Since the beginning of the Refugee Crisis in 2015, the political resolution of armed conflicts has gained in importance and urgency at the international level. The German government is a case in point. In this period, it increased its financial commitment to preventing, managing and ending civil wars, including through third-party diplomacy, by a factor of five. However, practical efforts in conflict resolution have been held back, among other things, by an incomplete understanding of the nature of armed conflict, including the lack of a concise theoretical model and an indiscriminate use of the terms “third-party” and “mediation”. Based on a simple contest theory model, this paper presents three generic options for a political resolution of armed conflicts through the involvement of a third party: mediation, persuasion and imposition.
This proposition relies on ten insights: (1) Third-party diplomacy is defined as the involvement of equidistant (impartial) and outcome-indifferent (neutral) third parties in the resolution of armed conflict. (2) Warfare – regardless of legal and moral concerns and despite the human suffering it entails – can be an individually profitable strategy for achieving political, economic, group or individual goals. (3) Given a party’s willingness to fight, its ability to fight, measured by its perceived probability of combat success (i.e. the ratio of military capabilities), determines the likelihood of an outbreak of war. (4) Peace is the result of a learning effect of the parties in the course of war and can be interpreted as a stationary equilibrium of military capabilities. (5) A negotiated transition from war to peace is only feasible in a quarter of all conceivable military configurations (endogenous peace). In such cases, conflict parties can contract a mediator to enable an endogenous settlement (mediation). (6) The scenario of a “mutually hurting stalemate”, postulated in the mediation literature as the main metric for conflict “ripeness”, corresponds to only 2.7% of all conceivable military configurations. Endogenous settlements are more likely in situations of one-sided and two-sided weakness (each approx. 11%). (7) In the remaining three quarters of all conceivable military configurations, at least one of the parties to the conflict has no interest in a peaceful settlement. In such cases, third parties may self-appoint as peacemakers (exogenous peace). (8) Through the targeted generation and provision of confidential information, a third party can influence the calculus of the parties to a conflict and create conditions for a peaceful settlement (persuasion). (9) Through credible threats of or imposition of sanctions, or through credible threats of or use of military force, third parties can influence the warring parties’ calculus in such a way that they become willing to negotiate (imposition). (10) Market-based third-party diplomacy (mediation) and hierarchy- based third-party diplomacy (persuasion and imposition) are mutually exclusive. Third parties with sufficient (military) capabilities to persuade or impose have a commitment problem that prevents them from successfully competing in the market for mediation mandates.