Negotiating Peace: A Guide to the Practice, Politics, and Law of International Mediation

| September 9, 2019
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Negotiating Peace: A Guide to the Practice, Politics, and Law of International Mediation, Sven M. G. Koopmans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 304 pp., $125 cloth, $124.99 eBook.

Sir Winston Churchill is often credited with the phrase “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.” It is not entirely clear that he actually uttered those words, but judging by the proliferation of university conflict resolution programs and mitigation centers and of graduate degrees in conflict management over the last twenty years, the desire to be part of the “jaw-jaw” has rarely been stronger. Indeed, many foreign ministries have created special offices and cadres of officials to “reconstruct” and “stabilize” war-torn societies, with a focus on meeting the growing need for effective mediation.

Negotiating Peace: A Guide to the Practice, Politics, and Law of International Mediation is Sven Koopmans’s contribution to this growing opus on the practice of mediation. Setting a deceptively modest tone, he argues early in the book that “a peace agreement is an agreement that is intended to come closer to either the immediate goal of ending the fighting, or the medium-term goal of ending the inclination to fight” (p. 3). This caution is useful because the history of peacemaking is disappointing to those who expect a peace agreement to be the end of the story. The reality is often closer to the unfinished business of the Good Friday Agreement; the Dayton Accords; the cold peace between Israel and Egypt; and the (mostly) frozen conflicts in Cyprus, Kashmir, Eastern Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia, to name only a few. But unless one subscribes to the argument put forward by Edward N. Luttwak in his 1999 Foreign Affairs article “Give War a Chance,” even these less than fully satisfactory outcomes are infinitely preferable to the horrors of renewed warfare. Given the toll that wars disproportionately take on noncombatants, this is no mean accomplishment.

Negotiation and mediation are intensely human and personal activities. There are no fixed templates for resolving conflict. For every question about how to proceed, the most apt answer is almost always “It depends.” Case studies are useful, but universal lessons are hard to apply in a particular situation without context. This is where Negotiating Peace is particularly useful. The book does not offer prescriptive advice but in essence poses questions for the would-be mediator to ask herself before embarking on and while engaging in a mediation effort. Indeed, the table of contents alone could be converted into a checklist: the mediator should ensure that the questions raised in each section have been answered, and then reconfirmed or modified as circumstances dictate.

If there is a mantra for mediation, it should be “Prepare, prepare, prepare.” Negotiating Peace is an exhaustive aid in that process, from beginning to end. For example, the book suggests that before ever meeting with the parties, the mediator needs to understand the source (and limits) of her mandate and consider whether she has a sufficient scope for effective maneuvering. Without that basis, the chances of success become passingly small. Similarly, following the cessation of military actions, there are often calls for an immediate peace conference or national elections to legitimize the new government or the positions of the parties. Yet, without proper preparation, these actions are as likely to inflame passions as they are to form the basis of peace. Civil society often and rightly demands a role in peace talks, but questions remain as to the nature of its role, legitimacy, and ability to speak for key constituencies. Koopmans does not provide definitive resolutions for any of these concerns—there are none—but a careful reader will at least be aware that these are considerations that must be attended to.

One point that Koopmans might have emphasized more strongly is the intransigence of the parties themselves and their expectation that the mediator will resolve the dispute in their favor. The process cannot be successful if the mediator wants a compromise more than the parties themselves do. One might expect the mediator to be more motivated than the negotiating parties at the beginning of the process, but if this is still true by the end, then the process is doomed. In the words of a senior rebel in South Sudan’s newest civil war, referring to the country’s donors: “This [peace deal] is their child and it is their duty to ensure that this child survives. If they don’t want to support, then let them be quiet.”

While Negotiating Peace is in many ways a technical book, focusing on the mechanics of mediation, it also serves another purpose. To the outsider, the role of the mediator may appear to be glamorous and the mediator may appear to be the object of the gratitude of those she has helped to achieve peace. The reality is often quite different. The book is a necessary reminder that mediation is a hard slog, requiring painstaking attention to detail, emotional intelligence, patience, and a very thick skin. There are many ways to fail and gratitude is often lacking. Indeed, the mediator will often be blamed by one or both parties for not gaining at the negotiating table what could not be won on the battlefield. The mediator is more likely to be honored outside the area of conflict than within it.

A central premise of Negotiating Peace is that it is about negotiating peace agreements that end hostilities. It explicitly is not about constructing new post-conflict societies, a point the author returns to at the end. Koopmans was right to keep the book focused, but a next (and much harder) project would be to undertake a similar guide to consolidating the gains made when the shooting stops. Given the number of “frozen conflicts” around the world, the UN peacekeeping operations that have been in place for over sixty years, and the frustrations with the status quo, there certainly would be an audience for such a work. Unfortunately, the fact remains that there has not been as much success as we would like in consolidating the mediation gains.

This book should be a standard reference for anyone who aspires to become a mediator or who is actively engaged in mediation. And while it is clearly geared toward the mediator, it is a useful guide for the parties to a conflict as well—helping them understand, just a little better, the enormity of the task they are undertaking and the daunting challenges they are asking an outsider to tackle.


—Robert Loftis

Robert Loftis is a former U.S. ambassador and career diplomat, and is currently Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 33.3

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