Effective influence within an overall peacemaking strategy needs to be based on an appreciation of the core process challenges in most war-to-peace transitions. Common milestones tend to occur when:
a) Parties begin to recognise they cannot achieve their goals unilaterally and that simply continuing with the status quo entails risks of unacceptable costs. Therefore they are willing to risk exploring engagement with their opponents, leading to 'talks about talks' in a re-negotiation phase.
b) Parties begin to have sufficient confidence in their counterparts that the risks of engaging are outweighed by the potential benefits of achieving their goals. Therefore the choice to engage in a process towards a negotiated agreement becomes the preferred strategy.
c) The negotiations produce agreements that seem to deliver enough of their goals without entailing unacceptable costs and negotiators have sufficient confidence that the agreements will be implemented, either because of confidence in the good faith of their counterparts or because of external guarantees. Therefore the risks of decisively ending the military campaign are worth the benefits they anticipate.
Different methods and measures may be required to increase the likelihood first that adversaries will agree to engage, then to stay engaged or come back if the process breaks down, then to sign an agreement, or to go through the often painful process of implementation. This is rarely a smooth, linear process. Furthermore, sustainability can be enhanced by simultaneous efforts to engage the wider public in the process and promote long-term peacebuilding initiatives to address the effects of protracted conflict.
Getting to the table: the pre-negotiations phase
Changes in the wider context or in the specific conflict dynamics are typically crucial to the effectiveness of external influence in helping parties begin a sustained negotiation process. For example, change in South Africa owed much more to changes in the wider context (especially the collapse of the Soviet Union) and the conflict dynamic (the effectiveness of the opposition in making the country ungovernable) than the myriad sanctions that had been applied to the apartheid government. When a new leader came to power, the skillful deployment of sanctions and incentives helped to provide the necessary traction for a profound change in strategy that led to the negotiated transition.
External actors can also seek to make it easier for leaders to 'come to the table' to discuss the future without losing crucial internal support. Specific measures – typically offered conditionally – to remove proscriptions that complicate engagement or other travel/visa bans could increase the prospects of engagement. They can reduce the viability of military campaigns by cutting off the means of waging conflict through arms embargos, boycotts of conflict commodities and targeted financial sanctions. These may be complemented by 'sweeteners' to gradually extend recognition or end isolation. External intermediaries can also use quiet communications to explore, determine and communicate adversaries' readiness for contacts. Leaders of parties, particularly non-state actors, often need to overcome fear of being out-manoeuvred at the table. External actors can provide training to build negotiating capacities and consultations to assist in articulating aspirations or developing a political agenda.
Before entering talks, parties will typically seek to impose preconditions. In contrast to externally imposed conditionality, 'agreed conditionality' can be established by the parties through jointly identifying and agreeing principles that would form the 'terms of engagement' to underpin a negotiation process. Violations of these terms could then be the basis for imposing sanctions while adherence to these principles could trigger rewards.
External actors can also seek to use their influence to encourage a process that is more likely to result in sustainable peace. They can use their influence to foster a process that is inclusive of all the main stakeholders – including women, youth, marginalised groups, and political constituencies who chose not to take up arms. They can also encourage the parties to include key substantive issues (such as gender, human rights, land reform, transitional justice) on the agenda of peace talks and in the final agreement.
Staying at the table and working towards agreement: the negotiations phase
In general, this is the point when external efforts need to focus on encouraging the leaders and their representatives to conclude agreements that address both the immediate surface problems that dominate their relationship (such as security), as well as the underlying issues that initially led to an adversarial relationship (such as abuse of a 'winner takes all' political system). They can try to foster a problem-solving approach to the talks and devise ways of encouraging the parties to stay at the table, especially when progress seems slow and impasses develop.
External actors can seek to exercise 'process conditionality.' They essentially reward good faith participation in a peace process – often through implied recognition that ends isolation or through assistance needed to achieve a desired objective – while withholding desirable engagement from those who refuse to participate or obstruct the process. For example, in 1990 US legislators used warning of variable levels of cuts in its military aid to El Salvador to encourage the parties to negotiate in good faith.
The primary parties, especially armed opposition groups, need to gain trust in the process – and be reassured that any external intermediaries are not biased against them and that the 'real issues' will be addressed. As talks get underway, an important role is helping the parties themselves to build momentum in the process, in part because of their increased confidence that their counterparts are serious and acting in good faith. Everyone can aim towards establishing a rhythm of reciprocity. External actors can work to assure adversaries that the other is not wholly bent on victory, helping them recognise when positive actions have been taken or that shifts in the adversary's mindset have taken place – and what might be an effective and appropriate response. They can reframe the issues and sketch a range of possible solutions, as well as encourage gestures of conciliation and confidence-building measures. They can also support the parties to take small, constructive and irreversible steps leading towards their becoming deeply invested in reaching a mutually agreeable outcome. They can offer flexible and timely assistance to implement the measures, based on agreed benchmarks.
Reaching and implementing agreements
While useful at many points in the process, external political and security guarantees are often key to securing parties' final agreement to and implementation of peace accords.
External actors can help parties overcome distrust in their adversary's intentions to implement agreements by instituting third-party verification mechanisms to ensure compliance. They can support joint forums and political processes to oversee agreed reforms and help iron out the inevitable disputes between the parties. They can provide symbolic and material incentives to help make the agreement more acceptable both to the rank-and-file of belligerent groups and the wider public, as well as sanctioning those who seek to wreck the agreement.
They can help increase the viability of implementation by providing resources to support reforms as well as reconstruction, reintegration and reconciliation processes. Measures to promote transitional justice or to implement demobilisation are just some of the many specific and inter-related challenges where external assistance may be invaluable.
Perhaps most important is for external actors to sustain their constructive involvement in the process for the long-haul of the transition towards consolidating peace – while simultaneously recognising that attempts to impose overly prescriptive approaches can backfire and undermine the ownership essential to the long-term sustainability of change.