How Can Negotiations Bring Wars to an End?


Oriana Skylar Mastro, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime (Cornell University Press, 2019).


The peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban raises a lot of questions. The most important question is this — what took so long? Both sides knew that a decisive victory was impossible. At the same time, the contours of a negotiated settlement were visible years ago. Nevertheless, the conflict endured for nearly two decades, and thousands of lives were lost.

Afghanistan is not the first example of the United States being reluctant to negotiate an end to a conflict. The terms of the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Vietnam War in 1973 were essentially available to the Johnson administration in 1968. But neither U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson nor South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu were ready to agree to the terms that would leave South Vietnam intact, but in a weaker position relative to the North.



Why do warring parties wait so long to start peace negotiations? How can we get to that stage more quickly and definitively?

The tension between the imperative to fight and the imperative to negotiate are explored in Oriana Skylar Mastro’s timely new book, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime. The purported hawks, those pressing for maximal military objectives, are often preoccupied with finding the right time to begin negotiations. Conversely, the doves, who seem to favor negotiations, are often gravely concerned about political opponents questioning their toughness.

The Korean War, Sino-Indian War, and the Vietnam War — which Mastro examines in her book — highlight the challenge decisionmakers face about whether to carry on or extend the war or begin the negotiation for peace. War is considered synonymous with fighting, but fighting and talking are inextricably linked during wartime. Warring parties fear that proposing talks signals weakness — and that if an enemy senses weakness, it will escalate the conflict or change tactics. Generally speaking, only after states have demonstrated power and resiliency — and are thus assured that their opponents are not able to greatly intensify the conflict in return — will they seek out negotiations.

During the initial stages of almost any war there is a period when states are unwilling to negotiate. States expecting absolute victory are more likely to view openness to negotiation as a sign of weakness, and to view negotiations a tool to get the other side to surrender. But over the course of a war, that attitude can change. As Mastro illustrates in a Korean War case study, China moved from a closed position, to a closed position with some limited negotiation aims, to an open posture seeking an end to the war.

To reduce the chance that peace talks will signal weakness to opponents or domestic constituencies, one strategy is to begin back-channel negotiations out of the public view. That may allow parties to reach agreements before the stage when their publics would support protracted negotiations and compromise. Israeli and Palestinian diplomats in the 1990s were aware of domestic pressures and hence conducted their negotiations in far-flung European capitals like Oslo, out of the view of the public (and sometimes without the authorization of their immediate superiors). A similar secrecy shrouded the negotiations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran. Clandestine diplomacy has a checkered and a somewhat maligned reputation in international affairs. Many observers blamed the secret treaty provisions among European powers for setting off an unexpected chain reaction of mobilizations and counter mobilizations that led to the outbreak of World War I. In response, one of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points was the tenet of “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.”

But secrecy might be especially valuable in nudging parties to explore negotiations. For several years in the 2000s, special envoys from Pakistan and India held talks in hotel rooms in foreign capitals, out of the view of their publics, which viewed the government across the border with suspicion. The countries had engaged in hostilities since their partition in 1947, but in the 2000s Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatched negotiators to bring the two countries toward peace, even as groups within each country worked to inflame tensions. The negotiators’ back channel set out an agreement for the disputed Kashmir region, giving residents special rights to move and trade on both sides of the border. Musharraf in particular was concerned about preparing the public for warmer relations and about the consequences of going against the wishes of Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence service, the I.S.I. Eventually, Musharraf’s power waned. He resigned and left public life in 2008, and the back-channel negotiations ended.

Some back-channel negotiations succeed after stops and starts. The conventional history of U.S.-Cuba relations since 1959 highlights the tensions and outright hostilities of the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the two countries have engaged in secret back-channel negotiations in every U.S. presidential administration since Eisenhower’s — despite public provocations. The long history of the back channel paved the way for the 2014 restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Private diplomacy between heads of state is another kind furtive negotiation. For example, Turkey threatened to invade Cyprus in 1964 in the midst of hostilities between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. President Lyndon B. Johnson privately told Turkey that if it proceeded, the United States would suspend military aid and refuse to come to its defense if it were invaded by the Soviet Union. Sometimes negotiations can prevent hostilities from getting worse, if only for a time. Turkey eventually invaded Cyprus in 1974 and attempted to annex the whole island.

Mastro’s case studies also reveal how many other factors are at work, including parties’ sometimes incorrect calculations about the costs of not talking. How much variation is there among the individuals at work here, too? Future research could examine archives, public statements or use psychological experiments to analyze whether generals, bureaucrats and politicians believe that a willingness to negotiate conveys weakness. What decision biases shape their beliefs about negotiations? Do politicians, generals, and bureaucrats view costs differently?

Although Mastro is careful to avoid outrunning her evidence and confines her policy prescriptions to cases of interstate war, her recommendations could plausibly extend to cases of civil war and internal conflicts. Conflicts within states, which feature a bevy of state forces, armed non-state actors, and external interveners, have become far more frequent and severe over the last fifty years. For its part, the United States has not formally declared war since 1941, but has often found itself involved as an outside party or even belligerent in other people’s conflicts.

One of the book’s key insights is that third-party mediators have an opportunity to mitigate the strategic costs of talks even while fighting continues. Mastro suggests that a major power such as the United States propose talks in the first days of a conflict as a way to skip the extended silent period of a war and shorten its duration. This advice certainly has merit in pointing out that early and relatively costless diplomatic measures might contribute to peace. But it also overlooks circumstances when the United States itself might be loath to get involved. Proposing negotiations, then, could be seen as capitulating. After invading Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein repeatedly called for a regional negotiation that would establish a linkage between Iraq-Kuwait relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States, however, had no interest in facilitating such negotiations. Backing up Saudi Arabia, President George H. W. Bush offered no alternative but Iraq’s complete withdrawal from Kuwait.

The situation becomes even more complicated in conflicts where the United States is a direct participant and thus tries to serve as both mediator and contestant. In some respects the conflict in Afghanistan is essentially a conflict between the central government and the Afghan Taliban, between which the United States is trying to broker a conciliation. On the other hand, the United States itself remains deeply embedded within the conflict.

Paradoxically, the best cases where the United States can offer its good offices early in a conflict are the conflicts in which it has the least at stake and lower levels of commitment. Especially if kept secret or conducted through a go-between, these arrangements can allow warring parties to save face even as they undertake difficult processes of concessions. The United States can also create more direct incentives to bring parties to the table. It can offers allies assurance of continued military support or intelligence verification to convince belligerents to begin negotiations. Such a proactive approach to wartime negotiations could reinvigorate American diplomacy and provide a new opportunity for the Pentagon and State Department to work together to increase global stability.

The 21st century will provide its own challenges, however. Is secret diplomacy possible today, in an age of the 24-hour news cycle and the monitoring of electronic communications? Will rumor and disinformation spread on social media exacerbate conflict? In less than a day, artificial intelligence programs can generate a fake United Nations speech credible enough to be shared as real. Countering disinformation may be a new preliminary step required to get warring parties on the path to talks. With the United States seemingly stepping back from its role as the sole superpower and policeman, cultivating more potential mediators could be crucial. Alongside the United States, regional powers and international institutions such as the United Nations could improve global stability by investing in the diplomatic and technological skills that help bring warring parties to the table from day one.



Patrick S. Roberts is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Ariel I. Ahram is associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public & International Affairs in Arlington.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)