I have a long-standing interest in the career of Jan Eliasson, the Swedish diplomat who served as his nation’s ambassador to the United States from 2000 to 2005 and then later became president of the United Nations General Assembly and Sweden’s foreign minister. I wrote a book about his diplomatic experience in Washington called “The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat.”
During our many hours of interviews, Eliasson mentioned his experiences as an international mediator. Since the focus of our discussions was on his diplomacy in the United States, we never lingered over his extensive mediation work, which included high-profile stints as a point man for mediating the Iran-Iraq war and Darfur conflict in Sudan. However, I often thought that I would like to learn more about this consequential aspect of Eliasson’s career.
“The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation” is an important, informative and interesting book about Eliasson’s work and the art of international mediation in general.
It is written by Isak Svensson and Peter Wallensteen, two Swedish professors who interviewed Eliasson extensively and had access to his journals and records. Svensson is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden and director of research at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Wallensteen has held the Dag Hammarskjöld Chair in Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University since 1985 and has also been a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame since 2006.
In “The Go-Between,” the authors use Eliasson’s considerable track record as a mediator as the device to explore contemporary international mediation. Concerned about what they perceive as a wide gap between the practice and theory of mediation, they review and draw lessons from Eliasson’s work in an attempt to bridge this divide. The authors argue that for all its high-stakes drama and allure, “at its core, mediation is a practical diplomatic skill.”
Svensson and Wallensteen examine six case studies of Eliasson’s international mediation: two missions to halt the war between Iran and Iraq, first in the early 1980s and then in the late 1980s and early 1990s; two efforts at humanitarian diplomacy, in Burma (Myanmar) in 1992 and Sudan that same year; and two attempts to end internal armed conflicts, first in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994 and then in Darfur between 2006 and 2008.
The authors say that not only was Eliasson involved in these very different endeavors, he was active in all phases of the mediations — from pre-negotiations, to substantive talks to end conflicts, to efforts to implement agreements, and then eventually to terminate his involvement. The “Go-Between” touches on the many facets of Eliasson’s approach to mediation: his cultivation of personal relationships, his commitment to cultural understanding, his use of international principles to shape the mediation, his attempts to create inclusive negotiations, his skill at working with the media, and his efforts to build public support for his work when the time was appropriate.
Svensson and Wallensteen’s study is primarily focused on the process of mediation by examining how Eliasson entered, prepared for, pursued, and finally concluded his international mediation efforts. But they also note that Eliasson’s work led to tangible and consequential successes: agreements not to attack civilian villages in the Iran-Iraq war in 1984 as well as to secure the exchange of Iraqi and Iranian prisoners of war in 1990; a full ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994; an agreement in 1992 to allow Rohingya refugees from Burma to resettle in Bangladesh; and securing the delivery of humanitarian aid to Southern Sudan in 1992.
On this last point, the authors distinguish between humanitarian and political mediation. Humanitarian mediation is usually short term, immediate, and initiated with limited resources and without regard to the phase of the crisis. Political mediation, on the other hand, requires a long-term commitment, more institutional support, and a coherent framework for cooperation within the international system.
Svensson and Wallensteen are intrigued by the working styles assumed by mediators and say that four dimensions should be carefully considered. First, there is “scope,” which refers to the boundaries of the mediator’s engagement. Is it inclusive or exclusive? Second, there is “method,” which refers to how a mediator tries to influence the perception of the parties in the mediation process. Is it forcing or fostering? Third is “mode,” which refers to the issue of transparency and openness. Is the mediation confidential or open? Finally, there is “focus,” which refers to what the mediator is trying to accomplish. Is it narrow or wide? Put differently, is the mediator trying to get a broad peace agreement or rather trying to halt an immediate conflict and ease the suffering of affected populations.
The authors view international mediation as a complex, multifaceted process and delve into five of its central components — the first of which is the entry of the main mediator. This, they argue, is a critical factor that has not received sufficient attention either by academics or practitioners. The initial mandate, they write, determines the way a mediator enters the conflict, conducts the mediation, involves the international community, and completes the assignment.
“In our analysis of Eliasson’s mediation efforts, it became clear that the mandate is of crucial importance for what a mediator can do. It determines what strategies and tools a mediator may use. It sets the outer parameters of mediation, but still leaves some leeway for the mediator,” they write.
The two key elements of the mandate are its origin and its operational aspects. Svensson and Wallensteen say that a multilateral mandate gives mediators access to professional and communication resources, legitimacy, and informational clout. It also creates opportunities for the division of labor between different actors. But multilateral mandates also have limitations, namely that the mediator has no coercive power to use against the parties.
A second aspect of the mediation process pertains to the mediator’s preparation. Among other things, he or she needs to assess the situation and determine if the environment is conducive to a settlement. The mediator studies the issues in dispute, tries to persuade the parties that their differences are resolvable, and searches for common ground. The mediator must also decide what parties to include in the talks, a challenge that is often both complex and hugely consequential.
A third feature of the process is how a mediator uses the instruments at his or her disposal in the negotiations. This refers to establishing principles and goals for the talks, framing issues, and skillfully using language to find areas of agreement and solutions to practical problems. “A good repertoire of synonyms in the diplomatic toolbox is essential for mediation,” Svensson and Wallensteen write. “By reformulating contentious concepts or words the international mediator can open more possibilities for the parties to find common ground on which agreements can be reached. Changes in wording can be critical.”
The authors cite a telling example from Eliasson’s mediation in Southern Sudan in 1992. A stalemate preventing the delivery of humanitarian supplies was broken when Eliasson’s team developed the concept of “humanitarian corridors” rather than relying on the more politically charged notion of a ceasefire. “This concept created a completely new situation in the negotiations,” they write about “humanitarian corridors” that allowed much-needed supplies to be transported to the suffering population.
A fourth feature of mediation relates to the challenges of handling cooperation and competition during the process. The authors note that increasingly there are a number of parties that aspire to be part of the discussion, and in some cases, there can be competing efforts that are not coordinated with the lead mediating mission. The presence of various willing mediators invites the primary parties to go forum shopping, looking for the best interlocutor to help them achieve an acceptable outcome.
Finally, the authors observe a simple but important truth: All mediation efforts must end. Sensing the right time and appropriate terms for talks to conclude is a critical skill. “The dynamics surrounding the cessation of mediation are as important for international mediators as those surrounding their entry and work during the mediation process,” they write.
Svensson and Wallensteen say that some mediators use the threat to leave talks as a tactic during negotiations, but add that Eliasson believes threats are more risky than helpful. “Threats are dangerous to use for the mediator. You always have to be ready to implement them or otherwise you will lose your credibility completely,” Eliasson told the authors. “Therefore, I am skeptical about using the threat of withdrawal as a mediating strategy.”
Svensson and Wallensteen argue that mediations are important even when they don’t produce dramatic successes. “Mediation tends to reduce significantly the duration of conflicts, to increase the likelihood of negotiated settlements, and to facilitate the preventive transformation of crises, among other things,” they write.
They point out that in Eliasson’s mediation efforts, the goal was often to maintain communication between the primary parties, reduce the human suffering from the conflict, stop the fighting for a specific period of time, prevent a resumption or spread of violence, and explore the elements of a more durable peace agreement. They also emphasize that it’s not the mediator who stops the war, but the conflicting parties. “Wars end only when the warring parties are willing to end them,” they write, adding that a mediator may help to increase the awareness of the need to end a war.
Svensson and Wallensteen say their study of Eliasson illustrates the challenges that mediators face going forward. One is the crucial need to incorporate lessons from past mediation efforts into future endeavors. They describe Eliasson as part of small cadre of elite international mediators that includes Jimmy Carter, George Mitchell, Martti Ahtisaari and Lakhdar Brahimi.
“The pool of experienced mediators is remarkably small,” they write. Consequently, it’s critical for these experienced mediators to help train and mentor future mediators. “Today’s many ad hoc mediation attempts may lead to ineffective or even counterproductive third party interventions. There is a need to create systemic approaches to learning, sharing, training and knowledge production in the field of international mediation.”
To that end, the authors argue that more international resources should be allocated for international mediation. They also believe that mediations should be built around teams in which people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise and skills work together under one mandate. This team approach would tackle complex issues and also provide an opportunity to train young mediators by involving them in real world negotiations.
“The Go-Between” is a useful, informative and significant book. It is clear and well organized, but also demanding to read, with occasionally dense prose and considerable detail on the art of mediation. It’s not light summer fare to take to the beach.
The book’s most important accomplishment is to provide concrete examples about how a skilled mediator tried to tackle humanitarian challenges or search for political agreements. Studying Eliasson’s work in Iran, Iraq, Burma, Darfur and other troubled hotspots gives the reader a crash course on how a superb professional operates under tremendous pressure. The book also provides a lucid framework to study and think about international mediation in general.
But “The Go-Between” has, in my view, several weaknesses. Perhaps most significantly is the fact that Eliasson himself sometimes gets lost and his voice muted amidst all the discussion of mediation theory. Even within the parameters of the book that Svensson and Wallensteen set out to write, I think a different structure would have been more successful. A brief biographical section followed by a clear narration of the six Eliasson-led mediations would have given the reader a better foundation to evaluate the Swedish diplomat’s work. As it is, various aspects of the six mediation case studies are strewn throughout the book. Even with my extensive knowledge of Eliasson’s career, I often struggled to recall the chronology and even the central challenge of each mediation. The authors do provide a helpful chronology in the appendix, but I would have preferred a brief but clear narration of each mediation early in the book.
Moreover, the authors raise intriguing issues, but don’t fully flesh them out. For example, they are sympathetic to the idea of creating teams of skilled negotiators rather than building mediations around lone stars such as Eliasson. This seems sensible, but I wish they had expounded on this idea more. Are there downsides to this approach? How do you begin to implement it? And what does Eliasson think of this?
I also wish the authors had allowed Eliasson to explain more clearly how he has changed as a mediator over the decades as his experiences have expanded and the global scene has become more complicated. Svensson and Wallensteen offer several observations on how Eliasson’s style has evolved, but these are disappointingly sketchy and undeveloped.
My hope is that one day Eliasson will write a memoir of his impressive career. While all memoirs have to be assessed carefully and read critically, Eliasson’s story would be compelling. Students of diplomacy would certainly profit from a personal account of his extensive and successful career that has included high-level bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and highly consequential international mediations.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.