Summary of "Principles of Icebreaking"

Summary of

Principles of Icebreaking

by Tony Armstrong

Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Principles of Icebreaking." in Breaking the Ice: Rapprochement between East and West Germany, the United States and China and Israel and Egypt. United States Institute of Peace. 1993. Pp. 133-152

This book describes three cases of conflict transformation, or what the author calls "rapprochement" throughout which seemingly intractable conflicts were transformed into new, more productive relationships. Chapter Five summarizes five propositions suggested by the three case studies covered in this book.

International Circumstances

The rapprochement initiatives were cost driven. Successful initiatives resulted from mutual assessment of costs: (1) the failure of West German policy to keep "reunification as a precondition to detente" (p. 135), and simultaneous increased distancing between East Germany and the Soviet Union; (2) United States experienced a security threat from China and frustration in Vietnam, while China faced growing isolation; (3) Egypt needed to reduce the military burden, while Israel wanted peace with Egypt in the face of growing diplomatic strength of Arab states.

The parties also realized that hopes of transforming or defeating the adversary were impossible to achieve. Thus they could not count on winning the competition with the adversary. All of these cases contain an event which stimulated such an understanding: the Berlin Wall crisis, the Moscow Treaty, the Vietnam war, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and violence on the Ussuri River. Thus we can talk about international circumstances which are beneficial for rapprochement.

Strategies and Tactics

From the analysis of the three cases of rapprochement, Armstrong concluded that the best tactic for breaking the ice is making small steps (unilateral gestures and bilateral agreements) that communicate the desire and commitment to improve relationships. For example, interim agreements concerning the Sinai paved the way for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Other important factors in developing successful initiatives are personal contact and planning. For example, Ostpolitik and gestures of the Nixon administration toward China were planned. However, planning played a small role in Israeli-Egyptian relations.


The cases proved the correctness of the assumption that dividing and separating (or what Armstrong and Roger Fisher call "fractioning") the major issues of contention plays a positive role in reaching agreements. Fisher suggests that issues can be fractioned by reducing the number of parties involved in the negotiations, limiting the immediate physical issues being considered, limiting the issues of principle being considered, and/or limiting consideration of either the substantive or procedural precedents that might be established with the negotiations. Principle and precedent, Fisher argues, can be reduced in scope by putting conditions and limitations on formal recognition of the agreements. (Formal recognition can be worked out later). Likewise, additional issues can be added later as well, once agreements are reached on more limited items.

Centralization of authority and avoidance of official foreign policy channels is also evident in the cases of successful rapprochement. For example, Brandt relied on personal contacts, and Nixon and Kissinger preferred direct secret channels. Initial tough positions did not guarantee biased agreements. The content of concessions proved to be more important in reaching an agreement than their number and sequence. Ambiguity of language allowed the parties to achieve agreements on difficult issues.

An "Essence"

The essential principle of all the propositions is the principle of mutual advantage. The success of rapprochement largely depends on the parties moving from the policies of unilateral advantage to accepting the principle of mutual advantage in their bilateral relations.

Icebreaking in the Post-Cold War Era

In contrast with the Cold War international environment, the post-Cold War international situation is characterized by "fluidity and uncertainty." However, the principles of rapprochement can still be applicable to "some adversarial relationships that share the conditions of long-term hostility and lack of formal relations" (p. 144). Some of the examples are discussed below.

Israel and Syria

The Soviet Union's disintegration and the Persian Gulf War changed the situation for Israel and Syria. Prior to these events they did not have many incentives to improve their relationship. However in 1991, direct negotiations between the two countries began. According to this study, a peace conference is not enough for rapprochement: ". . . the accumulation of small steps eventually covers large distances" (p. 145). Thus there is a need for high-level contacts, mediation, and confidence-building measures.

The United States and Cuba

Cuban alliance with the Soviet Union was the major source of hostility between the US and Cuba. Cuba suffered more from this hostility, but it could offer only limited rapprochement. The United States did not show much concern over the improvement of relationships with Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its supporter. A bad economy and examples of collapsed dictatorships all over the world do not promise sustainability for the Cuban communist regime. Most likely Cuba will follow "the East European model of unilateral reorientation due to change in regime" (p. 147).

China and Taiwan

China gradually moved from threatening Taiwan militarily to suggesting peaceful unification with the "motherland." However, for this to happen Taiwan will have to give up its sovereignty, which for Taiwan means surrender. Thus, unless China will soften its politics toward Taiwan, rapprochement probably will not happen. Instead of pressing China to improve relationships with Taiwan, the collapse of the Soviet Union made reunification less attractive. Reunification can damage China's internal security. The status quo might be the best alternative for now. The step-by-step approach, suggested in this study, can be appropriate in reducing hostility and working on building trust between the two countries.

The Future

Rivalries produced by the Cold War bipolarity will dwindle, because their source is gone. However, with the emergence of the new states, new conflicts will surface. Adversaries will eventually start seeking improvement of their relations and the principles of icebreaking presented in this study, based on successful rapprochement's of the past, will be very helpful for them.