After a previous post about the need for mediation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I thought it would be appropriate for an historical lesson on mediation at the Congress of Westphalia — which was, in a way, one of the most mediated conferences ever. But first, let’s step back and talk about mediation in general.
Mediation, as the name implies, involves having a third party between the two conflicting parties. The role of the mediator can vary widely, from simply arranging a way for the conflicting parties to talk (so-called bons offices, or “good offices”), to actually making a decision to resolve the conflict after hearing arguments from both sides (which is called “arbitration”). The term “mediation” is rarely used (in my experience) very specifically in international relations, so it can stand in for bons offices and arbitration as well as for what technically counts as mediation: a process in which the mediator facilitates communication between the conflicting parties and can propose solutions, but lacks the authority to make a binding judgment.
In practice, arbitration is only an option if the conflicting parties are very weak relative to the mediator(s), for example, if the U.N. were to mediate between two Third World nations. That obviously doesn’t apply in the case of the Russia-Ukraine war. What, therefore, is the benefit of mediation?
There are a couple of reasons why having a mediator can be a useful catalyst in peace negotiations. The first is that states generally do not like to initiate peace talks, which can be seen as a sign of weakness; having a third party propose them allows both states to accept the proposal without either having to make the first move. Second, there may be some formal barriers to communication between states, in which case a mediator is the only way they can carry out discussions. This is a very common case both in the 17th century and in the modern world. Governments may not recognize the legitimacy of the state they are fighting, so they only way for them to carry on discussions is through a third party that has the trust of both (or all) conflicting parties. This was even more of an issue in the 17th century, when individual ambassadors often claimed titles that other states did not recognize. Since nobility is no longer a feature of most governments, this is rarely a problem now; but mediation still provides important value, often just by offering a neutral location to conduct talks.
Besides facilitating communication, mediators also implicitly pressure parties to come to some agreement. Sometimes, the pressure can be explicit: the Dutch actually gave up their role mediating an end to the war between Sweden and Denmark (1643-1645) and joined on the Swedish side. But normally, it is more of an implied threat that the mediators will somehow help a side if its opponents are not negotiating in good faith. One can easily imagine this sort of pressure in talks between Russia and Ukraine, when a stubborn Ukraine could risk losing its Western aid if its demands are unreasonable. There is probably relatively little that the West could threaten Russia with in the contrary situation, but it could offer inducements (e.g., selective removal of sanctions) in exchange for concessions in the negotiations.
Theoretically, mediators can also provide a service by suggesting compromises. At Westphalia, the conflicting parties were amazingly creative at coming up with ways to split the difference on issues, so I’m not sure how helpful mediators would be in this regard. However, as with initiating peace talks, sometimes making a concession is too damaging to a state’s prestige for it to propose on its own, in which case having a third party suggest the idea can ease the humiliation by allowing a state to agree to the proposal in the name of peace, without either making the offer itself or agreeing to something that originated with its opponent.
In the next installment, I will discuss mediation efforts at Westphalia.
Written by dcroxton
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