International Relations Mediation in International Conflicts
Molly M. Melin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0214


Mediation, like conflict, spans both history and the globe. Examples range from the diplomatic efforts by emissaries of several Greek city-states to create a truce between the Aetolian League and Macedonia during the First Macedonian War in 209 BC, to the decree by Pope Alexander VI to establish spheres of influence for Portugal and Spain in the New World in 1493, and to the efforts by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 that produced the Camp David Accords and a long-standing peace between Egypt and Israel. Actors outside a dispute may play varied roles in a dispute, but the role of mediator engages third parties to help resolve the conflict and generate lasting peace. Whereas mediators are not required to be neutral or unallied with a disputant, the third party does not overtly join the conflict on the side of a disputant. Early studies of mediation lacked the precision and information necessary for developing a systematic understanding of such a complex process; however, the topic of third-party mediation of disputes has seen a surge in the quantity and quality of research over the past twenty years. Because mediation is one of the most commonly used techniques for resolving issues among state actors, the importance of understanding the process of mediation and its outcomes cannot be understated.

General Overviews

Several publications offer general overviews of our knowledge about the mediation process. Kleiboer 1996 reviews work on mediation success, discussing the key contextual and process factors that generate the mediation outcomes. Bercovitch 2002 offers insights into the causes of mediation effectiveness. Greig and Diehl 2012 provides a general overview of mediation that is accessible to students and general readers. Wall, et al. 2001 discusses six topic areas covered by mediation research—the determinants of mediation, mediation per se, approaches used by mediators, determinants of the mediation approaches, outcomes of mediation, and determinants of the mediation outcomes. Wall and Dunne 2012 notes that even though it is known that the type of conflict, country, culture, and mediation institutions affect the mediation process, few studies have examined the relative effectiveness of specific strategies.

Defining Mediation

Many definitions of mediation exist, but the majority focuses on the involvement of a third party in aiding disputants to resolve their conflict. Zartman 2008 defines mediation as a “mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties find a solution which they cannot find themselves” (p. 155). Bercovitch, et al. 1991 similarly defines mediation as a “process of conflict management where disputants seek the assistance of, or accept an offer of help from, an individual, group, state, or organization to settle their conflict or resolve their differences without resorting to physical force or invoking the authority of law” (p. 8). Kochan and Jick 1978 is unusual in adding an element of third-party neutrality to the authors’ definition, seeing mediation as a “process in which a neutral party attempts to get the direct participants to reach an agreement” (p. 211). Kleiboer 1998 highlights mediation as a “nonforceful, extra-legal (e.g., not branding parties either right or wrong), and communicative approach to international politics” (p. 2).

  • Bercovitch, Jacob, J. Theodore Anagnoson, and Donnette L. Wille. “Some Conceptual Issues and Empirical Trends in the Study of Successful Mediation in International Relations.” Journal of Peace Research 28 (1991): 7–17.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343391028001003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Based on their definition of mediation, the authors use a data set of international disputes and mediation efforts occurring in the 1945–1989 period to assess the character of international mediation and to examine the contextual and process variables that affect mediation outcomes.

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  • Kleiboer, Marieke. The Multiple Realities of International Mediation. London: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

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    Offers a multimodel analysis of the Camp David and Falklands/Malvinas cases to demonstrate the importance of being aware of the often-obscured assumptions that underlie contending approaches to mediation when assessing success or failure.

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  • Kochan, Thomas A., and Todd Jick. “The Public Sector Mediation Process: A Theory and Empirical Examination.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 22 (1978): 209–240.

    DOI: 10.1177/002200277802200202Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Focuses on the labor mediation process using data from a sample of negotiations involving municipal governments and police and firefighter unions in the state of New York.

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  • Zartman, I. William. Negotiation and Conflict Management: Essays on Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Presents a series of essays outlining the evolution of the key concepts required for the study of negotiation and conflict management, e.g., formula, ripeness, pre-negotiation, mediation, power, process, intractability, escalation, and order.

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The Study of Mediation

Historically, mediator activities were shrouded in mystique because the majority of their actions were conducted behind closed doors and were highly confidential. Some scholars, such as Meyer 1960 and Simkin 1971, were even skeptical about the possibility for creating generalizations about mediation and its effects. This way of thinking gradually began to shift, as scholars began to agree that mediation can and should be studied systematically. As mediation is the most common method of conflict management, the literature in this area is both prolific and the most developed, as described by Bercovitch 1998. Stevens 1963 argues that mediation can be studied systematically, but this requires that scholars recognize it as a part of the bargaining process.

Mediation as a Decision Process

Conflict management efforts entail an extensive process involving the interaction of various decisions by potential intermediaries and disputants. The first half of the process involves third-party management choices, such as the decision to intervene and management strategy; the second half represents disputant responses to third-party actions. At this point, conflict management either results in an agreement or the disputants continue fighting. Finally, the agreement may be upheld and lead to a lasting peace or the peace may break down. Thus, the mediation process involves several choices both by the mediator and by the disputants.

Third-Party Choice of Involvement

Studies of the third party’s choice to become involved in a conflict as a mediator focus primarily on the characteristics of the conflicts that attract third-party mediation and the relationship between the disputants and the third party. Bercovitch and Diehl 1997 explores mediation in international military rivalries and finds mediation is ten times more likely to occur in these cases than in less intense conflicts. Greig 2005 finds that characteristics of the dispute and the disputants help explain when mediation between enduring rivalries is likely to occur. Bercovitch and Jackson 2001 finds that mediation tends to be used in international disputes characterized by high complexity, high intensity, long duration, unequal and fractionated parties, and cases in which the willingness of the parties to settle peacefully is in doubt. Touval and Zartman 2001 discusses the way in which mediators account for their ability to transform the conflict before acting as a mediator. Maoz and Terris 2006 highlights that the choice of management strategy is inseparable from the choice of involvement for those considering acting as conflict managers. Melin 2011 shows that the relationship between the third party and disputants, the management history, and the characteristics of the conflict help explain why mediation works and the management techniques employed. Owsiak and Frazier 2013 argues that the willingness of third-party states to manage interstate conflicts depends on both the existence and depth of an alliance relationship.

Disputant Choice to Work with a Mediator

Minimal research has focused on disputants who are willing to work with an outside mediator. Crocker, et al. 1999 and Maundi, et al. 2006 highlight the challenges that mediators face in gaining entry to conflict. Greig and Regan 2008 discusses critical distinctions between the conditions that encourage offers of mediation and those that foster its acceptance in civil wars. Melin, et al. 2013 finds the characteristics that make third parties more willing to accept mediation offers simultaneously make disputants more likely to reject mediation proposals, creating a similar dilemma. Melin and Svensson 2009 shows that because mediation in civil wars transfers legitimacy to the nonstate actor and can generate a precedent of exceptions to the norm of sovereignty, the political cost associated with accepting international mediation will be substantially higher in civil wars compared to international conflicts. Each of these sources suggests that knowing when to offer a solution and under what conditions an offer will be accepted could have dramatic effects on conflict termination. Zartman and Hinnebusch 2016 examines how these lessons played out in the context of mediation of the Syrian civil war.

Mediation Outcomes

A large portion of scholarship, especially earlier works, focuses on creating knowledge about the outcomes of mediation. This focus is understandable given the enormous amount of resources devoted to the mediation process. This section covers mediation outcomes by groups based on explanatory variables: conflict characteristics, disputant characteristics, and mediator characteristics. It then discusses the role of selection effects in understanding mediation outcomes.

Conflict Characteristics

The majority of the research examining mediation outcomes focuses on the characteristics of the conflict that make it more amenable to settlement. Ott 1972 examines the characteristics of the dispute itself, such as the timing, intensity, and issues involved. Bercovitch 2004 and Zartman 1989 both argue that timing within the life of the conflict is an important determinant of mediation success. Early mediation may be premature and take place before disputants are ready to settle, whereas late mediation may face too many obstacles. Similarly, when the dispute is exceptionally intense, disputants are likely to become weary and be willing to settle, according to Pruitt 1981. Finally, both Vasquez 1993 and Regan 2000 show that tangible issues, such as territorial claims, may lead to conflict resolution more often than intangible ones, such as ethnic or religious issues.

Disputant Characteristics

A substantial amount of work argues that the characteristics of the disputants have important implications for mediation success. Mack and Snyder 1957 cites the degree of homogeneity within a state and the level of democracy of the disputants as causes of mediation outcomes. Mitchell, et al. 2008 finds that democracies have been more likely to enlist the help of a mediator. Arguments about regime type and its effects stem from the democratic peace literature, such as Russett 1996, which shows that democratic states have norms of nonconflict methods of dispute mediation at the domestic level, making mediation more likely to be successful when democracies are in a dispute with another democracy. Aggestam 2002 shows that asymmetrical conflicts pose an especially challenging environment for mediators and may even generate counterproductive results.

  • Aggestam, Karin. “Mediating Asymmetrical Conflict.” Mediterranean Politics 7 (2002): 69–91.

    DOI: 10.1080/713604552Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the roles of negotiators and mediators in asymmetrical conflicts.

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  • Mack, Raymond, and Richard Snyder. “The Analysis of Social Conflict—Toward an Overview and Synthesis.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 1 (1957): 212–248.

    DOI: 10.1177/002200275700100208Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    From the vast research literature on organizational conflict and conflict resolution, this review identifies forty-four major models in the area of conflict, negotiation, and third-party processes (e.g., mediation and arbitration).

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  • Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, Kelly M. Kadera, and Mark J. C. Crescenzi. “Practicing Democratic Community Norms: Third-Party Conflict Management and Successful Settlements.” In International Conflict Mediation: New Approaches and Findings. Edited by Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner, 243–264. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2008.

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    Considers how the strength of the democratic community affects the willingness of states to allow third-party involvement in the resolution of contentious issues and the success of third-party conflict management efforts.

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  • Russett, Bruce M. “Why Democratic Peace?” In Debating the Democratic Peace. Edited by Michael Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, 82–115. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.

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    Examines different explanations of why democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies.

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Mediator Identity

The identity of a mediator, as in his or her affiliation with a state or organization, has important implications for mediation outcomes because this determines the resources brought to the table. Dixon 1996 shows that mediators can represent a variety of actors, including nation-states, coalitions of states, regional or international organizations, and individuals. Butterworth 1978 clarifies that mediation does not exclude third parties that prefer that a certain disputant prevail, but this preference is not as strong as that for conflict resolution. Fretter 2001 cites a mediator’s affiliation with a state, international, or regional organization as a determinant of mediation success. Indeed, Pruitt 2002 shows much of the power that a mediator possesses to help in resolving a dispute stems from organizational affiliation. Bercovitch and Houston 1993 explains that the rank of the mediator also affects mediation success, because high-ranking officials have more at stake, have access to greater resources and information, and are more effective in building support for a peace agreement.

  • Bercovitch, Jacob, and Allison Houston. “Influence of Mediator Characteristics and Behavior on the Success of Mediation in International Relations.” International Journal of Conflict Management 4 (1993): 297–321.

    DOI: 10.1108/eb022730Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the impact of different mediators and mediation behavior on mediation outcomes in international relations. Findings suggest the significance of high mediator rank (such as government and organization leaders), directive strategy, and close political alignment in achieving successful outcomes.

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  • Butterworth, Robert Lyle. “Do Conflict Managers Matter?” International Studies Quarterly 22 (1978): 195–214.

    DOI: 10.2307/2600136Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Establishes the context for such earlier studies by examining management efforts—including measures of collective security, peaceful change, pacific settlement, peacekeeping, preventive diplomacy, mediation, and conciliation, both organizational and not—in light of a comprehensive survey of interstate security disputes.

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  • Dixon, William J. “Third-Party Techniques for Preventing Conflict Escalation and Promoting Peaceful Settlement.” International Organization 50 (1996): 653–681.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300033543Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Offers a more complete empirical analysis of the spectrum of third-party procedures used to manage international crises and reveals that two techniques, in particular, are most effective: mediation efforts and third-party activities to open or maintain lines of communication.

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  • Fretter, Judith M. “Effective Mediation in International Disputes: A Comparative Analysis of Mediation by the United Nations and Regional Organisations 1945–1995.” PhD diss., University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2001.

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    Comparatively analyzes the use and effectiveness of international mediation by the United Nations and six regional organizations, namely, the League of Arab States (AL), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization for African Unity (OAU), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

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  • Pruitt, Dean G. “Mediator Behavior and Success in Mediation.” In Studies in International Mediation. Edited by Jacob Bercovitch, 41–54. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

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    Develops a general theory of mediation, based on universal effects and differences between various types of mediation and settings.

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Mediator Bias

The role of mediator bias has long been a topic of great debate in the mediation literature. Touval 1975 was the first to point out the benefits of biased mediators; Touval 1982, Svensson 2007, and Savun 2008 argue that bias makes successful mediation more likely, whereas Kydd 2006 and Smith and Stam 2003 argue that bias makes mediators appear untrustworthy and therefore less likely to succeed. Favretto 2009 shows a mediator’s past relationship or desire to secure a better outcome for one side can influence why mediators become involved at all and can affect the mediation outcome. Mediators frequently come to the table with bias or their own interests in mind, e.g., Zartman 2007 details the role of the Vatican in mediating the Beagle Channel dispute between Chile and Argentina and that of the Carter Center in mediating the dispute in Sudan.

Mediator Activities

Mediators often shape the process of mediation through their choice of tactic and approach to the mediation process. Mediators use various styles of mediation to affect the strategic bargaining environment. Beardsley, et al. 2006 finds that more active styles may be more appropriate in some cases, whereas a passive role is more appropriate under different circumstances. Beardsley 2011 shows that heavy-handed mediation employing leverage is less likely to generate long-term peace than cases in which the mediator waits for a self-enforcing arrangement. Efforts by different third parties can build on and inform one another, forming a conflict management trajectory, according to Owsiak 2014.

Selection Effects and Mediation

The seminal work in Fearon 2002 presents the importance of selection effects because the population from which a dispute is drawn provides information about the likely outcome of that dispute and its attendant agreements. Bercovitch and Gartner 2006 highlights three types of selection effects related to conflict management: (1) entry effects, which result from a third party’s strategic calculations about whether to become involved in a dispute and belligerents make strategic decisions about whether a conflict manager is acceptable; (2) management method effects, resulting from mediators strategically choosing their approach to managing a conflict according to how difficult they anticipate resolution will be while minimizing their costs and efforts; and (3) dispute effects resulting from characteristics of the disputes that require outside assistance for resolution. These effects require scholars to think critically about how to assess mediation outcomes, as Gartner and Melin 2009 describes. Recent work has begun to incorporate the role of selection in the duration of peace agreements by examining the following: (1) the role of selection effects in mediated conflicts, as in Bercovitch and Gartner 2006; (2) the actors who are likely to act as mediators and the disputants who may accept third-party offers to mediate, as in Melin, et al. 2013; and (3) the supply and demand of mediation, as in Crescenzi, et al. 2011 and Beardsley 2009.

Data on International Mediation

Information on, and subsequently our knowledge about, international mediation has skyrocketed over the last twenty years. Contributing to this surge in an understanding of the complexities of mediation are the efforts of numerous scholars to collect quantitative data on its occurrence in various conflict settings. The citations in this section are far from a complete list and description of those efforts. The International Conflict Management (ICM) data set provides the much-needed ability to investigate the conflict management process empirically. The ICM data focus on international conflict management mechanisms, with the conflict management effort being the unit of analysis. This data set examines management of 333 disputes from the 1945–2000 post–World War II period. Conflict management includes negotiation, mediation, arbitration, referral to international institutions, and multilateral conferences. Data on intermediary involvements in conflicts in Frazier and Dixon 2006 include information on 1,178 interventions in Militarized Interstate Disputes (MIDs) from 1946 to 2000. The Third-Party Intermediary (TPI) data categorize third-party intermediary actions into five categories: verbal expression, diplomatic approaches, judicial processes, administrative, and military. In addition to containing information on the methods of management, the data set includes information on the short-term and long-term outcomes of the management effort. It also identifies the third parties, which include states, coalitions of states, international governmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. These third parties make possible the gathering of additional information about the intermediary. As part of the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) Project, Brecher and Wilkenfeld 2000 coded data on interstate crises from 1918 to 2013. The data include information on 470 international crises, 35 protracted conflicts, and 1,036 international crisis actors. For each crisis, information about mediation occurrence, mediator identity, goals, strategy, and effectiveness is coded. Frederick, et al. 2016 offers information on international territorial, maritime, and river claims from 1816 to 2001. The Interstate Correlates of War (ICOW) data also include information on attempts to manage the issue, including bilateral negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or adjudication. The Managing Intrastate Low-Intensity Conflict (MILC) data in Melander, et al. 2009 coded all third-party attempts to manage low-intensity intrastate conflicts from 1993 to 2004 and included information on the event, third party, and management effort.

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