The Study of Conflict Mediation by Political Scientists

As Hilary Clinton arrives in Israel to attempt to negotiate a cease fire in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hammas, it is worth noting that there is a sub-field of political science that focuses on the determinants and effectiveness of these kinds of mediation effects.

To give just a few examples, Emory University political scientist Kyle Beardsley published a book in 2011 entitled The Mediation Dilemma. Here’s the description of the book from the publisher:

Mediation has become a common technique for terminating violent conflicts both within and between states; while mediation has a strong record in reducing hostilities, it is not without its own problems. In The Mediation Dilemma, Kyle Beardsley highlights its long-term limitations. The result of this oft-superficial approach to peacemaking, immediate and reassuring as it may be, is often a fragile peace. With the intervention of a third-party mediator, warring parties may formally agree to concessions that are insupportable in the long term and soon enough find themselves at odds again.

Beardsley examines his argument empirically using two data sets and traces it through several historical cases: Henry Kissinger’s and Jimmy Carter’s initiatives in the Middle East, 1973–1979; Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 mediation in the Russo-Japanese War; and Carter’s attempt to mediate in the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis. He also draws upon the lessons of the 1993 Arusha Accords, the 1993 Oslo Accords, Haiti in 1994, the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement in Sri Lanka, and the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding in Aceh. Beardsley concludes that a reliance on mediation risks a greater chance of conflict relapse in the future, whereas the rejection of mediation risks ongoing bloodshed as war continues.

The trade-off between mediation’s short-term and long-term effects is stark when the third-party mediator adopts heavy-handed forms of leverage, and, Beardsley finds, multiple mediators and intergovernmental organizations also do relatively poorly in securing long-term peace. He finds that mediation has the greatest opportunity to foster both short-term and long-term peace when a single third party mediates among belligerents that can afford to wait for a self-enforcing arrangement to be reached.

My colleague Bernd Beber at NYU has a number of papers related to mediation freely available on his website. One of these, forthcoming in the journal Conflict Management and Peace Science, is particularly relevant to the unfolding situation in Israel. Here’s the abstract:

International mediation of violent conflicts is commonplace in today’s world, and so is academic research on its features and eectiveness. But research that speaks to both the initiation and implementation of mediation remains relatively rare. This article outlines a theoretical and empirical argument that contributes to filling this gap and suggests a counterintuitive selection effect: Potential mediators that are likely to resolve a dispute are unlikely to select into mediation. The argument hinges on the claim that mediation by biased third parties is relatively ineffective, and I provide qualitative evidence to suggest that this claim is plausible.

Finally, as another cautionary note one might want to look at this recent article in the journal Peace and Change on mediation attempts that failed to produce viable peace agreements by political sceintist Jacob Bercovitch and Leah Simpson. At the end of the piece they offer concrete advice for potential would-be mediators:

There are obvious implications for practitioners. In none of the cases here did the mediators want the agreement to fail. This suggests that they had little or no foresight that it would, or even might, fail. Practitioners therefore need to be more discriminating in their judgment of mediation success and not just consider reaching an agreement as being good enough. They have an ethical imperative to consider whether the agreement that they helped the parties in conflict to fashion can lead to long-term mediation success. This requires that mediators go beyond a narrow focus on signing an agreement in the full glare of publicity to an approach that is more forward-looking. Agreements therefore must be meticulously assessed prior to being constructed. Practitioners thus need to think of their own behavior and the nature of a conflict as well as the likely implementation environment. Mediators may well need new tools and concepts to evaluate what they can achieve, and how long an agreement may last.

If readers have relevant research that I have neglected to mention here, please feel free to address it in the comments section.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.