By I. William Zartman

The parties’ perception of a mutually hurting stalemate is a necessary condition for the opening of negotiations to end a conflict. Once all sides realize they cannot win with further escalation, and the status quo is unacceptably damaging (this is a hurting stalemate), the conflict is said to be “ripe” for resolution. While that perception may be insufficient in and of it self, the absence of ripeness does not mean we should walk away and do nothing. Too often, the absence of ripeness is cited as an excuse for total disengagement. However, that is when efforts are needed more than ever to move the conflict to the point where it is susceptible to mediation or negotiation. If a conflict is not ripe, it can be ripened, and if an interested party cannot ripen it, it can position itself for later involvement. Indeed, if ripeness is not present, its components can serve as a target that helps identify obstacles and suggests ways of handling them and managing the problem until resolution becomes possible. Even when a conflict is ripe for negotiation, practitioners need to employ all their skills and apply all the concepts of negotiation and mediation to take advantage of that necessary but insufficient condition in order to turn it into a successful peacemaking process.

Ripening is a challenge to creative diplomacy. Since ripeness theory indicates that ripeness is a subjective perception that results from objective indicators plus persuasion, these are the two elements that require attention in ripening. The parties need to feel that they are in a mutually hurting stalemate and that there is a way out only through negotiation, mediation or a related non-coercive process. If some objective elements are present, persuasion is needed to bring out the perception of both the stalemate and the pain. Such was the message of Henry Kissinger (U.S. President Nixon’s Secretary of State) in the Sinai withdrawal negotiations1 and Chester Crocker (U.S. President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) in the Angolan negotiations,2 among many others, where the United States diplomats emphasized the absence of real alternatives (stalemate) and the high cost of the current conflict course (pain). Conflicting parties may believe that pain is evidence of commitment and stalemate is a challenge to toughing it out, until a new opportunity to escalate out of the painful stalemate arises. Persuasion from a trusted third party or from voices within the conflicting parties is needed to change this perception.

The other element critical to persuasion is the perception of a way out, a realization — necessarily bilateral — that the other party is willing to join in the search for a negotiated solution and that such a solution does exist in principle. The perception of a way out need not identify a specific agreement, but rather merely the belief that an agreement can be found. It is as much a perception of the other party’s willingness to bargain as it is of a bargaining range. In its absence, a third party or internal faction is needed to encourage that perception, but also to encourage thinking about possible solutions. Third parties may also need to be involved much more directly, serving as a go-between to carry each party’s perception of a possible agreement to the other.

If there is no objective indicator to which to refer, ripening may involve an even more active engagement of the mediator, altering that role from communication and formulation to manipulation.3As a manipulator, the mediator may increase the size of the stakes, attracting the parties to share in a pot that otherwise would have been too small. Kissinger’s action to increase the size of the pot during the second Sinai disengagement through United States aid is an example of the first type of manipulation, to enlarge the stakes in a successful outcome. Or the mediator may limit the actions of the parties in conflict, thereby providing objective elements for the stalemate. NATO bombing of Serb positions in Bosnia in 1995 helped to create a hurting stalemate, as did the American arming of Israel during the October war in 1973 or providing arms to Morocco (after two years of moratorium) in 1981 are typical examples, among many others, of the mediating body (here meaning NATO or the U.S., not just one person) acting as a manipulator to bring about a stalemate. Such actions are delicate and dangerous, since they threaten the neutrality and hence the usefulness of the mediator, but on occasion they may be deemed necessary.

Crocker’s experience in Angola indicates, first and above all, the importance of being present and available to the disputants while waiting for the moment to ripen, so as to be able to seize it when it occurs. To begin with, Crocker4 lists a number of important insights for positioning:

• Give the parties some fresh ideas to shake them up;

• Keep new ideas loose and flexible and avoid getting bogged down early in details;

• Establish basic principles to form building blocks of a settlement;

• Become an indispensable channel for negotiation; and

• Establish an acceptable mechanism for negotiation and an appropriate format for registering an agreement.

Other strategies include items identified with pre-negotiations:5

• Identify the parties to be involved in the settlement;

• Identify the issues to be resolved, and separate out issues not resolvable in the conflict;

• Air alternatives to the current conflict course;

• Establish bridges between the parties;

• Clarify costs and risks involved in seeking settlement;

• Establish reciprocity, the sense that each party will reciprocate the other’s concessions; and

• Assure support for a settlement policy within each party’s domestic constituency.

None of these things is easy to do, of course, nor are they done quickly. But working toward these goals, even when the conflict is not “ripe,” is likely to create a ripe moment much more quickly than letting the conflict simply follow its normal course.

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By I. William Zartman

1 Matti Golan, The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger (Bantam, 1976), 52.

2 Chester A, Crocker, High Noon in Southern Africa (Norton, 1992), 381-82 ia.

3 I William Zartman & Saadia Touval, “International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era,” in eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, & Pamela Aall, Managing Global Chaos (Washington: United States Institute of Peace, 1997); Touval, Saadia, “Mediators’ Leverage,” (National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Conflict Resolution, 1999); Donald Rothchild, Managing Ethnic Conflict in Africa (Washington: Brookings, 1997).

4 Crocker, 471-72; see also Richard Haass, Conflicts Unending (Yale University Press, 1990); Marrack Goulding, Enhancing the United Nations’ Effectiveness in Peace and Security (United Nations: Report to the Secretary General, June 30, 1997).

5 Stein, et al. l994.

William Zartman is a Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution and Director of Conflict Management. His areas of expertise include: North and Sub-Saharan Africa; Southern Africa; Middle East; developing nations; human rights; international relations; negotiation and conflict resolution; North-South issues; and political risk analysis. Dr. Zartman has a number of publications on negotiation including his work on Beyond Intractability, an online 'encyclopedia' with easy-to-understand essays focused on the dynamics of conflict. www.beyondintractability.org