Summary of "Mediation as a World Role for the United States"

Summary of

Mediation as a World Role for the United States

by Amatai Etzioni

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Mediation as a World Role for the United States," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 249-262.

Etzioni examines the United States' potential to mediate international conflicts in the post-Cold war era. He begins by noting that the U.S. has already served as mediator in a number of cases. Generally, in these cases the conflicting parties were receptive to third party intervention, and voluntarily complied with the terms of the mediated agreement. In some cases the U.S. offered economic incentives to encourage agreement.

There are a number of advantages to the U.S. in adopting the role of mediator. Mediation of conflicts generally reduces tensions and encourages stability, which in turn encourages trade and ultimately peace. U.S. mediation is usually requested when the conflicting parties are tired of their conflict, and so ripe for a resolution. Successful mediation garners positive world opinion, while failure has minimal costs. The U.S. generally gains some goodwill for having made even a failed attempt to mediate a conflict.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has allowed its old-style foreign policy activities to overshadow its mediation successes. Etzioni summarizes a number of successful post Cold-War mediation attempts.

Although it entered late, the United States played a key role in mediating the conflict between Israel and the PLO. The issues at hand included the status of Jerusalem, the political status of Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, the meaning of autonomy, and border security. American mediators help the parties find ways to move forward while deferring decisions on sharply contended issues. Etzioni concludes that the U.S. played a key role in keeping the talks going.

Again, by postponing decisions on some issues the U.S. was able to keep the talks between Israel and Jordan moving forward. In this case the U.S. also established a trilateral economic committee, involving Israel, Jordan and the U.S., which created a forum for more informal, flexible negotiations.

Israel and Syria both wanted peace and Syria in particular wanted better relations with the U.S. Thus the U.S. was a natural choice to mediate the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The U.S. proposed to structure the negotiations in terms of times and phases. Both parties could agree on the goals (troop withdrawal, normalization, security assurances) and negotiations could proceed over the schedule for implementing those goals.

The U.S. facilitated withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia. Secretary Christopher visited both sides, pressing the Russians to withdraw and the Estonians to extend citizenship to resident ethnic Russians. President Clinton hand delivered Estonia's request for a meeting with the Russian leadership. And the U.S. Senate made further aid to Russia contingent upon full troop withdrawal.

The U.S. also assisted in securing the transfer of nuclear missiles to Russia from the former Soviet territory of Ukraine. Ukraine had concerns over security, territorial integrity and compensation for giving up their nuclear arms. After a series of annulled or broken agreements brokered by the U.S., Ukraine finally ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed on to the Lisbon protocol, and began transferring their nuclear arms to Russia.

In Northern Ireland, Etzioni notes that "U.S. willingness to vouch for the sincerity of the British offer provided the crucial weight that persuaded the IRA to adopt a unilateral cease-fire."(p. 256) The U.S. also began a limited disengagement from the U.K. to better position itself as a neutral mediator. The U.S. was able to draw on its strong trust relationship with the U.K., such that this distancing was not perceived as threatening by the U.K. (The U.S. had pursued a similar tact with Israel, relying on a similarly strong trust.)

When Greece refused to recognize the newly independent Macedonia, the United States stepped in to mediate the conflict. Greece was concerned that Macedonia was looking to acquiring the Greek territory of the same name. The new Macedonian flag incorporated Greek symbols, and the new constitution guaranteed protections for Macedonians everywhere. The U.S. has backed Macedonian attempts to reassure Greece, and has itself formally recognized Macedonia. Establishing international recognition of Macedonia as an independent state may help limit the spread of the Yugoslavian conflict, and so Etzioni notes that this is also a case of preventative mediation.

In North Korea mediation was one element in the United States' foreign policy activities. At issue was North Korea's failure to comply with inspections of its nuclear facilities. The U.S. threatened to levy economic sanctions. At the same time former President Carter's mediation reduced tensions, and the U.S. disengaged itself somewhat from South Korea, leading to more openness and allowing negotiations to proceed.

Etzioni identifies two challenges which must be faced if the U.S. is to increase its mediation activities. First, it must consider the relationship between mediation and other foreign policy tools. Mediation alone is not sufficient to achieve American foreign policy objectives. However, as a tool mediation should be given greater prominence, and other foreign policy activities should be used to enhance mediation efforts. Second, The U.S. must consider the relationship between mediation and basic justice. Mediated agreements are usually less costly and painful, but may not be entirely just. Etzioni suggests this trade-off may be acceptable when the costs are limited to matters of face, or prestige.

U.S. practice of mediation was limited during the Cold War era. Most U.S. mediation efforts were actually either negotiations with the USSR over client nations, or secondary to the larger goal of containing communism. Mediation is particularly appropriate o the post-Cold War era however. Mediation's low cost and lower profile is less likely to distract the government from domestic issues. There is little domestic support for an activist foreign policy. At the same time the American public's compassion for the suffering of other nations calls for some international involvement.

Etzioni concludes that effective U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world should emphasize mediation. The U.S. should participate in international bodies, such as the UN, which strengthen international law. It must be willing to use force in defense of U.S. citizens. And it must assist nations toward democratization, but with much more sobriety and humility than it has shown in the past.