Mediation: The Same In War And Peace?

War and Peace

By: Donald L Swanson

  • Many factors motivate disputing parties parties to mediate;
  • Disputing parties are rational actors, driven by self-interest;
  • There is a a strong relationship between conflict costs and the willingness of the parties to mediate; and
  • A precondition for negotiations is a perception by the disputing parties that, (i) a negotiated outcome is preferable to continued fighting, and (ii) a way out is possible.

These bulleted findings could be from a study of any kind of mediation.  But they are actually from a study of reasons why warring nations choose to mediate their disputes. [Fn. 1]  

In disputes between warring nations, there is no judge who can order them into mediation and no rule of law that can compel them to mediate.  Instead, any mediation effort is, of necessity, entirely voluntary.

What follows is a summary of additional findings from the study on why warring parties might choose to mediate their disputes.  

Mutual Hurting Stalemate

One motive to mediate is the mutual hurting stalemate.  This stalemate exists when the disputants feel they are trapped in a costly conflict from which they cannot escape through victory.

A mutual hurting stalemate makes a conflict “ripe” for resolution, because the parties are looking for a way out to avoid the costs and consequences of their predicament. 

Therefore, choosing mediation is found to be more likely when:

  • the conflict intensity is high;
  • the conflict is between opponents of similar strength; and
  • the crisis is long.

Dispute Stages—Early, Middle, Late

 Offers of mediation are most likely to be rejected in the earliest and latest stages of a war.

That’s because the earliest and latest stages contain unique characteristics that make parties hesitant to negotiate:

  1. In early stages, disputing parties believe a victory is possible—even quickly; and
  2. In later stages, the high sunk costs make disputing parties hesitant to accept any alternative but victory.

So, an opportunity for disputing parties to enter into mediation, (i) begins when the parties realize they are in for a long and costly battle, and (ii) ends when the costs-incurred achieve a point of no-return.

Extraneous Purposes

Mediating to achieve a peace is the obvious reason for warring parties to mediate.

But other reasons can exist, having nothing directly to do with achieving peace.  For example:

  • Mediation can be used by rebel parties to gain recognition from the government—i.e., governments legitimize the negotiation positions of insurgents by agreeing to negotiate;
  • Mediation can provide political cover to negotiating leaders, who must make compromises; and
  • Mediation can be used as a stalling tactic for combatants to regroup, reorganize and emerge on the battlefield in a stronger position.

Mediator’s Role & Stature

One study suggests that the presence and role of a mediator allows the adversaries to interact at a relative low level of commitment.  This, in turn, reduces the disputing parties’ fears that the opposing party will exploit the situation.

Other studies show that the mediator’s stature is significant:

  • A high confidence in the mediator’s ability increases the probability of requesting or accepting mediation.

A mediator, for example, that achieved agreement in all armed conflicts previously mediated has a 19 percent greater probability of being accepted as a mediator without prior success.

The Distrust Dilemma

Distrust is an impediment to mediation.

Parties often believe (with a long history of supporting evidence) that the adversary is bent on causing them harm.  The effect is this dilemma:

  • Distrust makes disputing parties hesitant to become involved in direct discussions; but
  • Trust cannot be built without engaging in direct talks.

Mediation addresses this dilemma by getting the disputing parties into direct discussions, with the assistance of a third-party neutral.


Conflict is costly.  It always costs money.  Opportunities are always lost.  Relationships are destroyed.  And lives are lost, when violence is involved.

Mediation can help.  And that’s true in surprisingly-similar ways, whether the conflict is in waging war or waging litigation.

Here’s a “thank you” to the author identified in the footnote below for revealing these similarities!   


Footnote 1.  The study is, “A Current Literature Review of International Mediation,” published in International Journal of Conflict Management 25(1) (February 2014).  The article is by Allard Duursma, of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

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