Shuttle Diplomacy

Eric Brahm
Heidi Burgess

November 2003

In some conflicts, direct communication between the parties is unlikely to reduce tensions, but may actually make the situation worse. A situation can be so extreme that merely seeing the other side can cause a setback. Rather than allowing for the exchange of views and producing compromise, direct communication may sometimes result in the simple repetition of demands, lending support to the perception of the conflict's intractability. The attempt is made to paint one's own side in a favorable light and to make the other side look as bad as possible.

Silke Hansen talks about a benign form of manipulation mediators can use to help parties move toward compromise.

Shuttle diplomacy, or mediated communication, can be useful in these types of situations, at least in the early stages when direct communication is likely to be counterproductive. The essence of shuttle diplomacy is the use of a third party to convey information back and forth between the parties, serving as a reliable means of communication less susceptible to the grandstanding of face-to-face or media-based communication. The intermediary serves not only as a relay for questions and answers, but can also provide suggestions for moving the conflict toward resolution and does so in private. "By keeping the communication private and indirect, the parties will not feel a need to use the debating tactics they commonly use in public conversations, and will be able to build up a level of trust that could not have been developed in those circumstances. Once this trust and a certain level of mutual understanding is developed, then face-to-face and even a routine of communications can be started."[1]

The notion of shuttle diplomacy is said to have emerged from Henry Kissinger's efforts in the Middle East in the early 1970s. He flew back and forth between Middle Eastern capitals for months in an effort to bring about peace after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The central feature of his "American Plan" was separating the ceasefire from long-range problems and minimizing Russian involvement in the process.

The diplomatic innovation of shuttle diplomacy was made possible by modern communication technologies and air transportation, which permits the mediator to travel easily between the negotiating parties.

Perhaps the most well known successful example of shuttle diplomacy was the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt, mediated by United States President Jimmy Carter. After three days of initial direct negotiations proved tense, Carter concluded there was little chance of a viable settlement. Instead, he believed progress could be made if he served as a go-between. A single document was created and Carter worked individually with the leaders to revise it. Subsequently, he carried proposals and counter-proposals back and forth over the course of the two-week negotiations. Although negotiations seemed to be at an impasse several times, Carter eventually prevailed through his non-stop shuttle diplomacy. From his experience at Camp David, "Carter concluded that successful negotiations involve personal and emotional elements and demand creative approaches in finding ways out of stalemates."[3]

Shuttle diplomacy has subsequently become relatively common in dealing with tense international situations. Mediators are often from powerful states, which provides some impetus for the parties to give the process a chance. A brief survey of examples reveals mixed success, but conflict has often been contained. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig's trips to Buenos Aires and London failed to avert the Falklands crisis. Richard Holbrooke was appointed special envoy to the Balkans by the Clinton administration and spent years in the region trying to achieve some progress in the Yugoslav conflict. Other actors, such as Russian Foreign Minister Chernomyrdin also made attempts. After the Oslo agreement, periodic involvement by outside actors such as U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have engaged in shuttle diplomacy in an effort to re-establish a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Leaders from around the world, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sri Lanka's prime minister and foreign minister, as well as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been involved in shuttle diplomacy between India and Pakistan in recent years.

High profile official diplomats need not conduct shuttle diplomacy. In many cases, low-profile mediators such as representatives from humanitarian NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), businessmen, religious representatives (such as Mennonites or Quakers) or scholars can help relay messages back and forth before direct communication is feasible. The Quakers, for example, worked for a long time in Sri Lanka, carrying messages between militant Tamil Tigers and the hardliner Singhalese politicians. Unlike the high profile officials, they had no authority and no power. But they had a reputation of fairness and proved themselves helpful.

William Ury tells how he managed to build trust with the leaders in Venezuela and through shuttle diplomacy and focusing on their interests got them working together to prevent violence.

The Quaker shuttle diplomacy (or "message carrying") in Sri Lanka is described in Thomas Princen's profile of Joseph Elder in When Talk Works.[4] Before agreeing to be "message carriers," the Quakers stipulated two conditions that had to be met. First, they insisted that the parties don't talk about their role, because if the press came to know about the Quakers' activities, they would come to be viewed as part of the "politically active situation." Their refusal of press coverage also proved that they were really involved to help, out of religious convictions, not out of a need for fame or honor. Secondly, if "the time should come when either side felt we were not useful, that side should tell us, and we would stop carrying messages ... So far [through 1988] all sides have asked us to continue."[5] Though the shuttle diplomacy never did lead to negotiations that ended this conflict, it might have become much more violent and destructive without this effort.

Mediated communication may prove useful in small-scale disputes and even in resolving family issues. As a parent, I often found myself engaging in shuttle diplomacy between my two children who were too angry to speak to each other or to resolve their conflict without assistance. Community Relations Service (CRS) mediators often use shuttle diplomacy to start communication between angry racial minority groups and white officials when direct communication is not likely to be effective. CRS mediators will talk with parents who are upset with discriminatory practices of a school principal in an effort to develop some mutual understandings before the parties sit down for formal negotiation. Similarly, they might move back and forth between racial minorities and police in a conflict over racial profiling or excessive use of force. The commonality in all of these cases is that the parties are so angry and so polarized that direct communication is neither possible nor likely to be helpful. By engaging in shuttle diplomacy by itself, or as a prelude to face-to-face negotiations, the shuttle diplomat or mediator can help exchange the content of messages while taking out the high emotion, which can often lead to better understanding than would happen if the parties met face-to-face.


[1] Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, "Shuttle Diplomacy/Mediated Communication" accessed July 17, 2003.

[2] Cartoon from accessed July 15, 2003.

[3] Jimmy Carter and James Laue, A Conversation On Peacemaking With Jimmy Carter. Washington , D.C.: National Institute for Dispute Resolution, 1992 Took place at the Fifth National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution, Charlotte, NC, June 7, 1991. accessed July 17, 2003.

[4] Thomas Princen "Joseph Elder: Quiet Peacemaking in a Civil War" in When Talk Works. Deborah Kolb and Associates, eds. San Francisco: Jossey Bass 1994.

[5] Ibid, p. 447.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric and Heidi Burgess. "Shuttle Diplomacy." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.

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