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Negotiating with Killers: Expert Insights on Resolving Deadly Conflicts Browse

Maximizing One’s Leverage


Genocide and atrocities often occur in regions where the U.S. and other governments have few economic investments or foreign assistance programs in place, and where international actors cannot credibly threaten the use of military force in order to back their demands. Such resource constraints can force negotiators to be creative in thinking about the resources at their disposal. Ambassador Donald Steinberg:

I remember in the peace process in Angola always having essentially one single threat that we could use with the parties, that if they were being intransigent, we could remove the international peacekeepers.

I always thought that was the equivalent of saying if there is a babysitter and the kids are misbehaving, the alternative is to have the babysitter leave, and then they burn down the house.

Seasoned mediators offer several suggestions for maximizing one’s leverage in a negotiation:

First, it is important to establish one’s personal credibility. Robert Oakley served as U.S. Ambassador to Zaire, Somalia, and Pakistan. In 1992 he went to Mogadishu as U.S. Special Envoy during the first four months of the UN humanitarian mission to Somalia. Oakley stresses that a mediator who is perceived as personally trustworthy can often operate effectively even when the interlocutor distrusts the government that the mediator represents:

In addition to being what I would call even-handed, it’s very, very important to keep your word, and don’t tell somebody something that you don’t mean and don’t tell somebody something that you’re not going to do. It’s extremely important in situations like this.

Ambassador Oakley describes the delicate balancing act of negotiating with the Somalian warlord Mohammad Aidid, whose obstruction of humanitarian relief shipments had played a role in the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Somalis. In the course of these negotiations, he says it was critically important to deliver on his promises and on his threats:

I felt as if Aidid sort of had a good angel and a bad angel, one on either shoulder, and he was very, very volatile, like a vial of nitroglycerine, he could go off at any moment, so you had to be very, very careful in the way you handled him; on the other hand, if you were careful, you could point him in a direction and encourage him to move in that direction. We didn’t in any sort of direct blunt way try to impose our will on him, but we could use carrots and sticks to give him a little support, take away a little support, work with him, not work with him so closely, so as to move him in the right direction, but at all times, allowing him to retain the thought that was his great ambition, that he would be the ruler of all Somalia. We never said yes, we never said no, but we didn’t say to him … we push you out, you have no future in your own country.

[MELANIE GREENBERG]: These perpetrators need to know that there’s some other leverage, some other control over their behavior, or else it’s not effective.

Melanie Greenberg of the Cypress Fund for Peace and Security emphasizes that when atrocities are being committed on the ground, the mediator cannot exercise influence simply via his or her impartiality or personal prestige:

If you’re in a situation [where] you have a neutral low-power mediator where all he or she can bring to the table is a credibility or personal charisma, that really doesn’t take you very far.

Greenberg points out that this leverage need not always involve hard military or economic power:

I think that we often tend to think about sticks as either high-power military or even economic sanctions, and I think that there are other ways of thinking about leverage than simply those options... In smaller conflicts, if we’re looking at Uganda, perhaps even at Darfur, it’s clear, we don’t have quite as much leverage. But there are a number of intermediate steps which often have to do with the perception of these leaders in the world that can change. There’s the shame and blame, spotlighting atrocities, highlighting in the media, setting up intense public interest, ... Most people don’t like to be under a spotlight, even if they fully believe what they are doing is right or in some kind of interest.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah agrees that negotiators in such situations need to be imaginative when thinking about the range of resources at their disposal:

The first way to deal with extremists is to fight them on their own turf. Discretely of course, because you are a mediator and you should not be seen as taking sides or you should not even take sides even if you are not seen. But the extremist as I said starts by terrorizing his own group. So when I identified the main extremist I knew in his own group, the political bureau of his party, they were more than 80 percent against him. But they were afraid. So you go after him, either by leaking information, checking on his background, has he paid debt in the past, has he done this; it is not fair but it is part of a trick you have to do...

So the stick is not necessarily a big stick, but you fight him the way they fight. Not that I would like to defame, but I would like to weaken his position. So you start this kind of, not demonizing him, just saying this guy is a jerk, he’s nobody. Not you, but your assistant, a friend, or you leak it by inadvertence and so on. This is before confrontation…. You know, to summarize, fighting extremists you use many means. Some are ethical, some are less ethical… So flexibility in sanction, flexibility in carrots and sticks to adapt to the situation.

Expert negotiators also emphasize the need to prevent what is known as “forum shopping.” When different international actors have conflicting agendas or policies in a region, parties to the conflict can often play one mediator off against the other, effectively cancelling out the capacity of each. Says Melanie Greenberg:

A tricky question of leverage, and how you develop leverage, is how do you make the peace train, how do you make your process the legitimate one, how do you rein everyone in to say, we’re all in the train going to the same place, that you can’t forum shop?… Certainly in Northern Ireland … the Mitchell process became the process, there wasn’t a sense of forum shopping. In Yugoslavia, you had EU, you had NATO, you had the United States, it was a mess, until the United States came in and said, we’re the game in town, we’re coordinating with NATO, this is it.