Back to Basics: The distinction between international negotiation and international mediation

Dear reader.
Great to see that you are returning to this blog.
Part of my interest in mediation and research is less about reporting the canon on mediation scholarship and practice available ‘out there’. I believe that there are scholars and practitioners who are more apt and adept at reveling into the deeper epistemology of third party intervention.

Yet, and while deployed on missions or capacity-building activities, I have observed that there is a profound confusion between the concepts of international negotiation and international mediation when it comes to the basics. In all observed cases, there is rather a utilitarian approach to mediation, whereby mediation provides the overall framework, yet the basic moves of parties and negotiators are pure bargaining tactics. While I do believe that there are contexts that lend to this type of process driven instrumentality of mediation, I also do think that blurring the lines does not necessarily help to advance the innovative ways to revolutionize communication in conflict settings, one of which is mediation.

As a continuation of my research, which focuses on a re-positioning of mediation as a viable tool to overcome disputant’s goals in entrenched conflict settings, I wanted to post a brief opinion on mediation as distinct to negotiation.

Often, audiences think of mediation in the international realm as a one man/woman show, with a powerful or credible go-between, who has the leadership skills and credentials of a Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan or Jimmy Carter, to ‘fuse divergent perceptions into mutual goals’ (my definition). Albeit being supported by a herd of technical supporters and experts, the narrative is that of a lone wolf, who tries to shepherd and cajole the parties into a new constructed way to communicated grievances in a new political space. Some innovative corrections to this assumption stem from the concept of using mediation at the track 1,5 level, whereby powerful power brokers, acting across different lines of self-interest are able to bring together a diverse range of stakeholders. Or, the efforts of ‘neutral/insider’ mediators, at the track 2 level, and superbly embodied by the International Contact Group (

My emphasis here is that mediation is quite different and that this new understanding of mediation is not only relevant at the track 1,5 or track 2 level, but also at the top-level of political mediation. As the world becomes more multipolar, eschewing binary dimensions, so does mediation come more and more into the fore of being the mechanism of choice to engage wicked problems. As such, and as I have stated in previous posts and publication, mediation needs to be seen as a trajectory rather than a process driver that brings about an agreement (whether comprehensive or partial). The trajectory works along the lines of process-context-outcome. This involves mediation, placing the parties at the center of the intervener’s attention, and employing a whole ‘battery’ (excuse the military term) of intervention methods (not only those from the international affairs realm), to provide creative and innovative ways at how parties can address their incompatibilities (Wallensteen, 2011), transform the context they were in, and move toward resolution.

In all cases I have participated in, proficient and lead mediators are already using the best practices in mediation: fostering trust through confidence-building measures, problem-solving through a series of agreements, and leveraging assistance and resources through the deployment of technical and financial resources (also together with Friends of Mediation). The trick in this domain is to be able to extract concessions from the parties that can make those agreements work (and that allow the negotiating parties to sell these concessions to their constituents) and overcome potential lack of political will. This is at times where the impact of mediation is rather unclear and not really addressed by research. This makes sense – this is the bread and butter of a mediator’s credibility and legitimacy. And it usually happens behind closed doors.

It is in this vein that I argue to conduct more research, tell more stories, get deeper insights on how mediators shape their environment.

On my end, I am engaging into shaping the discourse as I believe that most capacity-building curricula in the field are overdue for review. And, while there are some agencies employing new terminology and concepts to shape the discourse, those approaches are not steeped in multi-disciplinary research, which would then form the grounded theory from which coming mediators can nurture their new beliefs and world views.

Fluidity and ambiguity are not new paradigms. They have always been there, but we have been rather challenged by this complexity and instead of embracing it, we are again driven by a need to control our environment, thereby employing new approaches and ways, that are as helpful as seeing the world in binaries. As long as we think in Results-Based-Management terms and as long as disciplines still operate in silos, there is no discourse of scholar-practice as envisioned by many in the field. In this sense, it is less about emotional intelligence but rather maturity, not based on leadership, but on expertise and experience that will propel us forward.

Author: nakawashi9

International mediator, professor, corporate trainer!

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