Why is multilateral diplomacy so difficult?

Multilateral diplomacy is difficult, and we may only now be learning how most effectively to undertake this art. But it is necessary. There are too many geopolitical confrontations in the contemporary age, in which the bipolar conditions of Cold War have evaporated, for us not to pursue multilateral diplomacy as a course of last resort in every opportunity in which it has at least the remotest possibility to deliver a positive outcome. The world is too dangerous for the international community to adopt any other philosophy.

   Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Matthew Parish

Multilateral diplomats are, or should be, diplomats of last resort when every other line of communication has failed. This is my thesis in my essay entitled What is the United Nations Supposed to be Doing? This means that multilateral diplomats serve as shuttle diplomats, passing messages and communications between the parties to a geopolitical dispute either before war or other hostile activities have started, or during hostilities, seeking to find a compromise. The job is notoriously difficult. It must be difficult, or the profession would not exist: the parties would have found a compromise between one-another. But why Is it so difficult? Why does the profession exist at all? And what are the skills required to undertake it?

To answer these questions, we need to start with negotiation theory. Why does anybody enter into any sort of contract? Compromises in the course of geopolitical disputes are forms of contract: they are agreements, the terms of which are that one state will do one thing or a set of things, in exchange for another state doing another set of things. So one state might agree progressively to withdraw their troops from a zone of confrontation, in exchange for another state with whom they are in confrontation likewise undertaking the same stepwise activity.

The reason people enter contracts is that there is a surplus to cooperation, compared with what negotiation theorists typically call a “BATNA” (a best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Let us take an example. Iran and the United Sates are currently in conflict, as has been widely reported in the international media. The United States is unhappy with Iranian foreign policy, which it perceives as regionally aggressive. The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran, and there is now the prospect of the United States initiating military action against Iran. Let us assign utility scores to the respective parties in relation to this confrontation. At the current time, Iran is suffering -10 utiles, because US sanctions are hurting its economy. The United States is suffering -3 utiles, because US companies cannot invest in Iran (which would presumably be profitable) and US confrontation with Iran is causing friction with the USA’s European allies.

In addition, the United States has sailed an aircraft carrier strike fleet to the Persian Gulf, which is performing military exercises with an amphibious assault group. Let us assign a utility value of -1 to the United States for doing this, because while the United States might, all other things being considered, prefer these naval strike groups to be occupied elsewhere, they have to be occupied somewhere. There is a marginal disutility arising from the fact that they are performing pre-war preparatory exercises that presumably otherwise they would not be performing. So the net disutility of the current US-Iran standoff is -4 utiles for the United States. The cost to the Iranians of having two aircraft carriers threatening located in the Gulf is, let us say, -3 utiles. That is because commercial shipping may be deterred (beyond the extent to which it already is by sanctions) from entering the Persian Gulf and trading with Iran by reason of the US military presence; and because Iran has to engage its naval and other military forces on standby in case the United States attacks Iran. These preparations presumably cost something. Hence the net disutility to Iran of the current US-Iran stand-off is, let us say, -14 utiles.

Do not be concerned for the moment what the metric of the “utile” is, or whether these numbers accurately assess the relative costs to the United States and Iran of the current stand-off. These things do not matter for the current purposes of the discussion, but they will matter later and we shall return to these subjects.

Now imagine that the United States decides to execute a military strike upon Iran, not involving ground troops. The American naval presence in the Gulf is overwhelmingly superior to that of Iran, and the US navy could undertake a series of strikes, for example on Iranian infratructure, as punitive measures designed to force the Iranian regime to comply with US demands to cease hostile regional policy, with relative military impunity although something might go wrong for them: an Iranian surface-to-air missile might down a US fighter jet, for example. Undertaking military strikes is also expensive, although the United States Department of Defense budget is very large and therefore financial cost may not be a substantial consideration in deciding whether to undertake the strikes the media report are being contemplated. Moreover there is evidence of substantial Congressional support for military action against a belligerent Iran. Therefore the White House might acquire some positive political feedback within the US domestic system from undertaking these strikes. This may mitigate against the other various negative costs of undertaking strikes (for example, increased tensions with European allies). Let us score for the United States the costs of undertaking limited military strikes against Iran as -4.

For Iran, the cost of a US military strike comprehensively damaging the country’s civilian and military infrastructure would be colossal. Including loss of life and the need to rebuild, let us place that cost at -20. Again, do not be concerned for now about whether these frankly arbitrary figures representing various costs to the mutually hostile parties of a course of action are in any sense accurate, based upon an estimate of evidence (they are not), or seek to take into account all the different sorts of potential costs and benefits to each side of any particular course of action (they do not). But for current purposes the foregoing assumptive figures are intended to be additive.That is to say, if there is to be war then the cumulative loss to the United States will be -7 whereas the cumulative loss to Iran will be -37.

It is obvious that neither party wants these outcomes. It is false to assume that the United States wants Iran to suffer -37 utiles because the United States will only suffer -7. The United States does not want to suffer anything. They would prefer positive outcomes (as of course would Iran). The mere fact that Iran has a lot more to lose from military confrontation than the United States does not mean that the United States is determined to have a confrontation with Iran.

Now consider a compromise solution between the United States and Iran, in which Iran progressively withdraws the belligerent proxy forces it controls in the Middle East and that threaten US ally Israel, in exchange for the United States progressively withdrawing its military presence and progressively dismantling its sanctions regime. We might also throw into the equation a progressive exchange of diplomatic representation between US ally Israel and Iran. The United States benefits, because this way its ally Israel, that the United States pays to assist in the protection of, will require less assistance from the United States. This may create a domestic political benefit in the United States by virtue of advantages to American political ally Israel. And American businesses can make money from investment in Iran. Let us call the benefit to the United States if this happens +15. Iran will also benefit. Iran will be relieved of the costs of maintaining a perennially hostile regional foreign policy against its regional adversary Israel; it will rejoin the community of international nations; and its economy will be rejuvenated. Let us call the benefits to Iran of this happening +40.

Hence the cooperative surplus before an imagined war between the United States and Iran, of reaching a compromise, is +72. This number (and it is just an assumptive number, for the purposes of illustration) is obtained by adding the difference between the costs to the relative parties of the current stand-off and the benefits to the parties of reaching an agreement. If one assumes that upon an inability to reach a compromise there will be military action, and hence the “BATNAs” are -7 for the United States and -37 for Iran, then the cooperative surplus for a negotiated agreement compared with the BATNAs rises to +109.

Negotiation theory predicts that (a) there must be a cooperative surplus compared to the BATNAs in order that parties agree and do not fall back upon their BATNAs; and (b) the cooperative surplus will be “split”: that is to say, the cooperative bargain struck will divide the cooperative surplus 50:50 between the two parties compared to their BATNAs. In other words, any process of negotiation (whether it be in a personal or geopolitical context) will result in the parties sharing the benefits of cooperation equally between them. The reason it will be 50:50 is because, on the assumption that the parties are equally skilled in negotiating, the only rational way of resolving a dispute about how to split a cooperative surplus given that one exists is down the middle. Incidentally, this is why the veracity of the assumptive numbers proffered above is irrelevant for current purposes: the parties to a confrontation are best-placed to assess the relative utility values of the various outcomes, and these relative assessments will feed into the negotiations and into the final outcome that determines how the cooperative surplus will be split.

Hence on the foregoing analysis, the US-Iran dispute ought to resolve itself easily through bilateral negotiations between the parties. The cooperative surplus (+109) is so high compared to the current disutility affecting each of the parties that a cooperative solution is overwhelmingly rational for both parties. Neither party gets everything they want. They settle the dispute by dividing the cooperative surplus 50:50 – that is to say, each side gets +54.5 relative to their BATNA’s. Exactly what this equates to in the context of actual geopolitical events is for the parties to work out in the course of their negotiations. But they will work it out. It makes sense for them to do this. One might observe in passing that this model (surely correctly) predicts that the party with the more negative BATNA will ultimately do less well out of the compromise ultimately reached; their ultimate positive score will be lower with the 50% cooperative surplus they will acquire, because the BATNA they started with and to which their cooperative surplus score will be added in the event of a successful agreement will therefore ultimately be lower. This is why countries engage in arms races. Each one wants to ensure that the other country has a lower BATNA than them, so that they will have the upper hand in negotiations. Arms races are obviously prisoners’ dilemmas (both parties ultimately end up with less, because they both have more negative BATNA’s), and the solution to arms race prisoners’ dilemmas is enforceable arms reduction treaties. But that is a discussion for another day.

Given the foregoing, why is there any aggression between the United States and Iran whatsoever? The logic of a deal is so obvious that it is extraordinary one has not been reached already or even that a dispute has arisen. There are several answers, and all of them allude to the fact that the foregoing model is in fundamental ways over-simplistic. There are four principal deficiencies. The first is that negotiating carries a cost; and that cost may be augmented if the negotiations are not successful. In the geopolitical context, the negotiation costs are domestic backlash against doing deals with one’s enemies. The reasons the negotiation costs are higher (for both sides) if the negotiations fail is because rival domestic political actors to the negotiators can say “I told you so”, “you look weak”, or similar perennial domestic political narratives that every expert in conflict resolution is wearily familiar with. It is the problem of outliers and spoilers. Because the costs of negotiation are uncertain; increase as the negotiations go on; and may become very high should the negotiations ultimately fail, the belligerent parties may place an estimate upon the costs of negotiation that make the negotiations themselves appear to eliminate the cooperative surplus.

The second problem is of the kind that economists call an “information problem”. There are lots of information problems in the context of geopolitical negotiations. I may not know what your BATNA is. I may not know what your negotiation costs are. It may take me time to find out these things, in the course of negotiations. That time may not exist, because I may calculate that I can increase your BATNA by forcing you to act quickly. So I may mis-estimate your BATNA. This might further inhibit me from even beginning negotiations.  Given that negotiations have a cost I may be more likely to be able to to assess at the beginning of a putative negotiation process than I am your BATNA. These information problems may prevent negotiations from ever starting – or proceeding in more than dilatory, facile or non-useful way.

The third problem is really a species of an information problem. In the US-Iran case, there are two sets of figures: -4 / -14 (the utility costs of the current stand-off); and -7 / -37 (the utility costs of conflict). Which two sets of values are the parties’ BATNAs? If they are the second two, then a deal is much easier given a fixed set of transaction costs than if they are the first two. That is because the cooperative of a deal is substantially higher if the second two figures are the BATNA’s. The problem is that the parties are both inclined to believe that the former two figures are the BATNA’s. That is because they cannot imagine that the other side would not reach a deal, or would not escalate, given that (a) there is a cooperative surplus to be had; and (b) escalation of the conflict involves mutual net disutility. So for example if one were Iran, one would be tempted to assume that the current stand-off will persist indefinitely in the absence of a cooperative outcome (why would the United States harm itself by attacking?), and one would negotiate with a view to splitting the cooperative surplus upon the basis of the former set of figures rather than the latter set.

This is an illustrative example, for two reasons. Firstly, it is an information problem in the sense that if you are Iran you are inevitably to a certain extent guessing what the relative disutility values are to the United States of the two options of continued stand-off versus military escalation. You may think you know what they are, but you certainly do not know what they are as well as does the United States. And vice versa. In negotiation theory, every uncertainty or information problem increases the costs of negotiation and threatens thereby to wipe out the cooperative surplus. Secondly, on the foregoing set of admittedly hypothetical figures the United States has an incentive to escalate because the disparity between the relative BATNA’s in the second scenario (military intervention) is substantially more than the relative BATNA’s in the former scenario. At least so the United States may imagine. Therefore it is tempting to conceive that once military action has begun, when the negotiations start and the time to split the cooperative surplus 50:50 comes, the United States will end up with a greater net positive outcome than it would do negotiating in circumstances of a continued stand-off without military escalation.

Calculations of this kind are the basis of how every war ever started in history has ever begun, and they are basis of how every war that ever will be started in the future ever will begin.

The problem with the foregoing logic that catalyses war is that both sides have compelling incentives to mis-estimate the relative change in BATNA’s that military escalation entails. That is not just an information problem – wars are unpredictable, and we don’t know who is going to win them. (If we did, then we wouldn’t have them – the parties would just split the cooperative surplus instead.) The more compelling problem is that military advisors and officials have a structural incentive to underestimate the negative costs of war for their side and to overestimate the negative costs of war for the other side. That is because military officials may acquire increased political or other authority, or financial appropriations, from events of war. Therefore they may have a structural incentive to advise their political masters (if they have them – if the country is not in approximation a military dictatorship) – that they can win a war easily and at low cost. This habit is part of what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”, and it infects every country with a substantial military.

A sage lesson for all civilian political leaders receiving advice upon the desirability of prospective military action is to treat such advice with a healthy dose of scepticism. Particularly in civilian-led governments, there is an internal information problem in that the Generals inevitably have more expertise than the civilian leaders they are advising and hence the temptation to listen to their expertise is compelling, while the caution mandated in understanding their incentives to provide skewed advice is less voluble. Moreover Generals, being experts, want to show their expertise by making predictions. But war has many uncertainties. Therefore a disutility value must be incorporated into every piece of military advice a civilian leader receives, that reflects the hidden uncertainty of outcome. As Queen Elizabeth I of England is reported apocryphally to have said (before losing a war with the French), “I do not like war. Its outcome is unpredictable.” This is why.

It is worth noticing in passing that every observation about conflict and negotiation theory set out above is so obvious to an experienced litigation lawyer that it barely goes without saying. One intriguing insight one has after the extensive practice of litigation is that one’s clients always have a more optimistic expectation of the outcome of the litigation process, and always place a lower expected value on the costs of litigation than the costs of negotiation, than actually come to pass. Litigants (and those lawyers who would exploit their clients) are particularly predisposed to adopt the axiom that there is weakness, or it prejudices one’s negotiating position, if one makes the first proposal for a negotiated settlement. Following the precepts of negotiation theory, this presumption, aired all too often, is obviously false. The fact that one might make a proposal for a negotiated settlement first changes neither either party’s BATNA’s nor the cooperative surplus. Therefore it must be irrelevant. What this mutually adopted fiction does do is to increase both side’s negotiating costs, and thereby increase the costs of escalation to the next stage of litigation, which lawyers (like the Generals) have a structural incentive to underestimate to their clients. One of the persistent ironies of litigation is that every lawyer and judge without a financial interest in the outcome of a piece of litigation can tell more or less straight away, from the most casual perusal of the initial papers, what the eventual outcome of the case will be. Because by reason of what economists call an agency problem (the interests of a lawyer as agent diverge from the interests of a client as principal), lawyers advising their clients over-estimate the costs of negotiation and under-estimate the costs of escalation. The way lawsuits therefore settle is at the point where this structural dishonesty about costs, if one might put it that way, becomes morally non-credible after the litigation costs have escalated beyond a certain level and it has become impossible for lawyers to hide from their clients the actual merits of their and their opponents’ cases. At this stage clients in opposition to one-another take hold of their senses, realise that negotiation costs are almost always much lower than they had ever anticipated, and they negotiate a compromise.

The fourth flaw with the foregoing model will be passed over briefly but it is worthy of mention as a perennial problem of international relations. The expected utility value of a compromise must be discounted factorially by the prospect that one’s counterpart will not stick by the deal. In other words the cooperative surplus may be substantially less than one might otherwise suppose upon the assumption of perfect compliance with an agreed compromise. The reason this point is passed over briefly is because, in a sense, it is all too obvious and one thing diplomats and statesmen tend to be relatively good at is assessing the prospects for one’s counterpart to comply with an agreement reached between states or otherwise hostile parties, and if so then for how long. The international order being an anarchy, in which there are no impartial judicial mechanisms to enforce treaties, everyone has got used to calculating discounts of this kind – as indeed have litigation lawyers in the equivalent context. Every litigation lawyer of experience and ability knows instinctively which settlement deals will stick, and for how long.

In the geopolitical context, there are very few exceptions, but let us mention one from the annals of history because it is illustrative. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 agreed peace between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany for a period of five years. Of course there was no means for judicial enforcement of this ignoble agreement. It was Stalin who ended up getting it wrong. He imagined that the treaty would be self-enforcing for Nazi Germany for this period, because Germany’s military resources were, in his view, insufficient to invade the Soviet Union at the same time as engaging in hostilities with the West that were palpably soon to break out. In this assessment, Stalin was right. By December 1941, the gasoline in German tanks had frozen on the outskirts of Moscow and the Red Army cut the Nazis’ supply lines using cossacks on horseback. Stalin’s error was to assume that what was obvious to him about the capacity of the Germany military to invade the Soviet Union was also obvious to Hitler. It turned out that it was not. Hitler catastrophically overplayed his hand, and Stalin never imagined that Hitler would have been so foolish as to do this until he actually did. This was one of the myriad causes of Hitler committing suicide in Berlin in 1945 as the Red Army advanced through the city’s suburbs.

What then is the role of a multilateral diplomat? It is the same as a mediator in the context of litigation: to reduce the negotiating costs (or perceived negotiating costs) amidst a crisis so as to persuade the parties that there is a cooperative surplus where they might otherwise imagine there not to be one; and to encourage the parties that the likely utility calculi incentivising military escalation are misconceived. The tools of the mediator are distribution of knowledge, to reduce the negotiation costs created by uncertainty; to overcome the perverse logic of refusing to negotiate first; and to override another curious quality of bilateral diplomacy amidst circumstances of international confrontation, namely the temptation to cut off communications (i.e. resiling diplomatic relations) as a form of escalation short of actual military action. Cutting communications increases negotiation costs enormously, and therefore inevitably diminishes the cooperative surplus. In the Middle Eastern context, the absence of diplomatic relations between Iran and not just the United States but also Iran’s regional adversary Israel, is the most collectively irrational aspect of the disputes at stake. It is ever more imperative that parties in recurrent conflict have robust channels of diplomatic relations, not less so.

The mediator’s job being to reduce perceived negotiation costs and perceived expected outcome discounts to the cooperative surplus deriving from outcome uncertainty, their principal role is to be able to convey information under circumstances of trust and confidence between rival belligerents.  They can do this even where diplomatic relations do not exist and even where both parties are engaged in a “do not negotiate first” prisoners’ dilemma. But the mediator faces a number of challenges, and this shapes the way that international mediators ought to work. The most obvious point is that it is difficult to persuade the parties to agree to use a mediator. That is for the same reason as the “do not negotiate first” dynamic is so corrosive: the first person to concede that mediation is appropriate appears weak. In a judicial context, a number of legal systems have sought to resolve this problem by a judge imposing mediation upon the parties to a dispute at a preliminary court hearing. In the geopolitical context, there is no preliminary court hearing and no judge. Hence more often than not, the mediators have to insert themselves into the situation in such a way that neither party loses face, for want of a better word, by agreeing to mediate before the other one.

An international organisation may be appropriate for this, but it need not necessarily be public in character. The important point is that the mediators are incentivised to insert themselves into the conflict and that the sorts of people skilled to undertake such a role have those incentives whereas people without such skills are not. In this context the difference between public and private mediators (and this author has served as both) is significant. A mediator from a public international organisation is guaranteed a revenue (i.e. their salary) even if the mediation goes sour. Therefore the problem of identifying the party prepared to fund the mediation (which is essentially the same as the problem of who offers to negotiate first – It is not about the money which is always trivial in the geopolitical context in comparison with the gravity of the dispute but about the purported weakness of moving first) is eliminated. One might imagine the United Nations as having a staff of pre-paid persons (for example, Under Secretaries General) prepared to serve as mediators for any dispute that might come along. Upon the assumption that this staff of persons do nothing of substance (i.e. with a utility value to any funding member state of the international organisation) save to make themselves available to serve as mediators, and budget lines are reserved for them even during times where there is no conflict for them to mediate, they can act initially to insert themselves into a conflict obviating the financial issue, that shows so-called weakness for an adversary party to take a first position upon.

Another advantage of an international organisation having a roster of such mediators – at least in theory – is that international organisations may incorporate amongst their governing principles the independence of their staff from member states of the organisation in question. This is a principle predominant in both the staff regulations of the United Nations and those of a predominance of other international organisations. In any mediation, independence of the mediator from the interests of the parties is imperative or the mediator may actually make things worse: negotiation costs are increased by virtue of uncertainty about the mediator’s loyalties or preferences. In a geopolitical context, the independence of a mediator is more acute, because any mediator must have a nationality and virtually every country has at least some sort of interest in every geo-political dispute (or that country can be the subject of pressure by another country that has some such interest). Therefore the principles of independence and impartiality enshrined in the texts such as the United Nations Staff Regulations are intended as a reassurance to the belligerent parties that a UN-sourced mediator will be free of such deleterious influences.

The problem with the foregoing logic is that it is widely known that the UN Staff Regulations averred to are a lie: all senior UN officials occupy the positions they do by virtue of the patronage of their national governments, to whom they accordingly owe fealty. Therefore the ostensible independence of UN-mandated mediators is suspicious at least; a great deal depends upon the personal integrity of the individual in question and their personal willingness and capacity to resist pressure, plus their ability to project their propensity to do this. Because UN member states do not want UN officials of their nationality to exercise independence (because it is a system of patronage they select those officials in substantial part upon the basis that they will not exercise independence), individuals of the requisite level of independence and integrity seldom enter the United Nations system and there is widespread scepticism as to whether UN-mandated mediator has the necessary qualities of impartiality ostensibly proffered.

There is another problem. Because the United Nations is a bureaucracy, its officials are naturally risk-averse. That is because bureaucracies punish risk-takers. There are scant advantages to be gleaned from successfully taking a risk in a bureaucracy, because those responsible for one’s advancement within the bureaucratic structure will perceive such successful persons as a threat. And there are colossal disadvantages to unsuccessfully taking a risk within a bureaucratic structure, because any hint of working outside established structures or doing something that may not have a good outcome or one that might be argued to be damaging to the bureaucracy’s internal integrity or external reputation renders one susceptible to bureaucratic attack by one’s colleagues. Bureaucracies are the ultimate in anti-entrepreneurial organisational structures. Because forcefully inserting oneself into a geopolitically military confrontation is so fraught with risk (it simply might not work), UN officials are highly unlikely in practice to do it. Only those with the strongest of backbones might be so inclined. They are a rare breed indeed.

Next there is the question of whether UN or similar public international officials are likely to have the requisite skills to serve as mediators. That depends upon how those UN officials are appointed, and in turn what their backgrounds are. To the extent that these senior officials are appointed from the professional ranks of the UN bureaucracy, they may have acquired risk-averse characteristics rendering them relatively disinclined to embrace the risk-comfortable attitudes of a multilateral diplomat of last resort whose first mandate will be to insert themselves forcibly into a charged and confrontational geopolitical situation. To the extent that such officials are appointed by systems of pure patronage from their countries of origin, they may have struggled up through equivalent domestic bureaucracies and hence they may have acquire parallel risk-averse habits. Moreover to the extent that they have come to identify themselves with the national interests of their nation of origin over an extended period of immersion in a domestic foreign ministry bureaucracy, they may be more used to taking positions of principle, as is typical of both diplomats and lawyers serving their principles (states and clients respectively) than engaging in the art of the skilful mediator, namely taking no positions of principle save where it appears propitious as a negotiating art in persuading the parties both that there is a cooperative surplus and that a certain settlement represents a rational means of dividing it.

On the other hand, where a system of domestic patronage for senior UN management positions may involve meritocratic appointments of persons with skills in dispute resolution and mediation, then a public international organisation may find itself with a roster of plausible mediators.

The fact that a UN-rostered mediator is paid the same amount irrespective of the outcome of the mediation process, or whether they accept the mandate at all, is a disincentive to their undertaking the task well. Every commercial litigator knows that a mediator must be paid well and by the job – and proportionate to its complexity. If they are not, then should the case become too complex the mediator may cease working effectively, and/or they may find excuses to decline the mandate. It is preferable that a mediator not be paid more by one belligerent party than the other. This is something which might create suspicions of bias that increase the costs of negotiation unnecessarily, although if it is transparent that the mediator is being paid only by one side then the increased costs of negotiation may be tolerable in proportion to the broader goal,

Mediators must be trusted, because if they are to reduce the negotiation costs associated with uncertainty of information about the other party’s position then a party must be confident that if they reveal information to the mediator in circumstances of confidence then that confidence will be respected. Mutual trust and confidence in the mediator is arguably the most important quality that any multilateral diplomat can have, and it is the hardest-earned. It can only be earned by stepwise measures demonstrating trust; and reputation based upon prior engagements as a mediator. If a mediator is not trusted, then the negotiation costs incurred by mutual party uncertainty may not be substantially reduced at all and hence the mediation may prove otiose. In this context, use of a mediator whose appointment has been the subject of political patronage from their home state may be unhelpful, because the fealty such a mediator owes to the state of their appointment may disincline disputing parties to harbour the levels of trust and confidence necessary to render the mediator useful. Again one should emphasise that in the geopolitical context, every state of sufficient significance to influence the outcome of senior international organisation appointments is likely to have an interest in the outcome of any substantial geopolitical dispute worth mediating.

All these considerations being taken into account, one might reach the view that the optimal solution to the question of how to select a multilateral diplomat of last resort is for the international community of states, philanthropists and like-minded benefactors to make common contributions to a multilateral funding pool that can thereafter be drawn upon by a board of interested states or other concerned persons to fund skilled mediators on a case-wise basis. The skills of the various mediators can thereafter be tested by reference to the market. Do they do a good job in the case in which they serve as multilateral diplomats of last resort? Are they trustworthy? Do they balance issues of loyalty to their governments of origin with the imperative to be entirely trustworthy and to to observe request confidences? Are they good at eliciting the often-hidden information held by belligerent parties, knowledge and exchange of which helps reduce negotiating costs and increase the cooperative surplus?

These considerations are imperative to the unenviable task of the contemporary multilateral diplomat of last resort. It is far from clear whether such people – a rare breed – are more effectively agents of public international bureaucracies or creatures of the private sector. In any event their jobs are exhausting, morally thankless (there is little public gratitude to be accorded a person who engages in shuttle diplomacy – an exercise that by its nature is confidential), unappreciated by one’s government (from whom one has to maintain a respectable level of independence if one is to be effective) and always precarious. It is possible that its most effective operatives have experience of both the public and private sectors, in order to navigate the array of competing pressures and incentives to which this essay has alluded. Multilateral diplomacy is difficult, and we may only now be learning how most effectively to undertake this art. But it is necessary. There are too many geopolitical confrontations in the contemporary age, in which the bipolar conditions of Cold War have evaporated, for us not to pursue multilateral diplomacy as a course of last resort in every opportunity in which it has at least the remotest possibility to deliver a positive outcome. The world is too dangerous for the international community to adopt any other philosophy.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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