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Influencing resolution: External roles in changing the strategic calculus of conflict

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Catherine Barnes and Aaron Griffiths discuss how external actors can support a constructive process leading to a mutually acceptable peace agreement – potentially by going beyond hard bargaining strategies to much broader problem-solving approaches.

Leverage is rarely, if ever, sufficient to make peace between adversaries locked in protracted hostilities. Catherine Barnes and Aaron Griffiths focus on how external actors can support a constructive process leading to a mutually acceptable peace agreement – potentially by going beyond hard bargaining strategies to much broader problem-solving approaches.

They suggest how external actors should base their strategies on a careful understanding of the decision-making processes of the principal leaders as well as how to influence the wider socio-political context. They also identify measures that external actors can take at different phases in the transition from war to peace to enhance the effective use of their influence.

In any violent conflict, it is likely that the belligerents have at least a potential motivation to engage in peacemaking even when it is insufficient to counter their motivation to continue fighting. Their decision about whether to engage is not a fixed or static choice but is central to an ongoing strategic calculation.

Catherine Barnes and Aaron Griffiths



As discussed in the previous articles, external leverage is rarely, if ever, sufficient to make peace between adversaries locked in protracted hostilities. This article focuses on how external actors can best support a constructive process leading to a mutually acceptable peace agreement – potentially by going beyond hard bargaining strategies to much broader problem-solving approaches. It suggests how external actors should base their strategies on a careful understanding of the decision-making processes of the principal leaders as well as how to influence the wider socio-political context. It identifies measures that external actors can take at different phases in the transition from war to peace to enhance the effective use of their influence.

Shift to a problem-solving paradigm?

In many ways, the traditional approach to negotiation is not well suited to resolving deep-rooted conflicts between inter-dependent peoples who face the challenge of repairing relationships and coexisting peacefully in the future. Traditional negotiation rests on a zero-sum approach to bargaining. Parties typically focus on increasing their own share of seemingly limited resources, devoting little energy to developing outcomes that meet everyone's core needs. Third parties often aim to increase the costs and decrease the rewards of continued intransigence, often relying on externally derived leverage.

An alternative approach is to view conflict resolution as centrally about problem-solving. This occurs when the parties frame the contested issues as shared problems that might be creatively addressed through an 'integrative solution' that allows all the parties to satisfy their core needs – as illustrated by the innovative formulas of overlapping citizenship in Northern Ireland and the deferred referendum for independence for Bougainville. It can take a while for parties to embrace the magnitude of change needed, as Roelf Meyer makes clear in his interview on the paradigm shift within South Africa's National Party leadership from emphasising minority group rights to focusing on protecting individual rights.

External actors can assist by facilitating problem-solving processes. They can contribute fresh ideas and encourage movement from animosity and mistrust towards a shared focus on options for a mutually desirable future: from 'increasing the size of the pie' to possible improvements in the kitchen. Such an approach is likely to require both adversaries and interveners to abandon the 'sanctions mindset' because a shift to constructive problem-solving is unlikely to be achieved through coercion. This suggests the need to reduce reliance on leverage and to increase the parties' own motivation in making peace.

Ultimately, the most durable inducements to finalise agreement are the 'intrinsic incentives' inherent in the contents of the political settlement; if it provides a credible solution that satisfies the parties' basic needs and interests, then they are likely to prefer it to the current state of play. Such intrinsic incentives can be enhanced through external incentives and guarantees – such as ending isolation, providing resources to implement agreements, or specific security guarantees to reduce the risk in ending a military campaign.

Changing the strategic calculus

Incentives and sanctions need to respond to conflict parties' own motivation structures. In any violent conflict, it is likely that the belligerents have at least a potential motivation to engage in peacemaking even when it is insufficient to counter their motivation to continue fighting. Their decision about whether to engage in peacemaking is not a fixed or static choice but is central to an ongoing strategic calculation, hinging on their analysis (whether realistic or not) of the alternatives. They are more likely to engage seriously if they believe that talks will result in a quicker, more viable, less painful or more rewarding way to achieve their goals. External actors can attempt to influence this strategic calculus.

Encouraging 'de-commitment'

A common obstacle to conflict resolution occurs when the parties become entrapped; they become increasingly committed to pursuing the course they have chosen – even though it does not seem to be working – because they have already made such enormous investments and sacrifices that it becomes almost impossible to admit failure. External actors can assist adversaries to get out of the trap and help them to 'de-commit', both mentally and practically, from their existing strategy. This can sometimes be achieved by convincing leaders that pursuing negotiations represents a better, more beneficial alternative than continued engagement in costly struggle.

External actors can aim to reduce the feasibility of continued military struggle by cutting off the means of waging conflict (through arms embargos or boycotts of conflict commodities) or otherwise increasing the costs of continued belligerence. They can enhance the attractiveness of a negotiation process by helping to create viable and enticing alternatives (ending isolation, extending recognition and, more practically, signalling international assistance to achieve a tangible 'peace dividend'). Yet ultimately the decision to enter into and stay with a negotiation process and then to follow through with implementing agreements will be determined by how leaders and their constituencies interpret these changed conditions.

Risks of isolation

External coercion aimed only at weakening the strategic position of belligerent parties is rarely successful in the absence of a viable political strategy. In general, strategies aimed at isolating parties least acceptable to the majority of external actors can be high risk. Many of the case studies reveal that international isolation risks strengthening the position of hardliners inside the belligerent group who argue that they have little to lose and much to gain through pursuing a more militant strategy. Furthermore, many leaders – in an effort to appear strong in the eyes of their constituents – will want to demonstrate that they are not susceptible to external pressure.

In the face of widespread isolation, it is often those who remain 'friends' or who continue to pursue policies based on the strategy of 'constructive engagement' that retain the most decisive influence over their recalcitrant allies – as demonstrated clearly in South Africa. This suggests the strategic importance of involving these allies in an overall process aimed at orchestrating influence.

External credibility and counterproductive manoeuvres

External actors need to be sensitive to the risk that their actions will contribute to further entrenching the conflict and undermine their capacity for constructive influence in the future. It is crucially important to avoid empty promises and empty threats. As the Sudan case amply demonstrates, failure to deliver expected rewards can trigger a hardline response, undermining the credibly of moderates who argued in favour of making compromises. Failure to follow through on threats of coercive action – such as sanctions or non-consensual peace enforcement – severely undermines the credibility of the most robust instruments and tempts belligerents to test whether the threat of coercive action is a bluff.

The importance of subtle gestures

Subtlety is often key to the success of external interventions. Sanctions intended to promote progress in peacemaking are often more effective at the point when they are threatened ('drumbeats in the background'), generally in ways that do not make the leader appear to be caving in to outside pressure. Equally, the offer of conditional incentives should not appear to be bribes so blatant that no leader could accept them and survive. External actors can often be helpful in fostering 'face saving' strategies so that the parties can end their struggle without admitting defeat.

Key milestones in the conflict resolution process

Effective influence within an overall peacemaking strategy needs to be based on an appreciation of the core process challenges in most war-to-peace transitions. Common milestones tend to occur when:

a) Parties begin to recognise they cannot achieve their goals unilaterally and that simply continuing with the status quo entails risks of unacceptable costs. Therefore they are willing to risk exploring engagement with their opponents, leading to 'talks about talks' in a re-negotiation phase.

b) Parties begin to have sufficient confidence in their counterparts that the risks of engaging are outweighed by the potential benefits of achieving their goals. Therefore the choice to engage in a process towards a negotiated agreement becomes the preferred strategy.

c) The negotiations produce agreements that seem to deliver enough of their goals without entailing unacceptable costs and negotiators have sufficient confidence that the agreements will be implemented, either because of confidence in the good faith of their counterparts or because of external guarantees. Therefore the risks of decisively ending the military campaign are worth the benefits they anticipate.

Different methods and measures may be required to increase the likelihood first that adversaries will agree to engage, then to stay engaged or come back if the process breaks down, then to sign an agreement, or to go through the often painful process of implementation. This is rarely a smooth, linear process. Furthermore, sustainability can be enhanced by simultaneous efforts to engage the wider public in the process and promote long-term peacebuilding initiatives to address the effects of protracted conflict.

Getting to the table: the pre-negotiations phase

Changes in the wider context or in the specific conflict dynamics are typically crucial to the effectiveness of external influence in helping parties begin a sustained negotiation process. For example, change in South Africa owed much more to changes in the wider context (especially the collapse of the Soviet Union) and the conflict dynamic (the effectiveness of the opposition in making the country ungovernable) than the myriad sanctions that had been applied to the apartheid government. When a new leader came to power, the skillful deployment of sanctions and incentives helped to provide the necessary traction for a profound change in strategy that led to the negotiated transition.

External actors can also seek to make it easier for leaders to 'come to the table' to discuss the future without losing crucial internal support. Specific measures – typically offered conditionally – to remove proscriptions that complicate engagement or other travel/visa bans could increase the prospects of engagement. They can reduce the viability of military campaigns by cutting off the means of waging conflict through arms embargos, boycotts of conflict commodities and targeted financial sanctions. These may be complemented by 'sweeteners' to gradually extend recognition or end isolation. External intermediaries can also use quiet communications to explore, determine and communicate adversaries' readiness for contacts. Leaders of parties, particularly non-state actors, often need to overcome fear of being out-manoeuvred at the table. External actors can provide training to build negotiating capacities and consultations to assist in articulating aspirations or developing a political agenda.

Before entering talks, parties will typically seek to impose preconditions. In contrast to externally imposed conditionality, 'agreed conditionality' can be established by the parties through jointly identifying and agreeing principles that would form the 'terms of engagement' to underpin a negotiation process. Violations of these terms could then be the basis for imposing sanctions while adherence to these principles could trigger rewards.

External actors can also seek to use their influence to encourage a process that is more likely to result in sustainable peace. They can use their influence to foster a process that is inclusive of all the main stakeholders – including women, youth, marginalised groups, and political constituencies who chose not to take up arms. They can also encourage the parties to include key substantive issues (such as gender, human rights, land reform, transitional justice) on the agenda of peace talks and in the final agreement.

Staying at the table and working towards agreement: the negotiations phase

In general, this is the point when external efforts need to focus on encouraging the leaders and their representatives to conclude agreements that address both the immediate surface problems that dominate their relationship (such as security), as well as the underlying issues that initially led to an adversarial relationship (such as abuse of a 'winner takes all' political system). They can try to foster a problem-solving approach to the talks and devise ways of encouraging the parties to stay at the table, especially when progress seems slow and impasses develop.

External actors can seek to exercise 'process conditionality.' They essentially reward good faith participation in a peace process – often through implied recognition that ends isolation or through assistance needed to achieve a desired objective – while withholding desirable engagement from those who refuse to participate or obstruct the process. For example, in 1990 US legislators used warning of variable levels of cuts in its military aid to El Salvador to encourage the parties to negotiate in good faith.

The primary parties, especially armed opposition groups, need to gain trust in the process – and be reassured that any external intermediaries are not biased against them and that the 'real issues' will be addressed. As talks get underway, an important role is helping the parties themselves to build momentum in the process, in part because of their increased confidence that their counterparts are serious and acting in good faith. Everyone can aim towards establishing a rhythm of reciprocity. External actors can work to assure adversaries that the other is not wholly bent on victory, helping them recognise when positive actions have been taken or that shifts in the adversary's mindset have taken place – and what might be an effective and appropriate response. They can reframe the issues and sketch a range of possible solutions, as well as encourage gestures of conciliation and confidence-building measures. They can also support the parties to take small, constructive and irreversible steps leading towards their becoming deeply invested in reaching a mutually agreeable outcome. They can offer flexible and timely assistance to implement the measures, based on agreed benchmarks.

Reaching and implementing agreements

While useful at many points in the process, external political and security guarantees are often key to securing parties' final agreement to and implementation of peace accords.

External actors can help parties overcome distrust in their adversary's intentions to implement agreements by instituting third-party verification mechanisms to ensure compliance. They can support joint forums and political processes to oversee agreed reforms and help iron out the inevitable disputes between the parties. They can provide symbolic and material incentives to help make the agreement more acceptable both to the rank-and-file of belligerent groups and the wider public, as well as sanctioning those who seek to wreck the agreement.

They can help increase the viability of implementation by providing resources to support reforms as well as reconstruction, reintegration and reconciliation processes. Measures to promote transitional justice or to implement demobilisation are just some of the many specific and inter-related challenges where external assistance may be invaluable.

Perhaps most important is for external actors to sustain their constructive involvement in the process for the long-haul of the transition towards consolidating peace – while simultaneously recognising that attempts to impose overly prescriptive approaches can backfire and undermine the ownership essential to the long-term sustainability of change.