible than in international ones (Pillar, 1983: 24), since civil wars are about which side will control the state’s coercive institutions, and there are no comparable institutions in the anarchic inter-state system. We re-examine the international mediation literature by highlighting some prominent debates and asking whether we can achieve new insights for international relations by analyzing them within a bargaining framework.

Rarely do we encounter serious dialogue between rationalist approaches and psychological, sociological, or even simply prescriptive ones. As the following analysis shows, these approaches often attempt to answer similar questions and in many cases could provide complementing elements for understanding peacemaking and war. The next section opens with a short overview of major debates in the mediation literature, followed by a basic review of the bargaining approach. The rest of the chapter is devoted to analyzing ways in which mediation can address rationalist explanations of war. Currently the bargaining literature suggests three possible explanations for war. Each poses different problems to the mediator and might affect the efficiency of certain mediation strategies.

The Study of Mediation

Bercovitch and Houston (2000: 171) define mediation as a

process of conflict management, related to but distinct from the parties’ own efforts, whereby the disputing parties or their representatives seek the assistance, or accept an offer of help from an individual, group, state or organization to change, affect or influence their perceptions or behavior, without resorting to physical force, or invoking the authority of law.

For Touval and Zartman (1989: 177) mediation is

an intervention acceptable to the adversaries, who cooperate diplomatically with the intervenor … it is not based on direct use of force and it is not aimed at helping one of the participants to win. Like good offices, mediation is concerned with helping the adversaries communicate, and like conciliation it emphasizes changing the parties’ images and attitudes toward one another–but it also performs additional functions. Mediators suggest ideas for a compromise and they negotiate and bargain directly with the adversaries … mediation is basically a political process without advance commitment of the parties to accept the mediators ideas.
The literature focuses on the study of variables that affect the probability of successful mediation. Researchers try to define the interaction between the structure of the conflict, the identity and characteristics of the mediator, the mediation strategies the mediator chooses to apply, and the success of mediation in managing and even resolving the conflict. Assessing the extent of mediation’s success is problematic since it is not always clear what constitutes success. Criteria may range from reducing the violence to endemic rather than acute levels, to ending the violence, to the ambitious goal of creating a political solution that effectively ends the expectation of future violence. For example, are UN efforts in Cyprus a success because they seem to have prevented a new outbreak of war? Cyprus could be considered a failure since the underlying conflict persists and would likely return to violence in the absence of peacekeepers. One must distinguish reaching an agreement from its subsequent implementation (Dixon, 1996). Nor is it often clear whether success or failure can be directly attributed to the mediation or to more structural characteristics of the conflict and adversaries. Does the outcome of mediation in Cyprus result from the mediation strategies, the identity and capabilities of the mediator, or the relations and relative capabilities of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots?

Kleiboer (1998) counts at least a dozen different variables suggested in the literature as preconditions for successful mediation. If this inflation of preconditions is not enough, a lively debate surrounds the effects and the necessity of each variable, a debate usually supported by conflicting empirical results. Our analysis can address only a few of these dozen variables, so we limit ourselves to those most common in the literature: the effects and characteristics of mediation strategies, the mediator’s minimal required level of leverage and power, the effects of impartiality vs. partiality of the mediator, and the effects of asymmetry in the balance of power between adversaries. The literature is largely fragmented into separate debates on each. But as we will show, in most cases the mediation literature is working with highly complex and nonlinear causal links. For example, there is no simple relation between impartiality and mediation success. The effects of partiality interact with characteristics of the mediator and the amount of leverage it enjoys, and all this in turn depends on such structural characteristics of the conflict as the level of symmetry between the adversaries. To make sense of it we need rigorous analysis of the effects of these variables under different conditions and structures of conflict. Our analysis shows that the effects of the mediator’s partiality vary across the three categories of conflict we examine.

Much of the mediation literature relies on the anecdotal use of case studies without a rigorous research design. The relatively few large-n studies often produce inconsistent results. When we add these traits to the theoretical problems listed above we should be wary of selection bias effects that may obscure causal links and produce inconsistencies. Many researchers control for type of conflict by dividing all conflict into categories according to their content; for example, territorial, religious and ethnic (Bercovitch and Houston, 2000; Regan, 1996). These taxonomies often fail to address the analytical characteristics underlying these conflictual situations. Israel finds it hard to resolve its territorial dispute with Syria mainly because it fears the territory will be used as a strategically advantageous base for future attacks. In Northern Ireland the IRA long held up the peace process by refusing to disarm, mostly because it mistrusted its opponents and feared their future policies. Whereas the first is an international territorial dispute and the second a domestic religious one, both share similar analytical characteristics. For both the main impediment to conflict resolution is the inability of the adversaries to credibly commit to keeping the peace agreement and not defecting at some future time, so the mediator’s role is to devise mechanisms to guarantee future enforceability of present commitments. To define an optimal mediation process we need to understand the mechanisms of conflict and match the right remedy to each conflict. In the threefold analytical taxonomy offered by the bargaining approach, both the Irish and the Syrian–Israeli cases fall under the ‘conflicts of credible commitments’ category. The following section reviews this taxonomy and the logic behind it.

The Bargaining Approach: Rationalist Explanations for War

The basic reasoning behind the bargaining approach has been with us since the works of Schelling (1966) and Blainey (1988). Yet only in recent years, especially following James Fearon’s (1994a, 1995) work, has this literature started to come into a coherent framework. The main intuition is that if the outcome of a war were obvious from the start, then the war itself could be avoided and this outcome could be instituted by peaceful means, avoiding the suffering and destruction of war. Force is used as a costly signal to reveal information on actors’ preferences and relative capabilities. Thus uncertainty and lack of information serve as preconditions for war. Analysts then move to define the conditions under which actors would fail to reach an agreement and would prefer to use force. This game theory literature is generally dyadic, like much recent work in international relations. Introducing a mediator into the picture breaks the dyadic structure of the game into a triadic one (Bercovitch, 1991; Touval and Zartman, 1989). One aspect of the bargaining literature that makes it especially amenable to a synthesis with the mediation literature is its emphasis on war as a continuous bargaining process instead of an ‘all-or-nothing’ lottery (Wagner, 2000). Rarely if ever do we encounter an absolute war in which total victory or total defeat are the only two options facing the actors. If they were, there would be no need for mediators. Mediation is the art of compromise. Successful mediation requires a solution somewhere between victory and defeat. Bargaining incorporates this notion by modeling war outcomes as mutually agreed-upon bargains that can only be found in a mutually acceptable bargaining space. Absolute wars are but a small and rare subset of cases that is not relevant to the mediation literature, and is residual to the bargaining literature as well. Therefore the following discussion revolves around what Clausewitz, and Wagner (2000: 472), define as ‘real wars’: wars that can be terminated by a negotiated settlement.

In this context the mediator can play several roles. On the most basic level, the mediator can help solve coordination problems between the conflicting parties and help them reach a mutually accepted point within their bargaining space. Another role is helping the adversaries to identify the bargaining space by supplying them with information and/or correcting misperceptions. In more complicated cases the mediator would have to broaden the bargaining space or even create one in order to facilitate an agreement. Manipulations of the bargaining space can be material, such as the use of side-payments or deterrence, or they can be social-psychological, such as trying to reconstruct the conflict or reorder the preferences of the adversaries in terms that could create a bargaining space. The bargaining space is dynamic and thus can be manipulated by the mediator. Yet affecting the bargaining space is a complicated, tasking and possibly expensive venture. Hence, mediators seek prescriptions that could help them match the right mediation strategy to the type of conflict and adversaries they are facing.

Fearon (1995) counts three major rationalist explanations for war: conflicts originating in lack of information, conflicts fought over indivisible resources, and conflicts arising from the inability of actors to credibly commit themselves to upholding the terms of the current agreement in the future. In the following section we identify optimal approaches to mediation for each of these analytical prototypes.

We examine how this rationalist framework affects our reading of the mediation literature. We use each of the three explanations for war as a platform to review the mediation literature, focusing on the specific implications of each explanation for the role of the mediator and then surveying its implications for the main variables discussed by mediation scholars. Our analysis cannot resolve all the shortcomings in the fragmented mediation literature, but by reviewing it under a unified theoretical framework we highlight certain themes and interactions.

Mediating Conflicts of Incomplete Information

The explanation that concentrates on information is probably the most innovative and has gained most attention. International relations becomes a great game of signaling in which information is the most valuable resource. Actors reveal some pieces of information, hide others, signal their capabilities and intentions with varied degrees of credibility and success, try to bluff their way out of uncomfortable situations, and in general are involved in a huge and risky game of poker (Gartzke, 1999). Research following this line of argument has followed the

Kantian intuition and moved on to examine the effects of domestic structures on actors’ ability to collect and transmit information in an efficient way, and their ability to reorder their preferences in light of new information (Fearon, 1994a; Goemans, 2000; Guisinger and Smith, 2002; Schultz, 1999; Smith, 1998a). Another branch of research uses these insights to improve our understanding of war termination (Goemans, 2000; Werner, 1998).

The notions of misperception, lack of information and miscalculation appear frequently in the literature (for example, Jervis, 1976; Van Evera, 1999). Fearon (1995) differs by providing a rationalist explanation for these phenomena. For him, information consists of information about actors’ capabilities and information on the intensiveness and ordering of actors’ preferences. At first glance it seems that, in a perfectly rational world, actors who wish to avoid war should reveal their preferences and capabilities so that the probable outcome of the war could be determined and a peaceful agreement designed along its lines. Thus information should be accessible to all and we should not witness any wars. Nevertheless, actors typically choose not to reveal this type of information, hoping to bluff their way to a better outcome than warranted by their objective capabilities and the relative intensiveness of their preferences. Another disincentive to disclose private information is awareness that other actors in the system might misuse it in future conflicts. A third actor might choose to mount a challenge if it learns that one of the adversaries is much weaker than previously thought. Thus the incentive to provide public information is mitigated by incentives to protect private information so as to improve one’s bargaining position by misrepresenting the intensity of one’s preferences and capabilities. With incomplete and sometimes intentionally misleading information the actors cannot derive accurate calculations, and thus may end up fighting avoidable wars.

If the lack of information is the main factor contributing to the onset of such conflicts, then the best way to approach them is by confronting these information issues. From this perspective, the main role of a mediator is to supply information–an idea which is hardly new to the mediation literature. In their taxonomy of mediators, Touval and Zartman (1989) identify the role of mediator-as-communica-tor as one of their three prototypes of mediation strategies. Bercovitch sees the provision and collection of information as the main role of a ‘reflective mediation behavior’ or as strategies of ‘communication-facilitation’ (Bercovitch, 1984; Bercovitch and Houston, 2000; also Sheppard, 1984). This type of mediator ‘tries to achieve some convergence of expectations by reducing distortion, ignorance, misperception or unrealistic intentions’ (Kleiboer, 1996: 374). Burton, a pioneer in applying psychological approaches to the study of conflict resolution in the international arena, sees providing information as the most important role of the mediator (Burton, 1969; also Fisher, 1983: 325).

The bargaining approach gives theoretical reasoning to this intuition. War is part of a signaling game. Every battle reveals more information and the outcome is a signal of the ‘real’ balance of capabilities and preferences. In this context, mediation is another step in this process of revealing information. Perhaps this is why Dixon (1996) finds that mediation and a separate category of communication show the highest success rates in both limiting conflict escalation and promoting peaceful settlements of any type of third-party intervention in international relations.

The introduction of a mediator is supposed to increase the amount of information shared by the conflicting parties, thus correcting misinformation and miscalculations that lead to war. This does not mean the mediator has complete and accurate information regarding the situation and therefore can automatically solve any deficiencies of information. Yet one of the main roles of the mediator is to collect information and to provide it to both parties. Furthermore, the mediation process itself allows the parties to continue their signaling game through peaceful means instead of signaling each other only through their actions on the battlefield.

Once the parties to the conflict accept a mediator’s help they may lose control over their own private information. A mediator is more than a simple message carrier. Mediators can collect information, reach independent assessments and gain better access to informal information sources. The mediator then decides what pieces of this information to transmit to the other side. This implies that adversaries who accept mediation to some degree value the provision of more public information, and the probability of conflict resolution, more than they fear that some of their private information would be ‘declassified’ against their will. It implies some degree of impartiality to the mediator, or at least an understanding that the mediator is committed to achieving some settlement fully within their bargaining space.

If the mediator is to solve problems of information, then success depends on the quality and credibility of the information the mediator can gather and transmit. So, when assessing the characteristics of an optimal mediator we should examine their effects on the mediator’s ability to collect and supply credible information. This insight can help us to sift through the mediation literature and to reassess the effects of such characteristics that are commonly cited as preconditions for mediation’s success.

The role of providing information and facilitating communication is usually perceived as the least demanding level of a mediator’s intervention. Information is the only good that the mediator is expected to supply, and its provision does not depend on the mediator’s size, strength, or what the mediation literature describes as leverage. Successful mediation in this type of conflict is possible even when a mediator–for example, a private individual like Jimmy Carter in his post-presidential role (Troester, 1996), a small state like one of the Nordic countries, or the representative of an international organization (see Bercovitch, 1992a)–lacks the kind of power and leverage that comes with great power status. Although access to technology may improve a mediator’s ability to gather certain kinds of information, in general it is hard to see clear relations between the credibility and quality of the information and the size of the mediator. On the contrary, smaller, more distant mediators may find it easier to convince the adversaries to disclose information. In such cases disclosure is less threatening since there is only a remote chance that the mediator would be involved in any future conflict and be able to abuse this information for its own benefit. The mediator’s past reputation as a credible supplier of information and its current relations with the adversaries probably play more important roles than size in successfully mediating this type of conflict. Any ‘leverage’ such a mediator can exert must derive from a reputation for fairness and impartiality.

All mediators–even ‘neutral’ ones–have some interests of their own. Small states can try to enhance their status and influence in the international arena by ‘specializing’ in mediation (Touval and Zartman, 1989: 119–20). A reputation as successful and trustworthy mediators enhances the credibility assigned to the information they supply and thus improves their ability to mediate successfully in future conflicts. As a specialized actor of this type derives status and influence from a reputation as a successful mediator, any breach of this reputation might be costly for the mediator, which therefore has an incentive to supply only reliable information–an incentive that enhances the mediators’s credibility. While keeping one’s good reputation may be an incentive for all actors, it is more necessary for actors that do not enjoy the luxury of power as an almost automatic guarantee of influence and prestige. Adopting a permanent position of neutrality is a way to institutionalize the role of the specialized mediator.

The presence of specialized actors guarantees a supply of trustworthy and efficient mediators, a supply of interest to all actors because all could potentially find themselves involved in a conflict and in need of mediation. These actors play a functional role in the international system by framing themselves as ‘professional’ mediators and offering their services whenever those are needed. Neutrality, impartiality and active participation in conflict resolution are often costly behaviors. These are repaid by the willingness of other actors to assign status to states that function as specialized mediators, and a willingness to respect their neutrality.

For Touval and Zartman (1989: 127), mediators who provide information should be ‘neutral hyphens in a dyadic relationship.’ Impartial mediators’ influence depends on their success in gathering information, which in turn depends on trust from both sides. The role of a mediator is a dynamic one; the ability to provide information brings a mediator leverage to affect the adversaries’ pay-off structures (Princen, 1992). Yet once mediators gain information and influence, they risk losing their impartial status.

While the advantages of an impartial mediator as supplier of information are obvious, sometimes a partial mediator can also reach a high level of credibility. A mediator who is close to one of the adversaries may possess access to private information. Actors may be less hesitant to reveal information to mediators they perceive as allies. However, the same reasoning may reduce the quality of information the mediator can obtain from the other adversary in the dispute. It is safe to assume that a partial mediator would supply credible information to the adversary it supports. The credibility of the information it supplies to the other side may be questionable. It can raise its credibility by choosing to reveal information that is disadvantageous to its protégé. Such disclosure is a costly signal of the mediator’s commitment to the mediation process. Partiality enables the mediator to attach costs to its signals and so to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of those signals. Costly disclosure of information might be abused by the adversaries, so a partial mediator who decides to use this strategy must be sure it can protect its ally from such risks. Hence a partial mediator has to be more powerful than an impartial one. Power allows the partial mediator to reach some credibility, and to make some side-payments to both parties. Consequently, in conflicts that revolve around questions of information successful mediation requires either impartiality or a partiality backed by power.

In either version the mediator’s acts are those of an assistant in a process of information-gathering. As noted above, war itself reveals information on the true capabilities and preferences of the adversaries. If the rationalist analysis is correct in viewing wars as means of information-gathering then we should expect most wars to be relatively short. Once the actors start examining the consequences of the war they can reassess their positions and strike a deal that represents the ‘true’ balance of capabilities between them. By contrast to Zartman’s (1985, 1995) emphasis on waiting much longer, for the conflict to ‘ripen,’ into a ‘hurting stalemate,’ or Bercovitch’s (1997: 145) prescription to act ‘roughly halfway’ in the conflict process, a rationalist perscription should imply that intervention in this type of dispute should come early. It would be relatively short, and would require only low levels of mediators’ intervention. In their research on the relation between the timing of mediation and conflict duration, Regan and Stam (2000) do find that mediators often enjoy a window of opportunity for success very early on in the conflict (see also Northedge and Donelan, 1971).7 This is not surprising if we take into account the implications of information in mediation. Early intervention supplies the required information before domestic coalitions have time to reorganize themselves and work for a new ordering of preferences (Goemans, 2000; Mitchell and Nicholson, 1983). Domestic structures affect information-gathering, the ability to signal capabilities and intentions credibly, and the process of preference aggregation and preference ordering (Fearon, 1994b; Schultz, 1999).

If the lack of information and high levels of uncertainty are at the heart of this type of conflict, how does the introduction of a mediator who plays the role of a ‘communicator’ affect them? A rationalist analysis of war anticipates rising levels of certainty as the war and/or the mediation process progress, because war and mediation are methods of ‘objective’ revelation of information to the adversaries. A mediator may facilitate agreement not only by supplying information in the strict sense, but by helping the parties clarify and improve their interpretation of already available information. In the bounded rationality (Dawes, 1988; Simon, 1982) of actors’ search for options, the values they attach to different outcomes are influenced by the order in which the outcomes are presented and compared on the agenda. A mediator can call attention to such differences, advise which alternatives may be relevant and which irrelevant, ask whether the parties are fully using the information already available to them, and if necessary urge re-evaluation.

In prospect theory as applied to simulations of international politics (Boettcher, 1995; McDermott, 1998; Tetlock, 1998) actors’ subjective estimates of the probabilities of various outcomes are affected by how those outcomes are framed. For example, the certain loss of a piece of territory may appear worse than even odds on avoiding the loss of twice as much–even though the rational expected utility calculations are identical. In general, losses are perceived as having greater negative utility than the positive utility of objectively equivalent gains. Both utilities and probability estimates contain large subjective elements; a good mediator can point out those subjective elements, and their consequences, without pretending that some fully objective measure exists.

Yet the introduction of a mediator into the game also raises levels of uncertainty. A mediator breaks some of the dyadic nature of the bargaining process, adding its own preferences and capabilities as an additional source of uncertainty. This could have a positive effect on some aspects of conflict resolution. One example is the positive effect such uncertainty has when it comes to concession-making. Psychologists have noticed that adversaries find it easier to make concessions to a mediator than directly to their opponent (Podell and Knapp, 1969; Touval, 1994: 51). When an actor makes concessions that actor reveals information on its capabilities and intensity of its preferences. This information might convince the other side that it can raise its demands in the future. Podell and Knapp (1969: 512) define this problem as the ‘bargainer’s dilemma,’ or, in other words, ‘how to yield without seeming to yield.’ The mediator helps concession-making precisely by adding uncertainty. When a concession is made it is not easy to determine whether it is pushed forward by the mediator or by the other actor, whether it reflects the balance of capabilities and preferences of all three actors or only of the two adversaries. The same uncertainty limits the ability of other actors to use the disclosed information against the adversaries, thus mitigating one of the fears that motivates concealment of information. Therefore concession-making is cheaper in a mediated conflict because it reveals less information.

It is also made cheaper because the first actor to make a concession puts itself in a dangerous position since its adversary may refuse to accept it. In the prisoners’ dilemma this is the situation in which one cooperates while the other defects. For the cooperating actor it is the worst possible outcome. A failed concession is costly both domestically and internationally. The fear of being caught in such a disadvantageous position creates incentives to defer concession-making and prolongs the conflict. A mediator may alleviate this problem by controlling the timing of information disclosure. A concession would be made public only when both sides have agreed to cooperate. Thus the danger of making a first move is reduced. By controlling and protecting the flow of information the mediator can manipulate the adversaries and minimize the pay-offs for intra-negotiations defection.

When a conflict derives from a lack of information, the mediator’s role is to help both parties identify an already existing bargaining space (Pillar, 1983). Once this bargaining space is revealed and a deal is concluded, the conflict is resolved. If this deal indeed reflects the true balance of capabilities and interests, and so then discourages attackers, at least theoretically both parties could be satisfied with it. Therefore most such conflicts require peacemaking efforts, but not peacekeeping.

Another issue in the mediation literature is the effect of symmetry of power between the adversaries on the prospects for successful mediation. Conflicts that revolve around questions of information can get out of control despite the existence of a bargaining space. When the adversaries are balanced (the difference in power is marginal) high uncertainty about their relative power may make it hard to identify the bargaining space between them. The balance of capabilities is often estimated from the publicly known military strength of the actors. With an unbalanced dyad this accessible and relatively ‘objective’ information could suffice to allow the actors to reach reliable estimates of the results they would be likely to achieve in war. Missing pieces of information would not be crucial, because the objective asymmetry would dictate an easily expected outcome. But when the actors are almost balanced, any piece of information becomes crucial for the ability to correctly estimate which has the better chance to improve its position by opting for war. Any new piece of evidence might tilt the calculation one way or another. Under these conditions it is logical to assume that a larger proportion of the required information would be part of actors’ private information and thus not available. Decision-makers may also need to include ‘subjective’ or ‘soft’ factors in their calculations because, faced with symmetry of capabilities, they cannot treat any such variable as marginal. This opens the door to more misperceptions, inconsistent estimates and miscalculations–and therefore raises the probability of violence or war (Wagner, 2000: 479).

Thus symmetry is probably a conducive environment for the onset of conflicts of misinformation. It is less common to see this type of conflict originating from an unbalanced dyad even though there can still be misperception of intentions and preferences. Therefore discussion of the effects of symmetry on the efficiency of mediation is problematic because there should be a strong selection bias toward conflicts between symmetric dyads, as is consistent with recent empirical research (see Russett and Oneal, 2001, ch. 3). If an asymmetric dyad does end up in violent conflict, the likely outcome should be quite clear and thus the work of the mediator should be easier. Major violence in an asymmetric dyad usually signals that the adversaries are involved in a bargaining war in which the weaker party is trying to improve its position by forcing the stronger one to reassess its estimate of costs (Wagner, 2000). This insight can direct the mediator to the type and quality of information that may most contribute to conflict resolution.

This argument follows that behind the power transition school of international relations (Organski and Kugler, 1980), and joins a classic realist debate between supporters and critics of balance of power theory. That debate assumes that the relative distribution of power is known to both actors–but the bargaining approach assumes that information about a near-symmetrical power distribution is often inadequate. Furthermore, Wagner (2000) claims that even under perfect information actors might disagree on the implications of the balance of power and how it could be translated into ‘real’ military power. Wittman (1979) goes even further, claiming that in ‘real wars’ the balance of capabilities does not affect the probability of war. Still, we can assume that problems of information and miscalculation increase after periods of rapid change or sudden shocks that change the distribution of power without providing enough information or time for the actors to adjust their calculations.

This category of conflicts highlights the importance of information both as a goal and a technique of mediation. While the mediation literature refers to many implications of information, explicitly addressing the underlying theme of information structures can link many fragments of that literature together in a way that could offer a more coherent research agenda.

Mediating Conflicts of Indivisibility

Conflicts of indivisibility–where the adversaries perceive the disputed resource as a unit they cannot divide between them–are hard to solve, and may lead actors to choose the destructive path that leads to total war. The only possible outcomes seem to be all or nothing, a zero-sum game with no bargaining space. Unlike in disputes arising from insufficient information, the mediator’s role in the indivisibility category is not to help the parties locate themselves in an already perceived bargaining space, but to convince the adversaries that such a space does exist or to devise one. This type of conflict requires a more creative and resourceful mediator: one who can make substantive proposals that can affect the outcome and who has the will and the ability to reach higher levels of intervention in the conflict. Here the mediator is a problem-solver, even a power-broker (Kleiboer, 1998). A mediator may even find ways to distribute seemingly indivisible goods (Young, 1994). This is the most ‘artful’ and dynamic type of mediation.

Conflicts of indivisibility are likely to be protracted and intractable. New information would have little effect if any concession means total surrender of the resource under dispute. Actors would continue to fight so long as the value of holding the resource, or of capturing it, exceeds the cost of losing it altogether. New information must pass quite a high threshold in order to move one’s preferences from fighting for ‘all’ to conceding to ‘nothing.’

The willingness to fight depends on how the disputed resource is valued. The more valuable the resource, the less amenable the conflict is to mediation. Some resources have more symbolic than ‘real’ value to both sides; that is, the costs of conflict exceed the value of holding the resource and the main problem is one of how to make concessions and preserve reputation (O’Neill, 2000). This may be especially serious when the domestic audience is seen as more hawkish than the state’s leadership.9 A mediator must be fully aware of the domestic political constraints on a state’s leadership. Whether the leaders are faced with a democratic opposition or factions within an oligarchy, they are inevitably engaged in bargaining and negotiation over side-payments with that opposition as well as with the leaders of the other state. The mediation literature addresses three principal methods to help mediators overcome the indivisibility problem: creating divisibility by ‘enlarging the pie,’ creating divisibility by fractionating the resource, and creating divisibility by separating values from interests through a problem-solving approach (Burton, 1986; Druckman et al., 1988; Fisher, 1971; Fisher, 1983; Oye 1985; Rubin, 1981).

With the first strategy, enlarging the pie, mediators can solve indivisibility by creating linkages between the disputed resource and other issues. This expands the scope of topics under consideration, allows for more complexity and flexibility, creates trade-offs, and moves the actors from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum condition. In bargaining language, the goal of this strategy is to turn the game from unidimensional to multidimensional. The logic of enlargement stands behind the common practice of side-payment compensation offered to the adversaries as an incentive for conflict resolution. While the disputed resource might be lost, compensation by a third party may create a new balance that pushes actors toward an agreement. In the Camp David negotiations of his presidency, Jimmy Carter played this role with the resources of a superpower by offering different types of compensations to both parties (Raiffa, 1982: ch. 14).

The second strategy is one of fractionation, disaggregating problems into smaller, more specific issues. In this approach negotiations should start with less important issues on which both sides can agree and then move toward more complicated core issues, creating positive inertia toward a successful resolution process. By the time the parties reach the problematic issues they may enjoy higher levels of mutual trust and might find the aggregation of the issues that were already concluded as having a value to counter-balance the costs of concessions that still lie ahead. Fractionation as a diplomatic strategy was especially identified with the tactics of Henry Kissinger in Arab–Israeli relations (Rubin, 1981; for more recent applications see Massoud, 2000).

Divisibility by problem-solving, the third strategy, relies mainly on psychological theories of conflict resolution. Conflicts are resolved only when the underlying problems that generate them are confronted. The commitment of actors to satisfying their own preference structure may lead to ignoring the other’s perspectives, and require a third party to understand and express the interests of both. Some basic values are indeed indivisible. States translate basic values such as security into a language of interests such as borders, armament and control over natural resources. Territory may appear divisible, but it often taps powerful emotions of identity and security, rooted in historical traumas of the conflicting societies. Identity conflicts, expressed in hostile images of the other as enemy, are typically blind to the other’s perception of threat (White, 1965) and resistant to contrary information (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958), and may be the most difficult to moderate. Yet the mediator’s role is to help both sides to separate interests and values and find creative ways to address conflicting values by a new set of complementary interests (Burton, 1986; Druckman et al., 1988). For example, in the Israeli–Egyptian conflict, control over the Sinai desert was motivated by security needs on the Israeli side, and by identity concerns on the Egyptian. The Camp David accords solved this problem without dividing the disputed territory itself. Sinai was returned to Egypt, thus solving the identity and sovereignty issues, while demilitarization and deployment of an international peacekeeping force alleviated Israeli security concerns. Values can be achieved through a set of interests. By identifying the values that stand behind interests, the mediator can suggest alternative ways to maintain values while allowing compromise.

In effect this strategy requires reordering or restructuring the preferences of the adversaries. It does not rely as much on material factors as on re-constructing the conflict. A successful mediation of this type affects the preferences of the parties to the extent that they are no longer fighting a ‘conflict of indivisibility.’ Since most rational choice models take the preferences of actors as granted, they have relatively few insights to offer for mediation strategies that focus on reordering actors’ preferences as the key to successful mediation. Side-payments from the mediator may alleviate fears and produce immediate compliance, but the mediator must also try to change actors’ beliefs about the long-term threat each side poses to the other (Kelman, 1997).

The degree to which substantial resources and leverage at the disposal of the mediator become preconditions for successful mediation differs across these strategies. The first strategy requires a powerful or prestigious mediator, perhaps indicating why the United States and the United Nations are, respectively, by far the most frequent mediators among countries and international organizations (Bercovitch and Schneider 2000). For the second and third strategies, however, skill, reputation and experience may be more important. Therefore, small states can play a role in mediating conflicts of indivisibility. In practice all three strategies are not mutually exclusive, and in most cases mediators combine them depending on the context (Bercovitch, 1992b). Fractionation might dictate a more active involvement of the mediator and a supply of compensations to convince the parties to move forward toward core issues. Problem-solving might dictate expensive solutions requiring active investment by the mediator.

Unlike leverage, the effect of partiality depends not only on the mediation strategy but on the structure of the conflict itself: who holds the disputed resource at the time of mediation, who does the partial mediator support, which of the three strategies does the mediator choose as a solution for indivisibility, and the proposed solution; that is, who ends up keeping the good? Assessing the effects of partiality is complicated because there is no clear linear relation between partiality and mediation success. When the mediator supports the status quo actor (who currently holds the disputed resource) and the proposed solution is that the status quo should not be altered, partiality damages the mediator’s legitimacy. The mediation process would not improve the mediator’s relations with the adversary and it is unlikely that this mediation would solve the problem of indivisibility. A strategy of enlargement is problematic because it is not clear whether the mediator would want to commit resources to compensate its less favored party. If compensations are offered by a powerful though biased mediator, the mere possibility of improved relations in the future might create an incentive to concede to an unfavorable outcome. Nevertheless, a biased mediator may not always be able to promise compensation in a credible way, because some of the compensations could be contradictory to the interests of its protégé.

For this set of cases, the credibility of the mediator as a future compensator depends on the time frame of the agreement and the degree to which the mediator’s reputation is connected to the success of the mediation in general and to fulfilling its commitments in particular. The analysis above suggests that compensations are credible if offered within a short time frame. When the structure of triangular relations between the mediator and the adversaries prevents creation of a self-enforcing agreement, the mediator’s reputation becomes the only incentive to continue compensation over time. If the mediator’s sensitivity to damage to its reputation was in doubt, actors would push harder for immediate compensation.

Since fractionation and problem-solving require more trust and openness, a lack of impartiality might be more problematic. Most psychological approaches to mediation view neutrality as an important precondition for successful mediation (Burton, 1969; Fisher, 1983; Kelman and Cohen, 1979; Walton, 1969). Whereas in theory this strategy is most useful when applied by an impartial mediator, in practice a viable solution usually needs to be backed by some compensation and investment on the side of the mediator, and a mediator so neutral as to be disinterested–and perhaps therefore uninterested–might not be willing to make such an investment.

Partiality can play an interesting role when the mediator supports the actor who is supposed to give up the disputed resource. In these conflicts the mediator can credibly commit to both sides and its legitimacy would probably not be contested (Carnevale and Arad, 1996). All three strategies might be effective in this situation. By contrast, a biased mediator will face problems if it opposes the side holding the good at the time of mediation. The mediator then enjoys little leverage over that side, with little ability to convince it to make concessions. Furthermore, intervention by such a mediator might in itself reduce the willingness of such an actor to make any concession, and the legitimacy of the mediation itself might be contested. Since a biased mediator finds it hard to commit credibly to compensating the party it does not support, it cannot pretend to ‘understand its needs’ as the more psychological approaches prescribe.

This analysis exemplifies the complex and nonlinear relations between impartiality and mediation success. Similar problems hinder our ability to find clear and simple relations between symmetry and mediation success, which would explain a divergence in empirical conclusions between Bercovitch (1991) and Miall (1992) about the effects of asymmetry. Nevertheless, both theory and some empirical findings suggest that asymmetry between adversaries may help resolve conflicts of indivisibility (Kacowicz, 1994; Zartman, 1995). Here the argument is straightforward: stronger parties find it easier to make concessions because asymmetry assures them that even after they concede an indivisible good they can retain their predominance.

As this review shows, the mediation literature acknowledges and discusses strategies that are meant to overcome issues of indivisibility, but as in other cases it does so in an isolated way without connecting it to other dimensions of mediation. To optimize the effects of the mediation strategy chosen by the mediator one has to acknowledge its interaction with issues of leverage, symmetry and impartiality.

Mediating Conflicts of Credible Commitments

The final rationalist explanation for war relies on the inability of states credibly to commit themselves to future policies, especially in times of power shifts. A rising power cannot promise not to challenge other actors once it has gained more power. Therefore, actors who anticipate power shifts to their disadvantage have an incentive to use their current power superiority to launch a pre-emptive war that could delay or prevent future challenges. The rationalist approach thus views shifts in the distribution of power as a source of instability. In so doing it echoes the reasoning of power transition theory while embedding it in a wider framework of analysis (Gilpin, 1981; Kugler and Lemke, 2000; Organski and Kugler, 1980; Powell, 1999).

The problem of power shifts is connected to problems of indivisibility. Once an indivisible resource is left in the hands of one actor, that actor cannot credibly commit not to use it to alter the distribution of goods in the future. In fact, almost any current asymmetric redistribution of resources creates a power shift that might later be abused. Thus the problem of credible commitments inhabits agreements involving asymmetric redistribution. Solving the problem of credible commitments requires external intervention because no self-enforcing solution is available. The role of the mediator becomes one of constructing a mechanism to constrain the instability by offering credible external enforcement. In other words, this type of conflict requires a much higher level of intervention and investment by the mediator because in most cases it would have to play the role of enforcer. To provide credible enforcement the mediator must demonstrate enough resources and interest to satisfy adversaries’ anxieties. The bigger the issues at stake, the more power the mediator must be prepared to exert.

A role of enforcement requires high levels of intervention in the mediation process. It is not enough to supply information, or even to devise creative solutions. This mediator must actively change the calculations of the adversaries by exercising its own power. Touval and Zartman (1989: 128–9) characterize this mediation strategy as that of a manipulator. Bercovitch and Houston (2000) put it in their ‘directive strategies’ category; they find that although it is used in only 35 per cent of mediation attempts, it tends to be the most successful. Directive strategies succeeded in 42 per cent of their cases whereas communication-facilitation strategies scored only a 31 per cent success rate (also see Bercovitch, 1984; Kleiboer, 1996: 374–5). To evaluate this success rate however, would require careful attention to selection bias: what kinds of disputes emerge as plausible candidates for directive settlements?

A more psychological analysis reaches similar prescriptions. The notion of power shifts suggests that one of the adversaries views itself as losing ground. Typically the situation is one of escalating conflict and a self-perpetuating dynamic of fear driven in part by social-psychological variables. To make concessions in exchange for short-term compensations could leave a party open to subsequent vulnerabilities (Kelman, 1997). In terms of prospect theory, such an actor feels that it is operating in the realm of losses. When the actor looks forward it sees an even grimmer future and so is willing to try risky measures to subvert the process of deterioration. This again suggests that power shifts create an inherently unstable situation. A mediator should strive to affect the reference point of the ‘losing’ actor in a way that shifts it back into the realm of gains. This can be done by strategies that involve side-payments and binding commitments that create clear boundaries to the realm of losses and thus minimize the extent of a worst case scenario.

Nevertheless, the mediator suffers from a related problem of credibility. How can the adversaries be sure that the mediator will enforce the agreement in the future? In an anarchic international system the mediator cannot authoritatively bind itself to expensive enforcement obligations. Hence, conflicts of vital national security that involve problems of credible commitments call for a partial mediator, preferably one who supports the actor that must make concessions. Such a mediator would have more incentives to come to its associate’s help should the other side defect, without igniting the other side’s fears so long as it had no intention to defect. Consideration of the mediator’s reputation and prestige alone may not be enough to assure the adversaries that their future wellbeing is protected. Nevertheless, the past record of the mediator may help to establish its credibility and the value of its commitments. Its domestic political structure should also matter to both adversaries, to the extent that it affects the durability of the regime and the commitment of future regimes to old commitments.

While the prescription may seem quite straightforward, it is problematic. The mediator is assumed to press for an outcome that at least in the short run seems disadvantageous to the actor it supports, and which might drag the mediator itself into expensive future commitments. The mediator has to be able to push its own protégé toward painful concessions. This requires a high level of leverage and a high level of interest in the resolution of the conflict to justify risky commitments that bind the mediator to an unstable dyad. The mediator has to see beyond the immediate interests of its protégé and to consider the stability of the region or the system as a value in its own right. An optimal mediator in this type of conflict needs a combination of demanding preconditions: capabilities, leverage and high levels of interest both in the conflict itself and in the stability of the system. It calls for mediation by a big power (Touval, 1992), not a small or even medium state.

The mediator’s credibility is affected by the way in which its commitments are incorporated into the mediated solution. It matters whether the commitments are made officially or unofficially, and whether they are an integral part of the peace agreement and thus have a triadic character or are part of a dyadic agreement. Also relevant is the time horizon within which the agreement is supposed to be carried out. With uncertainty rising the more we gaze ahead, the credibility of actors’ commitments decreases as we move further into the future.

If power shifts generate the problem of credible commitments, then asymmetry is inherent to this category of conflicts. As with partiality, the main question is who needs more guarantees. The mediator must offer protection to the actor who expects to be on the losing side of the power shift. This is not an empirically easy or clean distinction, but it matters when analyzing a specific case and when constructing an optimal mediation structure. The structure of symmetry obviously influences the direction in which partiality affects the chances of successful mediation.

This last category addresses a problem inherent to almost every cooperative interaction in international relations. For realists the fear of future defection stands at the heart of the infeasibility of stable cooperative relations. Kantians recognize the existence of constraints and incentives that can limit the effects of this fear and facilitate stable peaceful cooperation. Any mediation attempt that must deal with problems of credible commitments seeks to establish such constraints and incentives in a dyad that otherwise lacks them. Therefore this type of conflict demands a high level of commitment by the mediator, a level usually more appealing to great powers who can afford it.


The study of mediation is an example of the peacemaking literature, which falls more broadly within a Kantian perspective on the causes and constraints affecting international conflict. In examining it we have incorporated perspectives from the bargaining approach to the study of conflict, which itself can be seen as relevant both to a Kantian perspective on peaceful conflict resolution and a realist emphasis on bargaining throughout even violent struggle. Our analysis offers a framework to foster productive dialogue within the literature on third-party dispute resolution and between different theoretical schools. The attempt to link psychological and rationalist approaches shows many of their findings are complementary. This review asks researchers of mediation to conduct more theoretically driven and rigorous research that takes selection biases, non-linearity and possible interactions into consideration. At the same time it challenges rationalists to extend their analysis to include third-party intervention and construct it in a way that generates testable hypotheses.

One of the main shortcomings of the bargaining approach is its inability to predict which point on the bargaining space will be chosen as the mutually accepted solution. This opens a complementing role for mediation literature that deals directly with such questions. While the bargaining framework may help us identify all possible solutions that are part of the bargaining space, the mediation literature may help us understand the process by which one of those solutions is picked as the final outcome. In this sense, even this rationalist analysis leaves space for the ‘art of negotiation’ (Raifa, 1982).

We opened this chapter by identifying an insufficiency in the quantity and quality of theoretical work on peacemaking, and by discussing some shortcomings of the existing literature that does try to deal with this topic. Our analysis indeed suggests that peacemaking in general, and mediation in particular, are highly complex. Whereas the rationalist literature struggles to explain conflicts, the introduction of third-party intervention adds another tier to the analysis and with it more complexities from a larger number of actors, incentives and possible configurations. It is therefore not surprising that the peacemaking literature has produced little consensus and is still dealing with severe problems of conflicting empirical results. The effects of mediation, for example, depend on the structural character of the conflict and therefore the same variable can show different outcomes under different conditions. In general, most of the variables show a high level of interdependence, and the relations between them are complex and non-linear. Thus an isolated analysis of a single variable–a method often employed in the study of mediation and peacemaking–is misleading and highly dependent on the selection of cases.

These problems, however, should not deter the study of peacemaking. By being aware of selection biases, non-linearity and interdependence of variables we can construct better research designs to overcome some of these problems and reach some real progress in the study of peacemaking. This chapter does not offer many clear hypotheses that can be easily operationalized. Yet even this initial analytical exercise suggests that further analysis along these lines might offer new insights into the mechanisms of mediation in particular, and third-party intervention in general. Issues of time frame of the agreement, the effects of different structures of partiality, variation in the requirements for mediator’s levels of leverage across different types of conflicts, and the role of the mediator as supplier of information illustrate possible lines for further inquiry. They have prescriptive as well as analytical value. Our understanding of international relations cannot be complete if we continue to marginalize such an important part of day-to-day practice from our theoretical debate. We hope this review is a step toward strengthened interest in a rigorous study of peacemaking, thus putting peacemaking back under the spotlights of our research agenda.