The potential benefits to be gained from the engagement of a small group of states in an ongoing peace process are considerable. In a best case scenario – as seen, for example, in the negotiation of peace agreements in Central America, the role played by the Core Group in East Timor, or the engagement of the Troika in southern Sudan – they bring: leverage, information and practical help to the lead mediator (including through coordination of action in the Security Council as appropriate); legitimacy and influence to the states in the groups; a level of equilibrium, as well as technical and other assistance, to parties to the conflict that may otherwise be characterised by their asymmetry; and attention, resources, and the potential for coherence in the international intervention as a whole.
The circumstances within which this potential has been achieved have, of course, differed widely in accordance with the unique characteristics of each peace process. However, some common elements can be identified.
- Clear and accepted leadership of the peacemaking initiative;
- A favourable regional environment, represented by significant regional participation with the group mechanism – as was seen, for example, by the role played by Mexico within the Central American groups, or that of Australia and New Zealand in the Core Group on East Timor;
- Conflict parties with a history of engagement with the international community, with the non-state actors in possession of effective leadership, control of territory and/or a defined political agenda;
- A select (four to six states) membership, like-minded in holding the settlement of the conflict as their highest goal; and
- An acute sense of the timing of a mechanism's involvement in a peace process, derived from an understanding that this will determine what a friends or related group may be able to contribute.
Complementarity within a group is critical to its utility. Differing relations with the conflict parties in the successful cases, for example, allowed members of the respective Friend, Core and Troika mechanisms to divide incentives and points of pressure upon the parties between them behind a common vision of what the peaceful settlement of the conflict might look like. Moreover, that vision was one rooted in the demands of the conflict parties themselves, as they had evolved within negotiations: it was encouraged, but not arbitrarily imposed, by outside actors. Late in the day on the negotiations on El Salvador, for example, the Friends worked hard to encourage both parties to accept the recruitment of a significant number of former guerrillas into a new national police force. This was a clear compromise between the guerrillas' original demands for the merging of the two armies and the government's rejection of any such outcome, but also a solution that neither the Friends themselves, nor the UN mediator they supported, would have foreseen or believed possible when the negotiations began a year and half earlier.
Distinction in the roles pursued by different friends was evident in Central America and East Timor, as well as in southern Sudan. In El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, the privileged relationship enjoyed by Mexico with the insurgents, and the United States with the governments, allowed each to exert pressure at key moments of the negotiations. Meanwhile, the Core Group on East Timor was composed of states with specific and quite distinct roles to play. Regional actors (Australia and New Zealand, especially, but also Japan) had legitimate interests in security of their neighbourhood and contributed significant resources to ensure that it be preserved. More distant members of the UN Security Council (the United States and the United Kingdom) welcomed the regional lead and provided diplomatic and other support as appropriate. In Sudan, Troika states were able to work together to calibrate their various interventions and leverage upon conflict parties with whom they had deeply rooted but distinct relationships: the United Kingdom for historic reasons drew on greater knowledge of the north, the sympathies and clout of the United States gave it more leverage in the south, while Norway fell somewhere in between.
Positive results from the involvement of a group structure are not guaranteed. Internal differences or other factors related to a group's membership, most of them deriving from incompatibility in members' interests in a given conflict, can limit its utility in a process, creating sensitivities to be managed and negotiated in addition to those of the conflict parties. In the Georgian/Abkhaz case, differences between the group's European members (France, Germany and the United Kingdom), the United States and Russia have plagued the group of Friends throughout its fifteen-year existence. In other cases groups assume an identity of their own that can sustain the status quo – such as for Western Sahara, where a group of Friends manages action within the Security Council in accordance with priorities distinct from the settlement endorsed by the Council itself. Dynamics beyond the immediate context of a particular conflict (ranging from preoccupations with terrorism to an issue such as accession to the European Union) can also take their toll on a mechanism's efficacy.
Sensitivities regarding composition – reflecting a perennial balancing act between the efficiency of a small group and the legitimacy offered by a broad representation of states – are an ongoing problem. Members of a group will stress the flexibility, trust and cohesion that can be developed among a small number of states. Yet the influence that such groups can amass – usurping the authority of the UN Security Council, and/or excluding regional actors – bears a cost. In some cases the creation of a two-tier structure has helped address these issues: in East Timor, for example, a larger 'Support Group' complemented the small Core Group. In others, pressure for inclusion has led to large groups that cannot play an effective role. Unsurprisingly, experienced peacemakers have at times eschewed a group altogether (Cyprus in 1999, Afghanistan after 2001) , preferring to pursue the coordination of and complementarity among the multiple external actors involved in each case by different means.
In their interactions with non-state conflict parties groups of states face a series of challenges rooted in the state-centric biases of international peacemaking. A state that is also a conflict party engages with external actors with obvious advantages: the legitimacy afforded by membership of regional and multilateral organisations, familiarity with diplomatic norms and the rules of the system, and greater access to international resources than non-state counterparts. Such a state may not always welcome a coordination structure. However, it will be able to resist its pressures through invocation of the threats to sovereignty those pressures may appear to constitute, as well as the threat it faces from non-state actors it holds as illegitimate, criminal and, most likely, terrorist as well. Except in circumstances (such as southern Sudan or East Timor) where the non-state party enjoys the sympathy of international actors, the relations of group structures to non-state actors are inevitably more complex. Coordination mechanisms can appear as a means by which the international community has united against them, and attempts to introduce conditionalities, as in the case of Sri Lanka, may go awry.