Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution




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Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution

Christer Jönsson & Karin Aggestam

Prepared for the NISA conference on “Power, Vision and Order in World Politics”, Odense, 23-25 May, 2007.

Draft of chapter for SAGE Handbook on Conflict Resolution


The words ”diplomacy” and ”diplomatic” are used in several different meanings. In fact, the words have been characterized as “monstrously imprecise,” simultaneously signifying “content, character, method, manner and art” (Marshall, 1990: 7). According to Sir Peter Marshall (1990), at least six related meanings may be distinguished, all of which have a bearing on conflict resolution.

First, “diplomacy” sometimes refers to the content of foreign affairs as a whole. Diplomacy then becomes more or less synonymous with foreign policy. Several books and articles portraying the diplomacy of countries X, Y and Z are indicative of this usage. Second, “diplomacy” may connote the conduct of foreign policy. The word is then used as a synonym of statecraft. Henry Kissinger’s book Diplomacy (1994), which draws on his experiences as US Secretary of State, is a case in point. Ostensibly, the broad understanding of diplomacy in terms of foreign policy or statecraft is more common in the United States than in Europe (cf. James, 1993: 92; Sharp, 1999: 37).

A third connotation of diplomacy focuses on the management of international relations by negotiation. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary defines diplomacy as “the conduct of international relations by negotiation.” Adam Watson (1982: 33) offers a similar definition as “negotiations between political entities which acknowledge each other’s independence.” In more elaborate terms, G.R. Berridge (1995: 1) characterizes diplomacy as “the conduct of international relations by negotiation rather than by force, propaganda, or recourse to law, and by other peaceful means (such as gathering information or engendering goodwill) which are either directly or indirectly designed to promote negotiation.”

Fourth, diplomacy may be understood as the use of diplomats, organized in a diplomatic service. This usage is more time-bound, as the organization and professionalization of diplomacy is rather recent. Only in 1626 did Richelieu institute the first foreign ministry, and England established its Foreign Office as late as 1782 (Anderson, 1993: 73-87; Hamilton and Langhorne, 1995: 71-75). Not until the latter half of the nineteenth century did European governments begin to recruit diplomats on the basis of merit rather than social rank, so that by the outbreak of World War I diplomacy could be considered a fairly well established profession (Anderson, 1993: 123; Berridge, 1995: 8).

Fifth, diplomacy, and especially the adjective “diplomatic,” often refers to the manner in which relations are conducted. To be diplomatic means to use “intelligence and tact,” to quote Ernest Satow’s (1979: 3) classical formulation. A sixth, related conceptualization is to understand diplomacy more specifically as the art or skills of professional diplomats. The craftsmanship of diplomats includes shared norms and rituals as well as a shared language, characterized by courtesy, nonredundancy and constructive ambiguity (cf. Cohen, 1981: 32-5).

To be sure, all these different conceptualizations can be related to conflict resolution. Diplomatic efforts to resolve international conflicts constitute integral parts of the foreign policy and statecraft of the involved states; they invariably include negotiations; they engage professional diplomats, and rely on their mores and skills. When related to conflict resolution, diplomacy is perhaps most commonly understood as diplomatic practice. As noted, negotiation is the most prominent practice associated with diplomacy, with mediation as an important subcategory. Negotiation and mediation are subjects of other chapters of this Handbook and will not be treated at length here. Suffice it to point out that the prefix “diplomatic” implies that these and other practices are carried out by diplomats, that is, official representatives of states.

An alternative understanding of diplomacy, which transcends the ambiguity referred to initially, avoids duplication with other chapters and facilitates a discussion of its contributions to conflict resolution, is in terms of a transhistorical international institution (cf. Jönsson and Hall, 2005). Diplomacy, like war, can be seen as a perennial institution, influencing relations between polities throughout history.


Diplomacy and War as International Institutions

An institutional perspective on diplomacy implies an understanding in terms of a relatively stable collection of social practices consisting of easily recognized roles coupled with underlying norms and a set of rules or conventions defining appropriate behavior for, and governing relations among, occupants of these roles (Young, 1989: 32; cf. March and Olsen, 1998: 948). These norms and rules “prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations” (Keohane, 1988: 383). Diplomacy as an institution represents a response to “a common problem of living separately and wanting to do so, while having to conduct relations with others” (Sharp, 1999: 51).

Understood as an ancient, perennial international institution, diplomacy is comparable to, and contemporary with, war. In a sociological or institutional sense war can be seen as a “social custom utilizing regulated violence in connection with intergroup conflicts.” War, like diplomacy, “appears to have originated with permanent societies” (Wright, 1942: 36). Diplomacy and war alike presume that individuals, through language and tradition, are able to identify themselves with the group. And the recorded history of both institutions dates back to the literate civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (Wright, 1942: 38).

Diplomacy is often contrasted with war. Thus, diplomacy has been characterized as “the peaceful conduct of relations amongst political entities” (Hamilton and Langhorne, 1995: 1) or “the art of convincing without using force” (Aron, 1967: 24). Whereas diplomacy is commonly seen as the opposite of war or any use of force, several scholars are reluctant to draw such a clear-cut line. “Diplomacy is among the oldest forms of intervention to limit recourse to war but it has also been its handmaiden” (Fierke, 2005: 21). Students of contemporary international relations have coined the phrase “coercive diplomacy” to denote the use of threats or limited force to persuade opponents not to change the status quo in their favor or to call off or undo an encroachment (George, 1991; George and Simons, 1994). The concept was used in Thomas Schelling’s (1966) pioneering study of the political use of force, in which he distinguished between the unilateral, “undiplomatic” use of force and coercive diplomacy based on the power to hurt. Whereas the success of brute force depends on its use, Schelling argues, the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve.

It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply. It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice – violence that can still be withheld or inflicted, or that a victim believes can be withheld or inflicted. (Schelling, 1966: 3)

Coercive threats are made either to compel or to deter. Compellence refers to attempts to get the opponent to change behavior; deterrence to efforts at stopping actions before they take place. UN threats of military action to Saddam Hussein if he did not remove his troops from Kuwait in 1990, as well as NATO threats to start bombing Serbia if Milosevic did not sign the Rambouillet Accords in 1999 are examples of compellence. Deterrence was prominent during the Cold War, as the United States and NATO as well as the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact communicated to each other that military intervention would inflict tremendous pain. The purpose of compelling as well as deterring threats is to convince the opponent that the cost of noncompliance is sufficiently high to elicit compliance (cf. Schelling, 1966: 69-72; Fierke, 2005: 81-82).

Diplomacy, in this view, can be an integral part of armed conflict, insofar as the critical targets are “in the minds of the enemy as much as on the battlefield; the state of the enemy’s expectations is as important as the state of his troops; the threat of violence in reserve is more important than the commitment of force in the field” (Schelling, 1966: 142-3). In other words, several types of interventions can be labeled “diplomatic,” insofar as they “involve some form of communication to avoid or limit recourse to force, as well as to realize it” (Fierke, 2005: viii). Thus, in one sense, diplomacy and war can be seen as complementary, “one or the other dominating in turn, without one ever entirely giving way to the other except in the extreme case either of absolute hostility, or of absolute friendship or total federation” (Aron, 1967: 40).

In Aghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, peace and war exist in parallel and contemporary peace operations are simultaneously making war and building peace. Warfare and peacemaking are therefore intimately connected and should be regarded as a continuous process. Various diplomatic practices, such as competitive negotiation and power mediation, illustrate the oscillation between threat and reward strategies, which are used to influence the pay-off structure and incentives toward conflict resolution. Still, the use of threats and escalation is a high-risk strategy. The parties may keep on escalating in the hope that the other side will give in. At the same time, they may find themselves unable to escape escalation. As a consequence, they are likely to end up in a “competitive irrationality” in terms of possible outcomes, such as war (Zartman and Faure, 2005: 10). For instance, the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East in recent decades has invariably been accompanied by feverish diplomatic activity. Since the breakdown of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 and subsequently the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a dangerous violent escalation in which the parties are trying to get the other side to yield and back down.

Still, “every war must end” (Iklé, 1991), which again underscores the interface between diplomacy and war. Throughout history some of the most prominent diplomatic gatherings have been in the wake of devastating wars. If the outbreak of hostilities implies the breakdown of diplomacy, the end of fighting and the final outcome of a war require diplomatic efforts. Moreover, a lot of diplomatic activity takes place in the shadow of potential violence. Crisis management is a prominent example of diplomatic interaction involving perceptions of a dangerously high probability that large-scale violence might break out.

The alternation between diplomacy and violence may also continue in the implementation phase, after a peace agreement has been signed. Most contemporary peace processes suffer from a lack of adherence to signed peace agreements. Spoiler groups, that is, actors actively engaged in violent actions aimed at undermining a peace process, are frequent phenomena and troublesome to deal with since they tend to become veto holders of peace processes. As Kydd and Walter (2002: 264) underline, “extremists are surprisingly successful in bringing down peace processes if they so desire.” For instance, only 25 percent of signed peace agreements in civil wars between 1988 and 1998 were implemented due to violence taking place during negotiations. Without any violence, 60 percent of the peace accords were implemented (Kydd & Walter, 2002: 264).. The power of spoiler groups tends to increase when political leaders publicly declare and make commitments not to negotiate and make concessions under fire. It is assumed that negotiating while violence continues signals weakness to the other side (Aggestam, 2006). Yet, in practice diplomats become hostages to spoilers who determine the pace and direction of a peace process (Darby, 2001:118). This is well illustrated in a comparison between the different negotiation styles of Yitshak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. The peace process in the 1990s was early on beleaguered by terrorist attacks, and yet Rabin declared after every attack in Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that to stop the peace process would be to give in to terror and extremism. Sharon on the contrary argued consistently that he refused to deal with the Palestinian leadership as long as the violence continued, which partly explains why every attempt to negotiate a de-escalation of the conflict failed. Hence, in recent years a major challenge for diplomats is how to manage these spoiler groups. International custodians, overseeing implementation of negotiated agreements, have therefore become increasingly common.

In short, if war and diplomacy cannot be seen as mutually exclusive institutions influencing international conflict resolution, diplomatic practices are usually contrasted with the methods of warfare. Normatively, diplomacy is preferable to war; yet states frequently resort to war in resolving their conflicts. This gives rise to two broad questions: How do the norms, rules and practices of diplomacy contribute to conflict resolution? Under what circumstances do states prefer diplomacy to war?


Diplomatic Norms and Practices Facilitating Conflict Resolution

As an international institution, diplomacy has throughout the ages rested on certain fundamental norms and provided more or less detailed rules of appropriate procedures in the intercourse between states. Some of these norms and rules have remained unchanged over long periods of time; others have changed and evolved in response to changing circumstances. Whereas most of the diplomatic normative framework facilitates conflict resolution, it should be noted that some norms, rules and practices may contribute to interstate conflicts.

Coexistence and Reciprocity

Ultimately, diplomacy rests on a norm of coexistence, allowing states “to live and let live.” In the words of Garrett Mattingly (1955: 196), “unless people realize that they have to live together, indefinitely, in spite of their differences, diplomats have no place to stand.” Acceptance of coexistence reflects the realization on the part of states that they are mutually dependent to a significant degree. Interdependence may be, and is most often, asymmetrical. Yet coexistence implies, if not equality, at least equal rights to participate in international intercourse. The norm of coexistence obviously facilitates conflict resolution, in contrast to notions of exclusion or excommunication, which render interaction with disapproved partners impossible.

Reciprocity appears to be another core normative theme running through all diplomatic practice (Cohen, 2001: 25). Reciprocity implies that exchanges should be of roughly equivalent values. Moreover, reciprocity entails contingency, insofar as actions are conditional on responses from others. Reciprocal behavior returns good for good, ill for ill. The distinction between specific and diffuse reciprocity is pertinent in this connection. In situations of specific reciprocity partners exchange items of equivalent value in a delimited time sequence, whereas diffuse reciprocity implies less precise definitions of equivalence and less narrowly bounded time sequences. Diffuse reciprocity implies that the parties do not insist on immediate and exactly equivalent reciprocation of each and every concession, on an appropriate “quid” for every “quo” (Keohane, 1986).

Buyers and sellers of houses or cars practice specific reciprocity; families or groups of close friends rely on diffuse reciprocity. Reciprocity in diplomatic relations falls in between, or oscillates between the two poles. To the extent that diplomatic interaction comes close to the pole of diffuse reciprocity, conflict resolution becomes easier. Conversely, insistence on specific reciprocity often makes it more difficult. The practice of expelling foreign diplomats for espionage or otherwise declaring them persona non grata represents one variant of specific reciprocity. When a state expels diplomats from a foreign country, that government is likely to respond in kind by immediately expelling an equivalent number of the initiating state’s own diplomats. On the one hand, the anticipation of specific reciprocity may deter states from initiating cycles of uncooperative behavior. On the other hand, the specific reciprocity triggered by the expulsion of diplomats has often aggravated interstate conflicts.

Successful conflict resolution seems to require at least a semblance of reciprocity. The denouement of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is a case in point. In exchange for the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its missiles from Cuba, the United States dismantled its missiles in Turkey (which President Kennedy had previously ordered removed as obsolescent) and pledged not to invade Cuba (which it had no intention to do). As Glenn Snyder and Paul Diesing (1977: 19) noted in their pioneering study of 16 major twentieth-century international crises, it is important “whether the loser is ‘driven to the wall’ and humiliated or given some face-saving concession that can be presented as a ‘compromise’.” And all compromises presuppose reciprocity.

Open Communication Channels and a Shared Language

Keeping communication channels open is another aspect of diplomacy that facilitates conflict resolution. “Communication is to diplomacy as blood is to the human body. Whenever communication ceases, the body of international politics, the process of diplomacy, is dead, and the result is violent conflict or atrophy” (Tran, 1987: 8). “The pristine form of diplomacy,” argues Hedley Bull (1977: 164), “is the transmitting of messages between one independent political community and another.” In short, diplomats are messengers and diplomacy involves communication between states. Ever since the first recorded diplomatic exchanges dating back to the third millennium bc in Mesopotamia, rulers have exchanged messengers, who have been the “eyes and ears” and the “mouthpieces” of governments.

Today the need to communicate is most graphically demonstrated, paradoxically, when diplomatic relations are severed and the parties almost always look for, and find, other ways of communicating (James, 1993: 96). States lacking diplomatic relations may exchange messages through intermediaries. They may also communicate directly. One method builds on the established state practice of entrusting the protection of their interests to the mission of a third state in cases of broken diplomatic relations. Through the creation of “interests sections,” consisting of diplomats of the protected state operating under the legal auspices of the protecting state, enemies may permit their own diplomats to remain in states from which they have been legally expelled. In 1977, for instance, the United States created a US interests section in the Swiss embassy in Havana at the same time as Cuba opened its interests section in the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington. Trade missions and other diplomatic fronts with genuine “cover” functions represent alternative “disguised embassies” (Berridge, 1994: 32-58). Ceremonial occasions, such as “working funerals,” and the exchange of secret, special envoys are other ways of communicating despite severed diplomatic relations (cf. Berridge, 1993, 1994).

Mediators play a central role in keeping communication channels open, ongoing and undistorted between mistrusting parties who attempt to settle a conflict. In these situations, mediators may for instance act as go-between, facilitate back-channel negotiations, supply additional information, and identify common problems that may inhibit deadlocks and enhance communication. As Princen (1992: 8) states, a mediator gathers necessary information and “serves as a regime surrogate in disputes where institutionalization is impractical.” For instance, the Norwegian diplomats played a critical role as “communicators” in 1993 between the negotiation sessions, since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the time lacked any direct communication channels.

Most importantly, diplomatic communication is facilitated by a shared language with mutually understood phrases and expressions as well as rules governing the external form of intercourse. The institutionalization of diplomacy has involved the development of a common language with ritualized phrases, which have allowed cross-cultural communication with a minimum of unnecessary misunderstanding. Courtesy, non-redundancy and constructive ambiguity are prominent features of diplomatic language. Each era appears to have its own set of ritualized phrases that enable diplomatic agents to communicate even unpleasant things with an amount of tact and courtesy. The principle of non-redundancy means that “a diplomatic communication should say neither too much nor too little because every word, nuance of omission will be meticulously studied for any shade of meaning” (Cohen, 1981: 32). Constructive ambiguity avoids premature closure of options. Circumlocution, such as understatements and loaded omissions, permits controversial things to be said in a way understood in the diplomatic community but without needless provocation (Cohen, 1981: 32-4).

We may think of diplomats as “intuitive semioticians,” as conscious producers and interpreters of signs. Although semiotics is rarely part of their formal education, diplomats are by training and experience experts at weighing words and gestures with a view to their effect on potential receivers (Jönsson, 1990: 31). We may also be reminded that hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, is explicitly associated with Hermes, the Ancient Greek deity of diplomacy (Constantinou, 1996: 35). The shared language and intersubjective structures of meaning and collective understanding among diplomats are significant assets when it comes to conflict resolution limited to the diplomatic community. However, the diplomatic language may render communication between professional diplomats and non-professionals more difficult, as the meanings of diplomatic communications are not immediately obvious to outsiders.

Commitment to Peace

Diplomats are commonly described as sharing a commitment to peace or international order. Diplomat-cum-scholar Adam Watson (1982), for example, argues that diplomats throughout history have been guided not only by raison d’état, but also by raison de système. One author refers to diplomacy as “the angels’ game,” arguing that diplomats, “regardless of nationality, have an enduring obligation to their guild and to each other to work always toward that most elusive of human objectives  a just, universal, and stable peace” (Macomber, 1997: 26). One may even wonder whether “the idea that diplomats serve peace predates that of serving the prince” (Sharp, 1998: 67). Diplomats are said to be “conscious of world interests superior to immediate national interests” (Nicolson, 1959: xi), and to feel bound by their professional ethic to “act in such a way as to ensure that the functioning of the international state system is sustained and improved” (Freeman, 1997: 139). While this may sound as old-fashioned rhetoric, benefiting the diplomatic guild, outside observers point to the continued representation of ideas.

Secularism and statism were great spurs to the development of diplomacy as a profession, but they did not overwhelm the earlier commitment to peace. Indeed, a shared commitment to peace and saving their respective princes from themselves became hallmarks of the profession, something which diplomats could hold in common to cement their sense of corps and to gain some distance from their political leaderships. (Sharp, 1998: 67)

To the extent that diplomatic agents are able to “strike a balance between diplomacy as a means of identifying and fostering ‘us’ and diplomacy as a means of fostering the latent community of mankind” (Hill, 1991: 99), diplomacy contributes to effective conflict resolution.

Diplomatic Immunity

The principle of diplomatic immunity represents another facilitating norm, insofar as it provides for unharmed contacts between diplomats of conflicting states. It is reasonable to assume, as Nicolson (1977: 6) does, that this principle was the first to become established in pre-historic times. Anthropoid apes and savages must at some stage have realized the advantages of negotiating understandings about the limits of hunting territories. With this must have come the realization that these negotiations could never reach a satisfactory conclusion if emissaries were killed and eaten. The inviolability of messengers seems to be an accepted principle among aboriginal peoples (Numelin, 1950: 147-52).

The inviolability of diplomatic agents is seen to be a prerequisite for the establishment of stable relations between polities. “Rooted in necessity, immunity was buttressed by religion, sanctioned by custom, and fortified by reciprocity” (Frey and Frey, 1999: 4). The sanctity of diplomatic messengers in the ancient world implied inviolability. Traditional codes of hospitality may have contributed to the notion of according diplomatic envoys inviolability. The medieval diplomat “represented his sovereign in the sense that he was him or embodied him (literally in some readings) when he presented himself at court” (Sharp, 1998: 61). While such a view is alien to modern thought, today’s principle of diplomatic immunity has deep roots in notions of personal representation. The most perennial and robust foundation of diplomatic immunity seems to be functional necessity: the privileges and immunities that diplomatic envoys have enjoyed throughout the ages have simply been seen as necessary to enable diplomats to perform their functions (McClanahan, 1989: 32). Functional necessity rests on the principle of reciprocity: “governments expect that other governments will reciprocate in the extension of immunities to similar categories of diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel” (Wilson, 1967: 32).

Pacta Sunt Servanda

The old dictum pacta sunt servanda, which has been a cornerstone of diplomacy for ages, increases the likelihood that agreements resolving interstate conflicts will be honored. In the Ancient Near East treaties invariably ended with summons to the deities of both parties to act as witnesses to the treaty provisions and explicit threats of divine retribution in case of violation. The number of deities assembled as treaty witnesses was often substantial, in some cases approaching one thousand (see Beckman, 1996: 80-1). Oaths were sworn by the gods of both parties, so that each ruler exposed himself to the punishment of both sets of deities should he fail to comply. The practice of uttering religious oaths as part of the ceremony of signing treaty documents is found in early Byzantine diplomacy as well. The Byzantines accepted non-Christian oaths of validation, in a way reminiscent of the Ancient Near East practice of invoking multiple deities as witnesses (Chrysos, 1992: 30). Religious appeals, at a time when Gods were considered as real as the material world, had its advantages; “since divine sanction rather than national consent gave ancient international law its obligatory quality, it was in some respects more feared and binding than modern international law” (Cohen and Westbrook, 2000: 230).

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