Security Guarantees

Jill Freeman

November 2003

What can be done to provide security through peace agreements and other means?

"Cities and kingdoms, for their own security, undertake invasions out of fear of being invaded and seek to weaken or destroy neighbors as a way of reducing foreign threats." -- Thomas Hobbes

Security guarantees have recently received heightened attention as a useful means to ensure peace agreement implementation. Using such assurances to reduce tension, conflict management practitioners can then focus on the peace building phase. In situations where civil wars and inter-state conflict occur, these tools are increasingly combined to mitigate differences and push the warring parties to find a solution.

By providing stability during the precarious transition phase immediately following the signing of a peace agreement, security assurances can lead to successful implementation of the accords. Without such outside assistance, antagonists fear the unknown and remain skeptical of their adversary's intentions. Such potentially destabilizing threats to security can cause the process to fail should either side act upon their fears, whether perceived or concrete.

Therefore, it seems clear that if fear induces anxiety and thus provokes conflict, then the alleviation of that fear by a security assurance from an outside or third party is essential for the peace processes to move forward. As these guarantees are increasingly suggested as policy options, it is important to understand the meaning of the terms and to determine when and how they can be used.

What are security guarantees and peace agreements?

Barbara Walter defines security guarantees as "an implicit or explicit promise given by an outside power to protect adversaries during the treaty implementation period."[1] A security guarantee can be positive or negative in nature, containing either an obligation to provide assistance or a promise to not use specific weapons or other destructive instruments.

Why security assurances are necessary

Mutual mistrust is often a factor that exacerbates conflicts. Unless the cause of mistrust is addressed, it will present an obstacle to a successful peace process. Designing security guarantees that deal with these fears, adds stability and allows for more productive negotiations.

Creating a secure political environment that makes it possible for the sides to eventually self-manage future disagreements is the end goal of most peace agreements. The transition period between a new system of governing and the institution building phase following the signing of an agreement can therefore prove to be critical.

"Following a civil war, weaker parties, fearing their vulnerability in a reintegrated political order, often attempt to exchange cooperation for an agreement that provides an element of political certainty about the future." -- Barbara Walter

Without confidence building measures in place, post-conflict situations can fall prey to fear that stems from incomplete or inaccurate information. The security vacuum immediately following a ceasefire poses a real threat to factions that fear the other side will take advantage of the situation to launch surprise attacks. During this time, it is not uncommon or irrational to assume that leaders might fall back to more traditional security tactics that could re-ignite the situation.

Warring factions searching for measures to reassure the safety of their community may resort to deterrence strategies despite the dilemma they create. This apparent lack of options demonstrates the need for third-party security assurances to prevent a return of hostilities. With sincere offerings of protection and support during the peacemaking and peace building phases, international guarantees can provide the necessary ingredient that draws - and holds - parties to the negotiating table.

As Zartman argues, in order to overcome the devastation of civil war, re-concentrate central power, increase state legitimacy through participation, and raise and allocate economic resources in support of peace during the transitional period, external, international assistance or authority is required.[2] Further research by Doyle and Sambanis suggests that war will reoccur if the expected utility of such war is greater than the expected utility of peace.[3] Ensuring that the utility of peace remains high will require outside assistance, since the parties' very inability to cooperate is what brought them to the dispute in the first place. The ambivalence of the Dayton Accord's signatories to the promised process attests to the difficulty of implementing peace agreements even with outside assistance.

When are security agreements necessary?

Particularly effective in the early phase of negotiations, believable promises of regional or international third party support add a needed element to the peace process. Though such promises could prove much more useful in the pre-conflict negotiation phase, disputes are commonly overlooked and misdiagnosed at this time. Promises of support are used in conflict negotiations predominantly during peacemaking efforts and after significant damages have already occurred. At this point, no further progress will be made until a relatively neutral third party can alleviate fear and insecurity on each side.

Most security guarantees come in the form of outside intervention. Prior to sending in troops or beginning special missions, host-state or international authorization is needed. Often domestic approval is required to specify the rules of the mission and locations for troops, and international approval is needed from the UN or other appropriate regional organizations for legitimacy and to ensure cooperation at later points.

Barbara Walter believes that for civil wars to successfully reach a settlement, combatants must overcome the enormous hurdle of designing credible guarantees on the terms of the peace agreement -- a task made difficult without outside assistance. She proposes that without credible and significant third party security guarantees, the combatant's vulnerability and insecurity during the treacherous demobilization period remains dangerously high and can often cause conflicts to re-ignite.[4]

Increasingly, civil wars have little chance of ending on their own, and attempts at reaching a peace agreement without the help of a security guarantee sometimes leads to further escalation. Walter argues that precisely when parties are most vulnerable and must submit to disarmament is also the time suspicions and unease are at their highest.[5]

For example, Sierra Leone had already suffered two failed peace agreements when they sat down to negotiate yet another treaty with the Revolutionary United Front Rebels. Repeated surprise attacks and insincere motions to reform had caused President Kabbah to discount the rebel's promises. Only pressure from international actors and the guaranteed deployment of a large United Nations peacekeeping force kept Kabbah at the negotiating table. Stedman, Rothchild, and Cousens list three factors most commonly associated with a difficult conflict environment:

  • spoilers -- leaders or factions hostile to a peace agreement and willing to use violence to undermine it,
  • neighboring states that are hostile to the agreement; and
  • spoils -- valuable, easily tradable commodities.

When these factors are present, international supporters will find coercive strategies more effective than the confidence building measures (CBMs), monitoring, and verification methods that are more commonly associated with peacekeeping. Unless the security interests of major powers are engaged, the resources and commitment necessary for coercive strategies to succeed will not be forthcoming.[6]

Another scenario that benefits from security guarantees is when states undergo dramatic political reform, which commonly occurs in post-communist countries. When former Soviet-bloc states embraced a more democratic process, insecurities mounted as more freedom didn't immediately translate to better lives. States not yet admitted to NATO face greater insecurity as they struggle to ward off demagogues opposed to democracy and other destabilizing elements within their new society that hinder a peaceful transition. As Daniel Nelson has stated, perhaps it is not that security derives from "more democracy," but that the secure countries -- and only the secure -- become and stay democracies. With some states in Eastern Europe and Eurasia gaining entry into NATO, their left-behind neighbors are left to fend for themselves. This sense of security envy can bring more destabilization to regions already suffering from a lack of foundation. Here the security concerns of other actors can cause them to offer pre-emptive security assurances lest they get drawn into another Kosovo crisis.

Forms of security guarantees

"The knotty challenges of securing consent for agreements from multiple actors, monitoring cease-fires, disarming and demobilizing troops, reintegrating the armed forces, organizing an electoral system, and establishing institutions for a durable peace are critical for achieving the goals of both military/security- and institution-building. Because of the facilitative role that external actors play, these are matters best approached early on, while external peacekeepers are still actively engaged on the scene." -- Donald Rothchild [2001]

Security guarantees can range from signed multi-party treaties to public promises of support. The nature of conflict resolution generally requires the assurance to come in a written form, and it is often included in peace accords. The increasing use of CBMs and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs within peace agreements highlights the need to address a variety of security concerns to establish and maintain peace. Other methods used to institutionalize assurances can be economic and military aid, consultation, joint planning, and technical operations. Readiness to act in specified contingencies can reinforce the long-term, more general instruments.[7]

Outside assistance can also include monitoring measures or observer missions that help foster the negotiations or hold both sides to an agreed upon truce. Using Chapter VI of the UN Charter and with the consent of the parties, traditional peacekeeping can involve the deployment of military units and civilian officials in order to facilitate the negotiated settlement of a conflict.[8] Another consent-based option is to implement a negotiated peace agreement using multidimensional peacekeeping tactics that includes peacekeeping operations as well as capacity expansion and institutional transformation (i.e. police reformation, army readjustment, etc.). Additionally, more forceful and perhaps without consent, multilateral peace enforcement using military intervention can be used under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Obviously the more hostile the situation, the more likely strong guarantees must be designed in order to ensure that the incentives for peace far outweigh the incentives to continue the conflict.

The more difficult a conflict situation, the more complex and authoritative the international response and support should be. Doyle stresses that transitional authority and necessary resources should be clearly identified in the peace agreement from the outset, rather than when the situation goes awry.[9] International assistance is also more likely to be actualized when a state's own security interests are at stake. Without this connection, more begrudging and entangling guarantees are offered.

However, empty long-term promises can do more harm than good. If either signatory has reason to believe that the security guarantees are unlikely to materialize, this uncertainty will allow each side to justify a breach of the treaty. Slow implementation of promised support is also a cause for distress and is often accompanied by a return to fighting.

Long-term goals such as institution building and economic incentive programs must also be considered and addressed during the agreement phase, though their very complexity may make them difficult to solve. Civilian expectations for a return to normalcy and the speed of post-conflict recovery should be an important consideration as negotiations are being drafted. It is crucial that implementation proceed as rapidly as possible since there are often elements within each side that would rather not see peace prevail. Even security guarantees from global superpowers may not be enough to dissuade the spoilers from reinitiating the conflict if they are committed to continuing it.

How security assurances are implemented

"Ultimately, the most difficult problem with civil war resolution is the fact that the warring parties cannot credibly commit to the safe consolidation of their forces by themselves; no matter what they do they will be unable either to enforce this phase themselves or structure it in a way that makes it self-enforcing. Therefore, a third party is needed to help enforce this stage of the settlement." -- Barbara Walter [1999]

While not necessarily military in nature, security assurances can include military support to ensure the safety of civilians and proper agreement implementation. Promises to provide safe harbor, preventing the spread of neighboring disasters, and providing election monitoring can also be seen as assurances that protect and ensure a safe environment.

Stedman, Rothchild, and Cousens [2002] observe that a common misstep is to put everything at an impossibly high prioritization level, whereas the first order of business should be the demobilization of soldiers, followed by the demilitarization of politics. Securing the situation in this way eventually creates much needed internal stability. This part of the process involves, among other factors, soldiers becoming civilians and warring armies evolving into political parties.

Recent proposals for entrenched conflict zones, specifically the Middle East, suggest that the security concerns and domestic dilemmas confronting both Israel and Palestine leave them both with little chance of finding a peaceful resolution. Instead, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley argue that powerful outside third parties (such as the United States and United Nations) can wage diplomacy that is independent of the will and whims of the parties' leaderships, and that does not cater to their immediate preferences while at the same time bypassing their immediate constraints.[10] Such a deal relies heavily on security guarantees that balance the capacity of each side appropriately, allowing for gradual implementation of steps to occur without either side "losing" something more valuable than the other.

Call and Stanley state that in the short term, minimizing the security gap and maximizing the security of disarmed former combatants, and returning refugees and other vulnerable groups, will address some of the insecurities.[11] However, long run success will depend more on economic and social development, including creating services for former combatants, as well as rebuilding security institutions capable of protecting the public.

Also important within security guarantees are assurances for basic protection of human rights, promotion of economic reconstruction, and redistribution and protection during the transition. According to Doyle and Sambanis, international capacities can foster peace by serving as a substitute for limited local capacities and alleviating factors that feed deep hostility.[12]

As Kremenyuk points out, assuring another side that certain actions will not be taken is another type of guarantee.[13] Consider Russia's request that NATO not take advantage of the time period when Russian troops were leaving their bases in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states to fill the gap with NATO personnel and create the impression that Russia was retreating. Such guarantees secure critical relationships and ensure that future diplomacy efforts have some confidence upon which to build.

But do security assurances really work?

Empirical analysis by Walter, Doyle, and Sambanis generally concurs that the greater the international assistance, the higher the likelihood of a successful peacebuilding process. Walter is more specific in arguing that this is a crucial element to ending civil wars and is perhaps the main factor in keeping the peace. Doyle and Sambanis go on to demonstrate that wars ending with a peace treaty are more likely to have peace building success, especially when combined with UN involvement.

The researchers further clarify that UN enforcement can help end a war but acting alone has little effect on institutionalizing participatory peace. Doyle and Sambanis conclude that peacemaking aimed at facilitating a peace treaty is potentially life saving, since their research found treaties were highly correlated with an end to the violence, and that strategically designed peacekeeping and peace enforcement do make a difference.

Alan Dowty's research suggests that the effectiveness of security guarantees stems from the probability that something will be done and the strength of the pledge of assistance.[14] Interestingly, few protective arrangements have been tested and fewer still enacted. According to Pelcovits, what counts the most is the protector's perception of protected self-interest.[15] In practical terms, verbal assurances can do as much good as written treaty based documents, especially when the latter can cause confusion over intent.

Doubt regarding the legitimacy of outside support can be mitigated through the participation of the United Nations. Either during the negotiation phase or while implementing the settlement, the UN can offer a legitimate and necessary balancing mechanism, should third parties appear one-sided. However, as Pelcovits argues, the true underpinning of an international guarantee is not the endorsement, but the reciprocal obligations assumed in the settlement itself. He stresses that for all sides involved in a settlement, the incentives for survival must outweigh the disincentives, and the guarantee only endures as long as this equilibrium lasts.

"One does not need to scrutinize Hobbes to know that political organization is fundamentally a quest for security. Politics may also be, for an Aquinas or an Augustine, a means by which to seek justice, truth, and higher aims. But these other public goods may be "security dependent" -- impossible to achieve unless there already is a balance between threats and capacities." -- Daniel Nelson [2000]

It is argued that guarantees are useless unless they supplement and complement self-sustaining defense capacities. Antagonists of a protracted struggle need to feel a certain level of security before taking the risk to reduce their defense mechanisms. International supervisory arrangements are practical since they can complement defense needs and allow outsiders to provide a needed impartial and reliable mechanism for monitoring compliance issues, reducing uncertainty and adding to confidence.[16] On the other hand, missed opportunities to reassure antagonists can create havoc. Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed that had they received adequate security assurances, they would not have resorted to nuclear tests to demonstrate their strength in relation to India. Regardless of the legitimacy of this claim, Ahmed maintains that the role assurances play in times of crisis can't be overlooked.[17]

Recent shifts in the way the world's superpowers cooperate, show that states could opt for what Hall Gardner calls "cooperative-collective security communities."[18] Comprised of a loose confederation backed by overlapping U.S., EU, and Russian security guarantees, these security communities could help diverse states learn to cooperate despite their significant political, social, and ideological differences.

While this form of greater cooperation could signal a move toward higher international engagement, it could also create security envy among countries left outside this group. Adding to the confusion are the often-overlapping assurances between NATO, the EU, and others, and the fear and insecurities that such mixed collaborations can arouse. However, these same overlapping guarantees could be crucial to saving the Middle East from more conflict by allowing four-pronged diplomacy (US, EU, Russia, and UN) to function by promising security to both Israel and Palestine.


As Charles King observes, "External powers cannot themselves guarantee peace, but they can help alleviate the security concerns of the belligerents while they search for their own solution to the conflict."[19]

In the end, peace can only be guaranteed when it is highly desired. External guarantees can't remain indefinitely and the limited ability of some states to rebuild all the necessary institutions can provide an insecure foundation on which to build a future. However, history, careful analysis, and common sense clearly indicate that the combination of a peace treaty and international assistance, in the form of a security guarantee, increases the likelihood that peace will prevail.

[1] Walter, Barbara "The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement" International Organization 51:3 (Summer 1997) p. 345.

[2] Zartman, 2001.

[3] Doyle, Michael W. and Nicholas Sambanis. "International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis." American Political Science Review. Vol. 94, No. 4 Dec 2000: 779-801.

[4] Walter, Barbara. "Designing Transitions from Civil War: Demobilization, Democratization and Commitments to Peace." International Security Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer 1999).

[5] Ibid

[6] Stedman, Stephen John, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Lynne Rienner Publishers: Boulder. 2002.

[7] Pelcovits, N.A. "Security Guarantees in a Middle East Settlement". Foreign Policy Papers. Vol. 2: Issue 5. Foreign Policy Research Institute: 1976.

[8] Doyle, 2000.

[9] Ibid

[10] Agha, Hussein and Robert Malley. "The Last Negotiation." Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, Vol. 81; Issue 3.

[11] Call and Stanley , 2002.

[12] Doyle, Michael W. and Nicholas Sambanis. "International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis." American Political Science Review. Vol. 94, No. 4 Dec 2000 : 779-801.

[13] Zartman, I. William. Ed. Preventive Negotiation: Avoiding Conflict Escalation. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc: Lanham. 2001.

[14] Dowty, Alan. "The Role of Great Power Guarantees in International Peace Agreements." Jerusalem Papers on Peace Problems, No.c. Jerusalem : The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations. 1974.

[15] Pelcovits, N.A. "Security Guarantees in a Middle East Settlement." Foreign Policy Papers. Vol. 2: Issue 5. Foreign Policy Research Institute: 1976.

[16] Pelcovits, N.A. "Security Guarantees in a Middle East Settlement." Foreign Policy Papers. Vol. 2: Issue 5. Foreign Policy Research Institute: 1976.

[17] Ahmed, Samina. "Security dilemmas of nuclear-armed Pakistan." Third World Quarterly. Oct 2000. Vol. 21, Issue 5, p. 781-794.

[18] Gardner, Hall. "Aligning for the Future: Assertive Unilateralism or Concert of Powers?" Harvard International Review. Winter 2003:56-61.

[19] Rothchild, Donald. "Durable Peace After Civil War: The Structuring of Ethnic Interactions." Report for Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, CA, August 30-Sept 2, 2001.

Use the following to cite this article:
Freeman, Jill. "Security Guarantees." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.

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