Summary of "International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era"

Summary of

International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era

By I. William Zartman and Saadia Touval

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: I. William Zartman and Saadia Touval, "International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era," in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) p. 445-461.

"Mediation is best thought of as a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties find a solution which they cannot find by themselves."[p. 446] Zartman and Touval focus on mediation of violent, international, or civil conflicts. They describe why third-parties decide to mediate, why and when conflicting parties accept mediation, and what factors produce effective mediation.

Why Third-Parties Mediate

Third parties mediate based on their desire to make peace, and and their own self-interest. Self-interest is the primary motivation for states. States are motivated by both defensive and offensive interests. Defensive interests include promoting international stability, and protecting the mediating nation's foreign interests. Often nations will attempt to mediate a conflict in order to prevent rival powers from intervening and expanding their influence. States may also fear being drawn into the escalating conflict. When motivated by defensive interests, mediators often have some stake in achieving particular outcomes.

When acting on the offense, states mediate conflicts in order to extend and increase their own influence. For instance, successful mediation may earn the gratitude of other nations. In such cases states usually have less interest in the content of the settlement. As an example of how self-interest motivates third-parties, the authors offer the case of U.S. mediation during and after the Cold War. During the Cold War, the U.S. was quick to mediate international conflicts. By doing so, they extended their influence and blocked expansion of Soviet influence. With the demise of the U.S.S. R., the U.S. has been less eager to intervene.

Less powerful nations also act on defensive and offensive self-interests. In addition smaller states may attempt mediation because they lack other foreign policy tools and as a way avoiding being drawn in to the conflict as participants.

Non-state organizations generally emphasize peacekeeping as their main motive. However, such groups are also motivated by an interest in upholding their reputations. Intergovernmental organizations, such as the U.N., are influenced by the policies and interests of their member states. The authors note that non-state organizations are often "interested in a particular outcome, not because it affects them directly, but because they believe in its inherent desirability."[p. 450]

Parties to a conflict accept mediation when they believe it is in their best interests to do so; that is, when they believe that "mediation will gain an outcome that is more favorable than the outcome gained by continued conflict."[p. 450] Similarly, parties will accept mediation when rejecting it will result in greater harms. Parties may fear incurring bad relations with the proposed mediating nation or international sanctions if they refuse to negotiate. In addition, mediation may offer parties a way to negotiate compromises without losing face. The mediator may also be seen as guarantor of the final settlement.

Mediation and Impartiality

Touval has argued that "If the acceptance of mediation is based on a cost-benefit calculation, then the assumption that mediators must be perceived as impartial needs to be revised."[p. 451] First, a preexisting good relationship with one of the parties may aid effective communication and facilitate development of creative proposals. The adversary party may see such a relationship as evidence that the mediator can effectively pressure the other party into a settlement. The mediator's success and reputation rides on their ability to deliver their ally into a settlement, and so again the adversary party may be reassured that the mediator is strongly motivated to reach an acceptable settlement.

The authors conclude that mediators need not be impartial to be accepted or effective. Instead, they argue, "mediators must be perceived as having an interest in achieving an outcome acceptable to both sides and as being not so partial as to preclude such an achievement."[p. 452]


To be successful, mediation must be undertaken at a time when the combatants are willing to re-evaluate their policies. The authors describe two conditions under which parties are inclined to re-evaluate their current activities. First is the mutually hurting stalemate. Stalemate occurs when each side realizes that "it is unable to achieve its aims, resolve the problem or win the conflict by itself."[p. 452] The stalemated condition must be costly, and unlikely to be broken in the foreseeable future. The second situation is the impending crisis. This may be a situation where the parties are facing a catastrophic escalation or have just barely avoided a catastrophic encounter. When both parties realize that they cannot afford to suffer such catastrophe, they may become willing to accept mediation. The skillful mediator will often manipulate the parties perceptions of facing stalemate or crisis, in order to bring the parties to the negotiating table.

The authors argue that the nature of effective timing creates difficulties for preventative diplomacy. Parties to conflicts generally are not ready to reconsider their policies in the early stages of a conflict, and so are not motivated to accept offers of mediation. Third parties do not generally see low level or latent conflict as a threat to their interests, and so are not motivated to offer their services as mediators. To be effective, would-be mediators must learn to produce the perception of crisis or stalemate at earlier stages in conflict.

Mediation Techniques

Mediators employ three basic techniques. In the early stages of negotiations mediators tend to focus on assisting communication between the parties by carrying messages and helping the parties to understand the messages conveyed. As negotiations get underway, mediators may act as formulators. Parties turn to the mediator to provide a formula for negotiations, that is, a "common understanding of the problem and its solution or a shared notion of justice to govern an outcome."[p. 454] Finally, mediators manipulate the parties by using leverage in order to bring them into agreement.

Mediator power or leverage is paradoxically related to the parties power. Zartman and Touval explain, "The extent of the mediator's power depends entirely on the parties, whose acceptance of a mediator depends entirely on its likelihood (potential power) of producing an outcome acceptable to both sides."[p. 455] Mediators have five sources of leverage. First and most common is persuasion, the ability to revise parties perceptions of the risks and costs of conflict and the feasibility and desirability of settlement. Second is the ability to extract an attractive proposal out of each side in negotiations. Third, mediators may threaten to withdraw from negotiations. Such threats assume that the parties still believe that mediated negotiations offer the best likelihood of the most favorable outcome. Finally, mediators may use sanctions to worsen one or both parties situation, and so to increase their motivation to settle. Or, where relevant resources are available, the mediator may offer incentives to one or both sides.

All of these sources of leverage gain their power from the parties' needs. The stronger the parties felt need for a settlement, the more leverage is available to the mediator. The weaker the parties need to settle, the more the mediator must work to create the perception of greater need, and the more the mediator must use external leverage in the form of incentives and sanctions. For these reasons non-state organizations can be effective in conflicts where the parties already feel the strong need to settle. States are better equipped to mediate in cases which first require intensifying the parties' need to settle.

Ethical Dilemmas in Mediation

Zartman and Touval conclude by describing three ethical dilemmas which arise in international conflict mediation. First, mediators are often torn between the short-term goal of ending bloodshed and the longer-term goal of settling the conflict. A cease-fire may create a tolerable stalemate, and so end bloodshed at the cost of stalling settlement negotiations.

Mediators may also be faced with a choice between pursuing "an attainable settlement that violates international norms, or [holding] out for one that is consistent with the principles of justice adopted by the international community."[p. 459] On the one hand people argue that some settlement is better than no settlement and continued warfare. On the other people point out that unjust settlements rarely last, and that tolerating such settlements may serve to undermine the foundations of international order and security. The Bosnian conflict presents a stark example of this dilemma.

Finally, mediation facilitates settlement of conflicts, but does not insure reconciliation or remove the causes of conflict. Mediators must follow through on settlements, supporting implementation and holding the parties to their agreement. Yet to be effective, mediators must avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict.