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The famous U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke once quipped, “Peacemaking is like jazz, you have to listen to the other instruments and improvise.” Will the modern peacemakers continue to stick to traditional means of settlement or will they rather opt for more unorthodox means—for more jazz?

Even in a twenty-first-century world, which is devising new and varied threats to international peace, diplomacy will always be needed. It is still a powerful instrument. There are strong grounds for believing that the art of diplomacy with all its accumulated experience and multilateral institutions, with its huge arsenal of expertise, is still capable of dealing with almost any kind of future conflict situation. International law will also undoubtedly continue to be a lodestar for those tackling new threats. It is not a static science, but a discipline that constantly evolves and that draws on lessons learned from past negotiations, political developments, scholarly contributions, and plain common sense.

Bernard Bot
Bernard Bot has had an extensive international career in the political and diplomatic fields. He was the Dutch minister of foreign affairs from 2003 to 2007.

And yet the job of diplomacy is getting harder. Consider some worrying global trends. To begin with, most modern conflicts are not fought between states, but are more likely to be ideological clashes fought between unequal parties. Even if a state party is involved, it often faces a nonstate actor such as a terrorist movement, a religious body, or a marginalized tribe inside its own country. Thus multilateral organizations, which often lack a mandate to mediate in these asymmetric internal conflicts, are struggling to maintain their influence.

Moreover, negotiations between unequal parties may lead to long-drawn-out processes or even no consensus. The situation in Yemen bears witness to this unfortunate dynamic. In a conflict such as this, peacemaking may only ensure a temporary halting of hostilities, during which the warring factions stock up on weapons and resume fighting as soon as they think their chances of winning have improved. Consequently, peacemaking may not lead to peace but to an interim cessation of hostilities.

What Kind of Peace?

When discussing peacemaking, practitioners must first ask what constitutes “peace.” Conventional wisdom has it that a successful peace agreement means first bringing a conflict to a lasting end by terminating hostilities between the warring parties, and then securing a promise of long-term stability. The second condition encompasses elements as various as new boundary demarcations, the exchange of prisoners, protection of minorities, determining mining rights, and internationally supervised disarmament. This was the case for example with the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement of 2018, the Astana peace talks on Syria in 2017–2018, and the peace talks with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in 2009. Yet a stable peace often proves impossible, and peace agreements break down because they fail to resolve deep underlying ideological differences.

The rapidly changing international landscape with its multiple conflicts demands a more holistic approach toward peacemaking, one that offers a broader view of the current international situation and of the instruments available to promote peace. This refers to the Kantian idea of “perpetual peace,” which acknowledges that traditional means of settling disputes are often no longer sufficient and that an unorthodox, outside-the-box approach may sometimes be the best option.

What follows are some thoughts identifying and analyzing key elements underlying a serious contemporary peacemaking endeavor, including some of the more unconventional strategies being employed to bring parties to a modern conflict together.

This means breaking the peacemaking process down into different phases before drawing some tentative conclusions. The first phase is starting negotiations, the second focuses on effective implementation of the agreement, and the third one concerns monitoring and supervising the various elements of the deal reached.

Starting Negotiations

The greatest challenge nowadays is not how to conclude peace negotiations, but how to start them. Getting as many warring parties as possible around the negotiating table demands skill and delicacy. Just convincing them to meet somewhere informally, be it under the aegis of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, or another mediator, can be tricky. The mediator needs to be acutely aware of local or regional factors. As far as possible, all participants have to be accepted as equal partners during the negotiating process. This may be a controversial first step as more often than not smaller or nonstate actors do not enjoy the same status and level of respect as more powerful participants.

Head of Political Office of the Taliban Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai attends the peace talks on Moscow format at the President Hotel in Moscow, Russia, on February 6, 2019. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Negotiating parties may be states, but they may also be tribal representatives, insurgents, or nonstate actors. Letting them take part in talks on an equal footing sounds logical, but it may come at a price. For example, when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration recently sought to start peace negotiations with the Taliban, the legal Afghan government was cut out of the talks—to its great dismay. Former president Barack Obama’s administration had resolved not to hold talks with the Taliban unless the Afghan government was an official party to the process. Its successor got fed up with the endless delays in starting a meaningful peace process. The Trump administration decided to take the unorthodox approach of not including the legitimate Afghan government in talks. It remains to be seen, of course, whether this novel approach will lead to a settlement acceptable to all parties, including the excluded government. The latter may well balk at any result that emerges from these discussions.

Almost half a century ago, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger set a precedent by cutting the government of South Vietnam out of peace talks with North Vietnam. The United States has repeated this practice much more recently in the Yemen conflict, when it used its heavyweight status to get as many parties as possible to attend so-called exploratory discussions. A U.S. scholar said at the time: “Saudi Arabia needed U.S. support to start its war in Yemen and it will need U.S. support to end it. No other country has sufficient leverage to influence Saudi behavior.”1

The arbitration case settled at the Peace Palace in the Hague in 2009 between the central government of Sudan and the SPLM/A, a Sudanese liberation movement over the demarcation of the Abyei boundary, provides another example of an asymmetrical negotiation. In 2007, tensions between the SPLM/A resulted in its withdrawal from the Government of National Unity over, among other matters, the issue of the Abyei region.

The Yemen conflict demonstrates the myriad difficulties of getting parties to agree to a meeting, as long as they believe that fighting suits them better than figuring out how to end a war. One factor remains constant however: in the modern world, as in the past, superpower pressure can be essential to force parties to leave their dugouts. In this instance, the United States managed to arrange a cease-fire between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, backed by the Saudis. In December 2018, the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths—the third such envoy in four years—persuaded the rebels and the government to meet in Sweden for initial talks on a possible framework for peace negotiations. Even then it proved impossible to get all the parties involved in the conflict to attend. Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as representatives from the Southern Transition Council and other Yemeni groups were conspicuous by their absence. Unfortunately, even superpower pressure has its limits.

These examples make it clear that voluntary participation in a peace process is rare. Sustained international pressure, especially from big powers, is indispensable in getting warring parties around the table. Without pressure from guarantor states Russia, Turkey, and Iran, peace talks on Syria would simply not have taken place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in 2017 and 2018, however urgent earlier appeals by other states and international organizations to halt hostilities may have been. A second observation is that it is desirable or sometimes even inevitable to exclude some of the warring factions or a government itself from this initial stage altogether. The weak point in this approach is the risk that results will not be accepted by all parties and that the talks may only lead to a truce, a breathing space before fighting resumes.

Implementation and Monitoring

Once peace negotiations have concluded, the second stage, beginning the actual implementation of a peace deal, is even more demanding. In other words, full peacemaking entails getting the relevant parties around the table not just to end hostilities but in order to reach a deal with a promise of long term stability.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed one hundred years ago in June 1919, offers a cautionary tale to negotiators even today about the costs of a flawed agreement. It teaches them that a lasting peace agreement requires more than a few signatures on a piece of paper; that participation by all parties should be based on equality; and moreover, that a peace agreement that is presented as a capitulation by the losing side may be short-lived, especially if the vanquished are convinced, as the Germans were, that they had been saddled with unjust burdens. Versailles, indeed, sowed the seeds for the Second World War rather than laying the foundations for a lasting peace and a new stable international order. (For more, see the essay by Jay Winter in this collection.)

Great Powers can end up being bullies, as at Versailles, but they are still indispensable. In the regional conflicts of our day, pressure from outside powers—preferably big ones—has been essential in curtailing the violence. One example is the former Yugoslavia where the U.S. applied intense pressure to finally secure the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. Likewise, the blessing of the United States was key in securing the Oslo Accords framework for an interim agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1993.

As mentioned earlier, it took three outside parties in the Syria peace talks, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, to create the necessary conditions for halting hostilities, while Bashar al-Assad’s regime was excluded. In North and South Korea, an attempt to ease tensions ended recently in dramatic failure. Why? Because of a lack of even the most basic preparations for this meeting, a lack of experience on the side of the United States, and the mistaken belief that “the art of the deal” in private negotiations could be applied in an international context. Taken together, all these elements contributed to a formidable disaster.

The negotiation and implementation stages are not clear-cut and sometimes intertwined. Implementation of a deal may already start during the negotiating process or negotiations may continue on and off once the implementation phase has begun. The negotiator has to be on guard to ensure that some parties will not attempt to exploit this situation by starting implementation, apparently in good faith, and then extorting additional concessions as a condition for continuing the peace talks. Another risk arises if a clause stipulating a “review conference” at relatively short notice is included in the treaty. That may be a necessary concession to get parties to agree, but it may also encourage some to withhold vital concessions during the initial negotiation phase.

Sometimes parties to a conflict also request a “transition phase” between the initial agreement and a final peace deal. This may seem an understandable request especially in situations where fighting has been going on for decades and parties are being asked to make painful concessions at relatively short notice. The South Sudan peace agreement of September 2018 is a case in point. Soon after the third peace agreement was concluded, it became clear that long-standing quarrels about access to land, minerals, water, and arms were thwarting proper implementation of the deal. This failed implementation led to a new round of negotiations and haggling about how the text of the agreement should be interpreted. A new deal was successfully concluded between South Sudan’s president and the main rebel leader in 2018, but there are concerns over whether its terms will be observed.

The third element essential for a lasting peace process is that it be monitored and kept in the international eye. This subject requires an essay on itself. Briefly put, the emergence of a new order or a new era of stability that sees economic growth, good governance, and respect of human rights can only materialize if there is some form of international supervision. Here international organizations, especially those working under the aegis of the UN, can come in and play an indispensable role. It is true that the impact of international organizations on the first two stages of peacemaking has lessened in recent times. But the financial means, experience, and well-trained troops and supervisors of international multilateral organizations mean they are well equipped to assume this task, of long-term facilitation of a peace agreement.

As minister of foreign affairs of the Netherland, I experienced many of these painful lessons at first hand. Monitoring can be a delicate task and quite often a disappointing experience. Tepid support by the authorities, lack of trust from the population in the duration and effectiveness of a peacekeeping mission, or sabotage activities by small subversive groups may derail even the most carefully planned and thoroughly prepared peacekeeping effort. In 2004–2007, I thought I had made “stormproof” arrangements with then president Ahmed Karzai in Afghanistan about a Dutch monitoring and peacekeeping role in Uruzgan Province prior to the Netherlands’ participation in the International Security Assistance Force mandated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and led by the alliance from 2003 till 2014.

In Uruzgan, initially our team was successful in implementing our programs. A peaceful environment was created. We oversaw repair of roads, access to markets, reinforcement of small dikes, the opening of schools and hospitals for women and girls, and the partial eradication of poppy culture in close cooperation with the local authorities and population. All this was in the context of the “3-D philosophy” of diplomacy, defense, and development. But soon an issue arose about the length of our stay. It became known that it would be for a limited period only, and that, in turn, led to a gradual erosion of trust from the local population. In meetings with provincial leaders, I was often asked, “Who will protect us and the projects you have initiated once you have left us?” They feared that the Taliban might regain power and punish those who had collaborated with foreign peacekeepers. These doubts undermined our efforts and emboldened the Taliban to step up its subversive activities. As a result, peacekeeping aimed at securing long-term stability turned into a peace-enforcing effort with a shorter-term focus.

The same questions had been raised earlier in al-Muthanna in southern Iraq. There, Dutch troops had been deployed as guarantors of an unstable peace deal. In that part of Iraq, we were more successful because there were no major conflicts between opposing factions. We gradually gained the confidence of local authorities and the population, and successor nations could concentrate on reconstruction and development.

I can only conclude from these experiences that peacekeeping and monitoring should be of a long-term nature if it is to yield lasting results. If local parties know that it will be a short-lived interlude, warring factions will be tempted to resume their quarrels rather sooner than later, profiting from the indecisiveness of foreign monitors. A peacekeeping mission should, furthermore, be able to reckon on widespread local support. If not, allegiances may shift quickly. Third, in the framework of the 3-D approach, there should be a convincing defense component. That also implies willingness to take forceful action against possible sabotage activities by small terrorist groupings.

Final Remarks

Some concluding remarks are in order. First of all, modern peacemakers will need to cope with modern challenges. They face a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, warring parties without official international status, and new developments such as fake news, drones, and social media.

Yet, in the international landscape the modern is also combined with the classically familiar. In some regards, the landscape holds similar characteristics to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Big superpowers like China and Russia increasingly make themselves felt in international conflicts, even indirectly, while the biggest, the United States, is trying to isolate itself behind an “America First” wall. The echoes of a century ago, of U.S. debates about isolationism and whether or not to join the League of Nations after the Second World War, are unmistakable.

At the same time, multilateralism’s influence is waning and nationalism is resurgent. History tells us that this bodes ill for long-term peace and stability. This new nationalism may spawn more conflicts inside states fought between nonstate actors. The constellation of diminishing multilateral supervision and increasing national populism has already led to a series of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Yemen, and North Africa.

Diplomats have their work cut out to end these protracted conflicts. They need to be realistic and accept that no two peace negotiations are the same. Local circumstances differ from case to case, and a long-festering historical conflict that has lain dormant may erupt again all of a sudden in a different form. A strong dose of unorthodoxy is desirable in order to succeed. A readiness to engage in “outside-the-box” thinking has therefore become a precondition for success. This is a true challenge indeed for future negotiators.

Diplomatic creativity always needs to be combined with legal rigor. A good legal text is fundamental to a peace agreement. The legal side is sometimes belittled as mere hairsplitting of overzealous jurists. But loopholes in a peace agreement may quickly give the conflict parties all sort of reasons not to implement parts of an agreement. Throughout history, philosophers and statesmen have dreamed of a lasting peace. Thinkers as different as Abbé de St. Pierre and Immanuel Kant have advocated a project of “perpetual peace.” Will it remain a dream forever? Henry Kissinger remarked in his book World Order that: “Conflicts within and between societies have occurred since the dawn of civilization.”2 The number of conflicts in the world has certainly not diminished since Kissinger’s day. That may be a sad conclusion, but I feel entitled to draw at least one positive note from this observation, namely that the “art of peacemaking” will also remain perpetual, that wherever there are conflicts, there will also be peacemakers.


1 Gregory D. Johnsen, “A Roadmap for Yemen Peace Talks,” Century Foundation, December 19, 2018,

2 Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014), 355.