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date: 27 January 2023

Unintended Consequences of International Mediationfree

Unintended Consequences of International Mediationfree

  • Lesley TerrisLesley TerrisReichman University


Mediation has become a dominant method of peaceful conflict resolution in the international system. Since the end of the Cold War in particular, an increasing number of belligerents have relied on mediators to help end their disputes. Yet, while mediators offer many advantages in the process of making peace, at times serving as the only way for rivals to move forward, mediation may also entail negative, unintended, consequences. Escalation of the conflict upon the mediator’s entrance is one such unintended consequence. Strategic considerations on the one hand, and psychological mechanisms on the other, frequently prompt rivals to escalate rather than cease hostilities upon the onset of mediation. Another possible unintended consequence is prolongation of the conflict due to the presence of the mediator. With a mediator involved in the negotiations, rivals may be tempted to put off an agreement in the hope of gaining a better deal while evading the cost of all-out conflict, or the disputing parties may conclude that they stand to gain more from the mediation process itself than from reaching a settlement. Mediation may also lead to fragile settlements that are prone to be short-lived as compared to settlements arrived at by the disputing parties on their own. This process is driven by factors such as the tendency of mediators to push for settlement terms that are easily attainable but that do not resolve the underlying causes of the conflict and are not necessarily sustainable. Whereas the contribution of mediation to conflict resolution is widely researched and discussed by scholars, to fully appreciate the significance of mediation as a method of conflict resolution, it is crucial to understand its possible negative consequences as well. A clear understanding of the full picture is essential for scholars and practitioners alike.


  • World Politics

Mediation in International Conflicts

The earliest case of mediation in documented history took place between the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma in ancient Mesopotamia. The dispute, over possession of the fertile fields along the Tigris River, was finally resolved peacefully in 2500 bce through the mediation efforts of the King of Kish. According to the agreement reached, the disputed band of territory would be cultivated by the people of Umma, while a portion of the grain harvested would be returned to Lagash as rent and interest (Cooper, 1983). This ancient agreement is testament to the long history of mediation in the global arena. Early in the 21st century, mediation between and within states has become, more than ever before, a dominant method of conflict resolution. The significant rise in the use of mediation, especially in the post–Cold War era, is the result of an increase in both demand and supply. As the fall of the bipolar order thrust many states into old antagonisms and new conflicts, calls for mediation rose dramatically, increasing the demand for mediation. In many cases mediators have proven to be the only way out of conflict, allowing sides to negotiate without admitting it, or at the very least enabling parties to avoid direct contact (Benziman, 2021). The end of the Cold War also marked an increase in the supply of mediators as states and international organizations were freed from bipolar constraints, allowing them to take on new roles in mediation and conflict management (Terris, 2017). Finally, the fall of the bipolar structure prompted a normative shift among great power policy makers, strengthening their support for the peaceful termination of civil wars rather than letting the sides fight it out, “and they took actions, including attempts to broker mediations, to achieve the goal of ending civil wars through negotiated settlements” (Howard & Stark, 2017–2018, p. 130). During the 1990s, the number of mediation cases increased by 469% (Greig & Diehl, 2012, p. 36), with about 64% of the ongoing conflicts experiencing some form of mediation, as compared to less than 40% during the entire Cold War era (Brecher & Wilkenfeld, 1997; Terris & Moaz, 2005). Mediation has become almost a necessary condition for the peaceful settlement of civil wars, which rarely end in negotiated agreements without mediator involvement (Walter, 1997; Werner & Yuen, 2005) and in the early 21st century the overall number of conflicts involving third parties have continued to be on the rise. Notwithstanding, despite the increase in mediation cases in absolute terms, Lundgren and Svensson (2020) observed a decline in the proportion of conflicts that were mediated between 1989 and 2013, which they attribute to the increase in conflicts involving Islamist groups that tend to be less open to mediation (affecting mediation demand) and to increased terror-listing (affecting mediation supply).

Although mediation is practiced in many contexts outside the realm of international politics, such as marital, neighbor, and labor-management disputes, international mediation—in disputes between and within states—is a distinct field of practice and study. Unlike other social systems, the international system is not characterized by a formal and binding authority. Constituting sovereign entities, actors in the international system enjoy autonomy in internal affairs as well as in foreign policy decisions. They are thus self-governing in the conduct of the two most fundamental activities that characterize relations among actors in the international system: cooperation and conflict. This suggests that international mediation constitutes a voluntary activity that requires acceptance by both the rivals and the mediators. For a mediation process to prevail, or commence in the first place, all of the parties involved must prefer mediation to the alternative action options—continuing conflict or bilateral negotiations (for the belligerents), or staying away from the conflict (for potential mediators). This feature of mediation, joined by the empirical finding that mediation attempts are on this rise, suggests that mediation is increasingly perceived by decision makers as an effective method of conflict resolution.

Indeed, inarguably, mediation has contributed in countless ways to the peaceful termination of disputes in the international system. Among their many functions, mediators facilitate talks, serve as reliable conduits for messages between belligerents, and reduce uncertainty by providing the sides with pertinent information. They help rivals build mutual trust and bridge over cultural divides. If needed, mediators compensate disputants in return for concessions made, threaten with sanctions when they fail to cooperate, and provide guarantees for agreements. To organize the many tools available to mediators in a meaningful fashion (Wall, 1981, for instance, lists 100 mediation techniques), the literature offers several types of classification schemes (e.g., Bercovitch & Houston, 2000; Wall et al., 2001). The most widely used taxonomy in mediation research describes three levels of mediation strategies that increase in the degree of the mediator’s involvement, ranging from the most passive to the most active: communication/facilitation, formulation, and manipulation (Bercovitch, 2007; Bercovitch & Gartner, 2006; Bercovitch et al., 1991: Beardsley et al., 2006; Touval & Zartman, 1985). Whereas communication/facilitation strategies entail low-level involvement on part of the mediator, who might provide a neutral venue for talks and technical support as well as important information about the opponent with the aim of reducing information asymmetries and uncertainty levels (Kydd, 2003; Savun, 2008; Terris, 2017; Terris & Maoz, 2005), formulation strategies reflect a higher level of involvement. In formulation strategies, the mediator may determine structural aspects of the negotiations such as the agenda, the sequence of issues discussed, and the pace and formality of the talks as well as propose possible settlement options (Bercovitch & Gartner, 2006; Gartner & Bercovitch, 2006; Touval & Zartman, 1985). Manipulation strategies, which constitute the highest level of involvement on the part of the mediator, include carrot-and-stick activities aimed at making the continuation of conflict more painful for the sides (such as the withholding of economic assistance) and/or a settlement more attractive (for example, by providing compensation for concessions made) (Terris, 2017; Terris & Maoz, 2005; Touval & Zartman, 1985). Terris and Maoz (2005) add to this conceptualization of strategies by stressing that the levels reflect different degrees of intrusiveness that depict the extent of impact each strategy has on the costs and benefits for the disputants and on the mediation costs for the third party. The more intrusive the strategy, the greater the impact of the mediator on the disputing parties, and the higher the cost for the mediator.

The identity of mediators varies across cases and may include individuals, states, or nonstate actors such as Inter-governmental Organizations (IGOs) and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2009). Mediation may also be conducted by a group comprised of more than one third-party entity in what is called multiparty mediation (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2009; Böhmelt, 2012; Crocker et al., 2001; Dixon, 1996; Vukovic, 2019). The majority of mediation activity in the international system is carried out by states and the international organizations they create (IGOs). Of the major powers, the United States has been the most long-standing and dominantly involved state mediator actor (Wallensteen & Svensson, 2014), whereas the Soviet Union historically stayed away from mediation roles until 1965. Contemporary Russia though has aspired to increase its role as mediator in the international arena, for instance with attempts to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1994 and in Afghanistan since 2016 as well as its participation in numerous mediation coalitions such as the contact group in Bosnia. China has been the major power least engaged in mediation (Wallensteen & Svensson, 2014). Private individuals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) account for only 3% and 4%, respectively, of all mediation activity (Greig & Diehl, 2012, p. 69). The different types of mediators—be them states, organizations or individuals—vary in their underlying motivations to mediate, in their abilities to exert influence over the disputants, and in their perception by the disputants as constituting credible third parties (Terris, 2017; Terris & Maoz, 2005).

Equipped with the mediation strategies available to them, third parties strive to: (a) de-escalate the conflict between the belligerents, allowing them to engage effectively in negotiations; (b) end the conflict as quickly as possible in a negotiated agreement; and (c) ensure that a stable and sustainable settlement is in place. Yet, alongside its many benefits as an effective tool of conflict resolution, mediation may, under certain conditions, lead to unintended consequences that are detrimental to peaceful conflict resolution processes. This article discusses three such unintended consequences: (a) the escalation of hostilities upon mediation onset; (b) the prolongation of conflicts; and (c) short-lived agreements. While this is not an exhaustive list of the possible negative effects of mediators and mediation, they are of particular importance as they relate directly to the three main goals of mediation: de-escalation, shortening of the conflict, and stable peace. Understanding the processes and factors that drive these unintended consequences is of both theoretical and practical importance. For scholars of mediation, capturing the full range of consequences resulting from the involvement of a mediator will help provide a better understanding of the effectiveness of mediation as a conflict resolution method. For practitioners, a more realistic view of mediation will allow parties to adjust their expectations, to become more attuned to possible pitfalls involved in mediation and to take necessary measures to avoid them.

The Unintended Consequences of Mediation

Extensive research on international mediation has produced a sizable body of literature that presents important insights drawn from both qualitative and quantitative studies. Due to the contribution of mediation to the resolution of numerous high-profile conflicts, it perhaps is not surprising that research efforts in the field focus primarily on identifying the conditions that best facilitate successful mediation rather than on the possible risks and unwanted results that might ensue from the involvement of a mediator. Within this context, the extant mediation literature centers on three sets of factors that are argued to influence the impact of mediators and mediation: (a) variables that describe the disputants (e.g., power ratios, regime types, previous relations between the primaries); (b) variables associated with the dispute (e.g., the types of issues in dispute, the levels of violence); and (c) variables linked to the mediator and mediation (e.g., the type of mediator and its sources of relevant leverage, the mediator’s perceived bias and credibility, mediation timing, mediation strategies employed, relations between the mediator and the rivals). Extensive systematic analysis exploring the influence of these variables has produced a rich body of knowledge regarding conditions that increase the probability of mediation occurrence and its success (e.g., Bercovitch, 1986; Bercovitch & Houston, 2000; Bercovitch & DeRouen, 2004; Dixon, 1993, 1994, 1996; Greig, 2001, 2005; Greig & Regan, 2008; Melin & Svensson, 2009). For example, Hansen et al. (2008) find that intervention by international organizations is more successful in international disputes if the third parties have democratic members and if they are highly institutionalized. Empirical evidence shows that mediation is effective in the short run if it is initiated by at least one of the disputants (Greig, 2005), and that disputes over ideology are more amenable to mediation than disputes over security (Bercovitch & Houston, 2000). The impact of the timing of mediation on its outcome has also stimulated a great deal of academic debate and rigorous analysis (e.g., Greig, 2001; Kleiboer & t’Hart, 1995; Regan & Stam, 2000).1 A large portion of the empirical findings in mediation research is based on four widely used datasets in the field: the International Conflict Management (ICM) dataset (Bercovitch, 1999); the International Crises Behavior (ICB) dataset (Brecher & Wilkenfeld, 1997); Third Party Interventions and Militarized Interstate Disputes (TPI) data (Frazier & Dixon, 2006); and the Civil Wars Mediation (CWM) dataset of DeRouen et al. (2011). Each dataset focuses on different types of wars/crises and a variety of intervention variables.

A byproduct of the extensive research, focusing on the identification of factors that best facilitate successful mediation, has been the revelation that the positive, intended, consequences of mediation activity does not cover the full range of effects mediation might have on conflict dynamics. In some cases, third parties might have hardly any influence at all. Even more noteworthy, mediation may impact the conflict dynamics between the protagonists in a negative fashion, at times causing more harm than had the mediator not become involved in the first place. Thus, while the focus on the positive consequences of mediation and their contributing factors has added considerably to the understanding of mediation processes, it is equally important to address the possibility of negative influences of mediation. Yet, such contingencies have attracted little theoretical attention or systematic exploration. Clearly, this aspect of mediation warrants further treatment in the literature.

The remainder of this article discusses three main unintended consequences that have been found to ensue from the involvement of mediators in a conflict and their underlying causes. Each one of these negative influences relates to a different stage in a mediation process: the onset, process, and outcome of mediation, respectively. The first unintended consequence refers to cases wherein the entrance of the mediator triggers escalation rather than de-escalation of hostilities between rivals, serving as an obstacle to efficient negotiations. The second unintended consequence focuses on conflicts that are prolonged due to the involvement of a mediator, and the third, on the tendency of mediated agreements to break down more quickly in comparison to settlements reached bilaterally. While the mediator’s impact in each of these stages is independent, it is important to note that the effects are also likely to be interrelated to some extent. For example, escalatory actions taken by belligerents upon the entrance of the mediator might also render negotiations more difficult, thus contributing to the prolongation of conflict, independent of the influence of the mediator during the mediation process.

The effects discussed in this article do not cover the full range of possible negative influences that mediators might have on conflict dynamics, and they do not occur all of the time. Yet, these effects have received growing attention in the literature, suggesting that the issue of unintended consequences of mediation constitutes a real phenomenon that requires further and more specified scholarly attention. Correlations between mediation and conflict prolongation and between mediation and short-lived settlements have been observed by scholars such as Regan and Stam (2000), Beardsley (2008, 2011), and Gartner and Bercovitch (2006). The unintended consequence of conflict escalation and its underlying causal mechanisms was introduced into the literature by Terris and Tykocinski in 2021.

Conflict Escalation

A main function of the mediator, upon his or her entrance, is to lower the flames of conflict and create a framework for the sides to engage in talks for a sustainable settlement (Beardsley, 2011; Carment et al., 2009). However, rather than prompt rivals’ de-escalation of hostilities as expected, the introduction of a mediator oftentimes prompts escalatory behavior on the part of the primary actors. Multiple examples of this pattern appear in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, where the timing of hostile acts on the part of both sides frequently coincides with the onset of mediated talks (Terris & Tykocinski, 2021). Thus, the first unintended consequence of mediation concerns the mediation onset stage in a conflict wherein a mediation process is launched.

Although this contingency is largely ignored in the mediation literature, bargaining scholars treat hostility escalations as tools used by parties to signal resolve and to use as bargaining chips in the hope of improving the terms of an expected settlement (Brams, 1990; Fearon, 1994; Holl, 1993; Pillar, 1983; Sisk, 2009; Kydd & McManus, 2017). The same logic is applicable to the context of mediated negotiations as well, particularly immediately upon the mediator’s entrance when the parties might feel a need to signal strength due to the shift in the status quo precipitated by the mediator’s arrival. Terris and Tykocinski (2021) offer two explanations for this unintended consequence, one strategic and the other psychological. The first explanation relates to the strategic motivations of rivals entering a mediation process and draws on the bargaining literature. The arrival of a third party to mediate between belligerents changes the bargaining game between the sides such that, paradoxically, it might drive disputants to increase rather than decrease hostilities, at least in the short run. There are several reasons for this. Strategically, rivals may be concerned that accepting a mediator will be perceived as a sign of weakness, for accepting a mediator not only sends a message to the opponent that the party is willing to compromise but entails other side costs as well. The loss of status, costly alliance ties, and loss of control over the negotiations are some costs disputants may expect to incur (Gartner & Bercovitch, 2006, p. 822; Terris, 2017, pp. 5–6). Moreover, in return for mediation assistance, a state might be—implicitly or explicitly—forced to subscribe to certain policy guidelines put down by the mediator. Disputants, therefore, may be motivated to increase hostilities to enhance their appearance of strength, control, and resolve, and to signal to domestic audiences, political rivals, and the opponent that accepting a mediator does not mean a softening of positions. Additionally, the arrival of a third party signals an end point to the conflict and a finite amount of time for the sides to gain assets (Hansen et al., 2020; Kathman & Wood, 2011). In this respect, hostilities may themselves serve as an asset to be used by the aggressor to elicit concessions in negotiations, or they may be used to quickly gain other assets such as control over territory and other resources.

The strategic motivations for escalation are enhanced by a psychological mechanism that—paradoxically—makes the act of increasing hostilities appear more feasible once the mediator has arrived (Terris & Tykocinski, 2021). In this sense, the mediator creates a “safe space” for the disputants’ provocative actions. Specifically, the mediator might have the effect of reducing the perceived risks the disputants associate with escalatory actions, as the mediator is conceived as a “responsible adult” who takes charge and absorbs some of the risks entailed in a possible flare-up. This dynamic is similar to the phenomenon of Moral Hazard in insurance, whereby people who are insured may sometimes act negligently (e.g., fail to lock their valuables) because under the policy, a considerable portion of the costs of the loss are transferred onto the insurance company (Dave & Kaestner, 2009; Stanciole, 2008). In the context of international relations, the concept of Moral Hazard has been applied by Crawford and Kuperman (2006) and Kuperman (2008) to the influence of humanitarian intervention, or “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) on the likelihood of rebellion. Similar to the mediator’s impact on disputants’ behavior, they find that R2P’s commitment to intervene on behalf of groups suffering from state violence “can lead nonstate actors to view rebellion as a no-lose proposition” (Kuperman, 2008, p. 75), thus encouraging excessively risky behavior on the part of rebel groups. If the state does not strike back, the rebels stand to gain from their actions; if the state does retaliate, R2P ensures intervention by the international community, and the rebels still stand to gain. Another vein of research in psychology suggests that insurance policies and protective means often provide a psychological sense of safety, which in turn reduces the perceived probability of any misfortune happening in the first place (Tykocinski, 2008, 2013). In the context of mediation, a sense of safety on part of the disputants is likely to reduce the perceived likelihood of negative outcomes resulting from hostile actions. These processes together, or each on its own, may tempt disputants to take risks entailed in increasing hostile actions.

To examine whether conflict escalation following the entrance of the mediator is more than a mere anecdotal occurrence, Terris and Tykoconski (2021) systematically examined the impact of mediators on conflict levels in civil wars, during the years 1995–2010. The results of the analysis showed that in 42% of the cases, disputants escalated hostilities in the six-month period after the entrance of the mediator, and that the impact of mediators on conflict levels was significant.2 Figure 1 presents the distribution of change in conflict levels in the six-month periods after mediation onset as compared to the six-month periods preceding the onset of mediation (de-escalation; no change, escalation).

Figure 1. Changes in conflict levels upon mediators’ entrance.

Although further research into the conditions under which this unintended consequence of mediation is most likely to manifest is called for, understanding the underlying causes of conflict escalation triggered by mediation onset contributes to a better understanding of the impact the mediator’s entrance might have on decision makers’ considerations. This is also important information for the practitioners of mediation. Informed mediators regarding the contingency of escalation will be better equipped to anticipate its occurrence, will be able to prepare diplomatic measures to deal with escalations if they occur, and will be less likely to end the mediation pre-maturely.

Conflict Prolongation

The second possible unintended consequence of mediation focuses on the mediation process itself. The presence of a mediator is found at times to prompt the prolongation rather than the shortening of conflict as expected. Once a mediation process begins, belligerents may conclude that they stand to gain more from the mediation process itself than from ending the mediation, either with a peace agreement or, alternatively, by derailing the mediation process. Thus, under certain conditions, disputants will be motivated to draw out the mediation process, subsequently prolonging the conflict. To this end, the primary parties might adopt behaviors aimed at stalling meaningful progress in the negotiations, such as dragging their feet in replying to offers, repeatedly rejecting settlement offers, and postponing scheduled talks. Drawing out a mediation process provides parties with convenient conditions to avoid concessions to the opponent while at the same time evading the cost of all-out conflict. Richmond (1998, p. 721) refers to “devious objectives” of disputants who “view the mediator as a channel through which to continue the dispute at another, less costly level, or to accrue indirect benefits from the process.” In the context of multiparty mediation, Crocker et al. (2001, p. 57) suggest that the availability of multiple offers might be used by parties who are not really committed to seeking a negotiated solution to their differences to go “forum shopping,” as a delaying tactic and a convenient means to continue conflict. Finally, a mediation process allows the rivals to buy time, to reorganize forces, and to bolster strength for another round of conflict, further enhancing the likelihood of conflict prolongation.

This implies that mediation might be used as a tool in the hands of the belligerents for objectives other than the settlement of their dispute. Yet, even in the absence of “devious intentions,” the presence of a mediator may motivate parties to put off an agreement for as long as possible. The assets mediators bring to the table may tempt the belligerents to reject settlement offers and prolong the conflict, in the hope of gaining increased side payments from mediators pressed to conclude the mediation process as quickly as possible.

To conclude, the very advent of mediation, while well intentioned, might be counterproductive and cause longer, rather than shorter, conflicts. Although one might claim that it is impossible to know what would have occurred had the mediation process not taken place at all, it is clear that the presence of the mediator can create a situation wherein reaching an agreement becomes less desirable than had the third party not been present. In a quantitative study, Regan and Stam (2000) link the relationship between mediation and prolongation of conflict to the timing of mediation. Based on a systematic analysis of civil wars between 1945 and 1995, they suggest a curvilinear relationship between mediation onset and the subsequent duration of a dispute where very early (up to a month after the start date of conflict) and late mediation attempts are more likely to lead to shorter expected durations, but those taking place in the middle of conflict will lead to longer expected conflict duration.

Short-Lived Agreements

The third unintended consequence of mediation relates to the post-conflict stage: what happens after a mediated settlement is reached between the belligerents. While the existence of a settlement suggests some degree of mediation success, the potential danger lies in the durability of the settlement. For agreements that are quick to collapse often mean a return of the belligerents to conflict, with greater determination and at higher conflict levels than displayed during the original conflict. Numerous studies suggest that although success rates of mediation in general may be on the rise, settlements reached with the help of a mediator tend to be short-lived compared to settlements reached through direct negotiations. Addressing this issue, Beardsley (2011, p. 7) argues that mediators might “shape the prospects for peaceful bargains for the better in the short run and for the worse in the long run.” Research on the phenomenon of relatively short durations of mediated settlements has advanced considerably over the past two decades by scholars such as Beardsley (2008, 2011), Gartner and Bercovitch (2006), and Greig (2001). Several explanations are offered to account for short life spans of mediated agreements. Instead of durable solutions that might require prolonged intervention on part of the third party, mediators are often prone to push for settlement terms that are more easily attainable, and to put off the more difficult issues in dispute to a later date (Beardsley, 2011, p. 3). Thus, agreements mediated by third parties might be based on artificial incentives for peace that persuade the disputants to cease hostilities, but that do not persevere in the long run (Beardsley, 2008). An additional factor contributing to the fragility of mediated settlements relates to selection effects—in other words, the fact that conflicts are not randomly selected into mediation. According to this argument, mediated settlements are relatively short-lived because mediation is more likely to be used in the toughest cases, when a conflict cannot be resolved by the adversaries themselves, has gone on for some time, and has been costly (Diehl & Goertz, 2000; Gartner & Bercovitch, 2006; Greig, 2005). The Norwegian mediation in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is illustrative of these two points. With the help of the Norwegian mediators, the sides in this conflict, one of the most difficult and intractable conflicts of our time, signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. This historical achievement, however, was not long-lived. While clearly many factors contributed to the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, some stress that the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail from the outset because they did not address the core issues in the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, namely permanent borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem.

Empirical studies have produced inconclusive results regarding the durability of mediated settlements. Numerous studies have found a positive relationship between mediation and long-lasting peace (e.g., Bercovitch & DeRouen, 2004; Kydd, 2003). DeRouen and Chowdhury (2018) find that agreements that are mediated and followed by UN peacekeeping to be particularly robust. Yet, a sizable body of empirical studies has emerged with evidence pointing to the fragility of mediated settlements as compared to bilaterally negotiated agreements. In an analysis of 309 conflicts and 3,377 different cases of conflict management between 1945 and 2000, Gartner and Bercovitch (2006) found that mediation increases the likelihood of observing short-lived agreements. Identifying a trade-off between short-term and long-term effects of mediation in an analysis of international crises from 1918 to 2001, Beardsley (2011) found that while nearly half of all mediated crisis were found to end with a negotiated agreement, as compared to only 15% of the crises with no mediator intervention, the likelihood of conflict recurrence after the settlement was higher when the settlement was reached through mediation as opposed to bilaterally negotiated settlements (Beardsley, 2011, pp. 3–4). In the context of civil wars, Toft (2010) as well notes the precarious nature of mediated settlements.

The problem of short-lived settlements has been linked, theoretically and empirically, to the mediation strategies used, specifically manipulation strategies. When mediators employ the more passive and less intrusive strategies of facilitation and formulation, the rivals are given more space to address the underlying issues in dispute and are more likely to take ownership over the terms they negotiate, giving settlements the necessary time and conditions to take hold and transition into a stable and durable peace (Beardsley et al., 2006; Gartner & Bercovitch, 2006). The carrots and sticks of manipulation strategies, on the other hand, while highly effective in pressuring the rivals to stop hostilities, are less likely to resolve the underlying issues in dispute. Therefore, the agreements reached through heavy-handed leverage on the part of the mediator are more likely to break down when subsequent disagreements arise. In the context of the rationalist bargaining framework, through intrusive manipulation strategies such as threats with economic or diplomatic sanctions and/or the provision of positive incentives, mediators are able to enlarge the zone of possible agreements (ZOPA) to include settlements that until then had been deemed unacceptable. Now, judged against the adjusted cost of noncooperation, they may be accepted but, over the long run, will be prone to break down. Werner and Yuen (2005) found that ceasefires in which the disputants were pressured into an agreement by a third party were less stable than other ceasefires. In an analysis of civil wars during the years 1945–1995, Gurses et al. (2008) found that although an overall presence of mediation is associated with longer-lasting peace, superpower mediators (which are more likely to employ more intrusive strategies) reduce the duration of peace. Reid (2017) approached the issue from a slightly different angle, suggesting that mediation based on capability leverage (material leverage) is more likely to achieve short-term success, while mediation based on credibility leverage is more likely to result in more sustainable settlements. An illustrative example of a short-lived mediated settlement is the Arusha Accords, signed in 1994 through mediation efforts of the AU and other international actors. The agreement that was signed with the intention of ending the Rwandan civil war broke down even before it could be implemented, paving the way to the genocide of nearly 1 million ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda. As with all issues pertaining to international relations, the breakdown of the Arusha Accords is attributable to a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the highly intrusive mediation by the AU, which entailed unsustainable commitments for a power-sharing government that were doomed to fail from the outset.


The positive contribution of mediators to peacemaking is backed by a rich body of research (e.g., Beardsley, 2008; Beardsley et al., 2006; Bercovitch & DeRouen, 2004; DeRouen & Chowdry, 2018; Dixon, 1994, 1996; Frazier & Dixon, 2006; Rauchhaus, 2006; Regan & Stam, 2000; Svensson, 2007; Walter, 2002; Wilkenfeld et al., 2003, 2005). However, as promising as this portrayal may be, it is not the only side to mediation. To obtain a fuller and more accurate understanding of mediation and its impact on conflict dynamics, it is crucial to be aware of its possible negative, unintended, consequences. This article presented and discussed three possible unintended consequences of mediation as they relate to the onset, process, and outcome of mediation, respectively. As demonstrated, mediators and mediation have been associated with the escalation of conflict, the prolongation of conflict, and the fragility of settlements. These findings indicate that the unintended consequences of mediation are hardly rare events but rather constitute a phenomenon that calls for further exploration by researchers in the field.

The discussion points to several avenues for future research. At the most basic level, an investigation into other possible unintended consequences precipitated by mediation is in place. Furthermore, a deeper examination into the conditions under which mediators are more detrimental than beneficial to peace processes may shed further light on the motivations and causal mechanisms driving negative consequences of mediation. Another area worthy of exploration concerns possible links between negative consequences. For example, would an escalation of hostilities upon the onset of mediation indicate that the sides will be prone to prolong the conflict and/or agree to a settlement that is unstable?

Acknowledging that mediation, under certain conditions, may have a dark side is significant in both theoretical and practical terms. Conceptually, understanding the underlying causes of unintended consequences of mediation contributes to a better understanding of mediation and peacemaking. For practitioners, having a realistic, theoretically and empirically informed view of the full range of contingencies of mediation will allow parties, both mediators and disputants, to adjust their expectations and plan their steps accordingly. For example, rivals aware of the tendency of mediated settlements to be short-lived might be more motivated to address in the negotiations issues that could threaten to derail peaceful relations. Additionally, they might be more determined to insist on certain guarantees or measures to ensure the settlement’s sustainability. Mediators who are attentive to rivals’ motivations to escalate hostilities upon mediation onset will be able to prepare diplomatic countermeasures to deal with short-term escalations if they occur and will be less likely to abandon a mediation process prematurely.

Further Reading

  • Bercovitch, J., & Diehl, P. (1997). Conflict management of enduring rivalries: The frequency, timing, and short-term impact of mediation. International Interactions, 22, 299–320.
  • Crocker, C. A., Hampson, F.O., & Aall, P. R. (Eds.). (1999). Herding cats: Multiparty mediation in a complex world. United States Institute of Peace.
  • Menninga, E. J. (2019). Multiparty mediation in civil war. In J. Wilkenfeld, K. Beardsley, & D. Quinn (Eds.), Research handbook on mediating international crises (pp. 212–231). Edward Elgar.
  • Moore, C. W. (1986). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict. Jossey-Bass.
  • Princen, T. (1992). Intermediaries in international conflict. Princeton University Press.
  • Touval, S. (1992). The superpowers as mediators. In J. Bercovitch & J. Z. Rubin (Eds.), Mediation in international relations (pp. 232–248). St Martin’s.
  • Touval, S., & Zartman, W. I. (1985). International mediation in theory and practice. Westview.


  • Beardsley, K. (2008). Agreement without peace? International mediation and time inconsistency problems. American Journal of Political Science, 52(4), 723–740.
  • Beardsley, K. (2011). The mediation dilemma. Cornell University Press.
  • Beardsley, K., Quinn, D., Biswas, B., & Wilkenfeld, J. (2006). Mediation style and crises outcomes. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(1), 58–86.
  • Bercovitch, J. (1986). International mediation: A study of incidence, strategies and conditions of successful outcomes. Cooperation and Conflict, 21(3), 155–168.
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  • 1. Illuminating reviews of mediation research conducted over the past several decades are given in Duursma (2014), Wall et al. (2001), and Wallensteen and Svensson (2014). See the article “Mediation and Foreign Policy” for a detailed overview of mediation as a foreign policy tool.

  • 2. Terris and Tykocinski (2021, pp. 10–11) note that the decision to use a 6-month period, before and after mediation onset, as the basis for comparison was based on the rationale that 6 months is long enough a period for the influence of the mediator to appear and at the same time, not too long so that it would be difficult to link the observed impact to the mediator. Additionally, to isolate the impact of each specific mediation as much as possible, the data analyzed did not include observations, where in the focal period of time, an additional mediation attempt started.