Gathering examples from modern history, Kyle Beardsley¿s academic treatise considers the use of mediation in international disputes, before making some surprising conclusions about its effectiveness.
Kyle Beardsley: The Mediation Dilemma
The long catalogue of stuttering negotiations and failed mediation that litters the history of the Middle East and South Asia should validate the argument that third-party arbitration stands only the slimmest chance of success. But who would object to the making of that effort? Surely there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by trying?
In fact, Kyle Beardsley, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, strongly objects. In his scholarly new book The Mediation Dilemma, Beardsley claims, counterintuitively, that mediation is almost always doomed to failure in the long term, although it may produce short-term success.
"Mediation can decrease the incentives ... for belligerents to make the tough decisions necessary to fully resolve their conflicts," he writes.
Beardsley's main argument is that mediators take the onus off the combatants, perhaps by boosting the weaker side or easing the way with inducements. Then, once an agreement is signed, the mediators don't stay around to police it.
Success would be more long-lasting, the author asserts, if the opponents reached an accord on their own. When arbitration is involved, as he writes, "actors may not be able to learn enough about the capabilities and resolve of their opponents to bargain with better clarity".
There are other problems, as well. "Insincere" parties can use negotiations as a stalling tactic, buying time while they rearm, rebuild, reorganise, or - as in the case of North Korea - secretly develop a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, combatants may be tempted to resist compromise, if they think the arbitrator will favour their side.
And if mediation is ineffective between two independent countries, it is disastrous within one country in a civil war, the book claims. Probably the key reason is that the combatants "have to coexist within the same system of governance," on the same turf. They can't just go home and lick their wounds.
Beardsley concedes that third-party intermediaries can do some good. At the least, they can be an informal and formal channel of communication between opponents who will not publicly talk to one another. They can also provide political cover for unpopular concessions and suggest ideas that the antagonists may not have envisioned. Obviously, they prevent bloodshed, at least for the short term. And they can use a combination of sticks and carrots to push the two sides together, especially if the mediator has strong leverage, like the United States with Israel.
But when it comes to leverage, Beardsley also claims - again, counterintuitively - that the more leverage a mediator exerts, the less likely any agreement is to last, precisely because the pressure is imposed artificially. "Without external leverage," he says, "the belligerents must reach an agreement that is mutually preferable to conflict."
Examples from the Middle East are by far the most common in Beardsley's pages.
Two instances of American mediation between Israel and Egypt - the Sinai disengagement agreement, overseen by Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the Camp David accords negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 - jointly constitute one of the three key case studies that Beardsley raises repeatedly to illustrate multiple points. (The other two are President Carter's solo intervention, by then as a private citizen, to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear programme in 1994, and President Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.)
Both Camp David and the Russo-Japanese agreements led to Nobel Peace Prizes for the major participants, although not for Carter. He would have to wait until 2002 to be honoured for his "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts."
Camp David is actually one of the rare instances that Beardsley considers a long-term mediation success story. That's because several unusual factors pushed the participants to maintain the accord - in particular, the close US-Israeli relationship.
First, this was a time where leverage worked. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin baulked at one point, Beardsley asserts, Carter could brandish some serious pressure: "Carter threatened to decry Begin's intransigence to the US Congress" and also "increased the proposed number of planes to be sold to Egypt and Saudi Arabia."
For related reasons, the mediator - the United States - had a direct stake in the success of the effort, and thus had an incentive to make sure any agreement was not only signed, but also enforced. "Stability in the region and the security of Israel strongly affect US interests, which means that the United States could credibly guarantee to keep up whatever pressure was necessary to maintain peace between Egypt and Israel," the book points out.
Egypt and Israel faced concrete incentives of their own. The carrot, for both, was generous American aid. The stick - but only for Israel - was that its concessions were irrevocable. In other words, if it was going to give up the Sinai, Israel had better make sure that its quid pro quo was long-lasting. As Beardsley says:
"[Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat's major concession at Camp David was the recognition of Israel and subsequent exchange of ambassadors. But ambassadors can always be withdrawn and recognition can be revoked … [By contrast] The occupation of the Sinai was the main source of leverage for Israel … and once it was gone, it could not be regained without another full-scale war."
The book was largely written before the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last spring, but the loss of ambassadors and official recognition that Beardsley foresaw could well come true. After all, Egyptian protesters have already torn down the Israeli flag and a protective wall at the Israeli embassy and called for the expulsion of its ambassador. In that case, the mediation at Camp David will turn out to be less of a success than the book claims.
With or without Camp David as a success story, Beardsley's scenario is bleak. Yet what are the alternatives? The bilateral, independent diplomacy that he seems to prefer can easily flounder without an independent guiding hand. It also shares some of the problems of mediation, such as the risk that insincere parties will stall for time.
The only other possibility that Beardsley mentions is "armed conflict." In fact, he has a lot of kind words for it. "If intrusive third parties interrupt the battlefield learning process," he claims, "then the actors will be less able to find a mutually satisfying agreement on their own."
So, is war better than mediation? Is an American academic really advocating this?
Well, no. Finally, in the last chapter, Beardsley concedes that "even when outside intervention makes the long-term prospects for peace grim … mediation can be strictly better - to the disputing parties as well as to the international community - than the alternative of escalating hostilities."
Ultimately, The Mediation Dilemma offers several steps for successful negotiation, the most important being continuing oversight by the outside arbitrator. However, few actors have the resources or willpower to do that.
Readers should be forewarned that this book is written by an academic, in a very erudite style. It is slow going and often repetitive, with footnotes, sub-subheadings, tables, and exhaustive references to things like "a nonproportional Cox model." All the crucial points could probably be gleaned from just a chapter or two - and it hardly matters which chapters, since they score the same points so repetitively.
Yet these points are important reading, particularly for anyone with an interest in this region.
As Beardsley admits, opposing parties undoubtedly see some benefit to mediation, or they wouldn't try it. At the very least, those efforts should continue while the channels remain open.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning, US-based author and journalist specialising in the intersection of business and public policy.