I. William Zartman

June 2013

(Original publication date August 2003; updated in June 2013 by Heidi Burgess)

While most studies on the peaceful settlement of disputes focus on the substance of the negotiations, the timing of the negations is also key. Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so -- when alternative, usually unilateral, means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties feel that they are in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that "ripe" moment, they seek or are amenable to proposals that offer "a way out."

The idea of a ripe moment lies at the fingertips of diplomats--but it is relevant for negotiators at other levels as well.  As long ago as 1974, Henry Kissinger recognized that "stalemate is the most propitious condition for settlement." Conversely, practitioners often are heard to say that certain mediation initiatives are not advisable because the conflict just is not yet "ripe."  Environmental mediator Larry Susskind, for instance, emphasizes the importance of a conflict assessment before any mediation, both to assess ripeness, and to design the process.  If one or more key parties refuses to come to the table, then he concludes that the conflict is not ready for mediation or consensus-building. [1]  Interpersonal conflicts, too, are also not "ripe" for mediation or for negotiation if one side or the other thinks that they can win outright, or get what they want by intimidation or force--even if the reward is just getting the car for the weekend. 

The concept of a ripe moment centers on the parties' perception of a mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) -- a situation in which neither side can win, yet continuing the conflict will be very harmful to each (although not necessarily in equal degree nor for the same reasons). Also contributing to "ripeness" is an impending, past, or recently avoided catastrophe.[2] This further encourages the parties to seek an alternative policy or "way out," since the catastrophe provides a deadline or a lesson indicating that pain might be sharply increased if something is not done to settle the conflict soon.

The mutually hurting stalemate is grounded in cost-benefit analysis. It is fully consistent with public-choice notions of rationality.[3] and public-choice studies of war termination and negotiation.[4] These theories assume that a party will pick the alternative which is best for itself, and that a decision to change strategies is induced by increasing the pain associated with the present course of the conflict, thereby making the change the rational choice from a cost-benefit point of view. It is also consistent with the hypothesis that people seek to avoid a loss of a certain amount more than they seek a gain of the same amount.  In other words, they are "loss-averse."

In terms of game theory, a mutually hurting stalemate changes the situation from a prisoners' dilemma game into a game of chicken. (These terms and games are described in detail in the game theory essay.) Put in other terms, a conflict becomes ripe for resolution when the parties realize that the status quo -- no negotiation -- is a lose-lose situation (because they cannot win), not a zero-sum (win-lose) situation. Thus to avoid the mutual loss, they must consider negotiation. 

Additional insights into ripeness are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Ripeness is a matter of perception, and as with any subjective perception, there are likely to be objective facts to be perceived. These can be highlighted by a mediator or an opposing party when they are not immediately recognized by the party itself, and resisted so long as the conflicting party refuses to recognize the "facts" as legitimate or accurate. Thus it is the perception of the objective condition, not the condition itself, that makes for a mutually hurting stalemate. If the parties do not recognize "clear evidence" (in someone else's view) that they are at an impasse, a mutually hurting stalemate has not yet occurred, and if they do perceive themselves to be in such a situation, no matter how flimsy the "evidence," the mutually hurting stalemate is present.

The other element necessary for a ripe moment is less complex and also perceptional: a "Way Out." Parties do not have to be able to identify a specific solution; they must only have a sense that a negotiated solution is possible and that the other party shares that sense and the willingness to search for a solution too. Without a sense of a Way Out, the push associated with the mutually hurting stalemate would leave the parties with nowhere to go. Spokespersons often indicate whether they do or do not feel that a deal can be made with the other side. If they think a deal is possible, that suggests a "way out" and the time is ripe for negotiation. If they do not feel the other side will negotiate in good faith, then the situation is not ripe. [5]

Ripeness is only one condition, necessary but not sufficient, for the initiation of negotiations. It is not self-fulfilling or self-implementing--it must be seized, either directly by the parties or, if not, through the persuasion of a mediator. Thus, it is not identical to its results, nor is it tautological, although some scholars have claimed such, arguing that it cannot be measured except by the success of negotiations, after which one can observe that "the time was ripe." However, not all ripe moments are seized and turned into negotiations. Hence the importance of specifying the meaning and evidence of ripeness, so as to indicate when conflicting or third parties can fruitfully initiate negotiations.

Although ripeness theory cannot predict when a given situation will become ripe, it can identify the elements necessary (even if insufficient) for productive negotiations to begin. This type of analytical prediction is the best that can be obtained in social science, where stronger predictions could only be ventured by eliminating free choice (including the human possibility of blindness and mistakes). As such, it is of great value to policymakers seeking to know when and how to begin a peace process.

Finding a ripe moment requires research and intelligence studies to identify the objective and subjective elements. Subjective expressions of pain, impasse, and inability to bear the cost of further escalation, related to objective evidence of stalemate, data on numbers and nature of casualties and material costs, and/or other such indicators of a mutually hurting stalemate, along with expressions of a sense of a Way Out, can be researched on a regular basis in a conflict to establish whether ripeness exists. Researchers would look for evidence, for example, of whether the fluid military balance in a conflict has given rise at any time to a perception of a mutually hurting stalemate by the parties, or to a sense by authoritative spokespersons for each side that the other is ready to seek a solution to the conflict. Researchers could also look for contrary evidence:  statements by one or both sides, suggesting that they can win or that mediation is bound to fail because one or both parties believes in the possibility or necessity of escalating out of the current impasse to achieve a decisive military victory.

Ripeness is the key to many successful cases of negotiation, opening the way for discussions that led to an agreement in the Sinai (1974), Southwest Africa (1988), El Salvador (1988), Mozambique (1992), and many others. The lack of ripeness led to the failure of attempts to open negotiations between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1980s, within Sudan for decades, and elsewhere. Objectively ripe moments, however, were not transformed into subjective perceptions or seized and carried through to successful agreements in Karabagh in 1994, in Cyprus in 2002, and elsewhere, according to published analyses. Perhaps a greater understanding of the indicators of ripeness could lead to its more frequent recognition among disputing parties, and more successfully seized negotiation opportunities.

[1] See Susskind's interview on BI.  

[2] I William Zartman and Maureen Berman, The Practical Negotiator (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 66-78 <>; I William Zartman, "The Strategy of Preventive Diplomacy in Third World Conflicts," in Managing US-Soviet Rivalry, ed. Alexander George (Westview, 1983), <>; Saadia Touval & I William Zartman, eds., International Mediation in Theory and Practice (Westview, 1985), ll, 258-60; I William Zartman, Ripe for Resolution (New York: Oxford, 1985/1989), <>.

[3] Sen 1970, Arrow 1963, Olson 1965

[4] Brams 1990, 1994; Wright 1965

[5] Zartman & Aurik 1991

Use the following to cite this article:
Zartman, I. William. "Ripeness." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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