Only a few years ago it was widely expected that the end of the Cold War would lead to the rebirth of the United Nations. Between 1987 and 1991, the United Nations mediated a series of agreements that helped end fighting between Iran and Iraq, led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, established a broad-based coalition government in Cambodia, and ended El Salvador’s chronic civil war. This brief window of success encouraged the view that it was the Cold War that had prevented the United Nations from being an effective mediator. The East-West standoff, many surmised, had made the collective security mechanism, envisaged by the U.N. Charter and premised on great power cooperation, a dream deferred.

That dream has already lost much of its promise. In hindsight, those successes clearly stemmed from unique circumstances. Successful U.N. mediation was made possible by the exhaustion of local parties and the unwillingness of external powers to continue supporting clients whose usefulness had expired with the Cold War. Iran and Iraq accepted a U.N.-brokered cease-fire only after they had spent themselves in an eight-year battle of attrition. The Soviet Union was eager to withdraw from a losing venture in Afghanistan, and U.N. mediation provided it with the face-saving mechanism to do so. Once denied Soviet backing, the Vietnamese desired to reduce their commitments in Cambodia, as did the Chinese who, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, wished to dissociate themselves from the Khmer Rouge and improve their international image. In El Salvador, both superpowers wanted to disengage and pressured their respective allies, themselves discouraged by an inconclusive war, to modify their positions.

Those heady days inspired the false hope that the United Nations could be an effective mediator of international disputes. Since then, U.N. negotiators, however talented and experienced, have tried for years to resolve or reduce conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Haiti, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, all without success. In fact, U.N. mediation seems to have extended or aggravated many of those disputes, as belligerents have been able to manipulate the organization’s obvious weaknesses. And today none of those U.N. failures can be blamed on the Cold War.

It is increasingly apparent that the United Nations possesses inherent characteristics that make it incapable of effectively mediating complex international disputes. Yet because of its brief period of success, an egregious gap has grown between popular expectations and U.N. abilities. As currently constituted, the United Nations has great difficulty performing many basic functions required of an effective mediator. It does not serve well as an authoritative channel of communication. It has little real political leverage. Its promises and threats lack credibility. And it is incapable of pursuing coherent, flexible, and dynamic negotiations guided by an effective strategy.

Those limitations are ingrained. They are embedded in the very nature of intergovernmental organizations, and no amount of upgrading, expansion, or revamping of U.N. powers can correct those flaws. Rather, it is time to recognize U.N. shortcomings and to quit dumping on the organization tasks that it cannot perform. It is urgent instead to devise a mechanism whereby the United Nations can encourage individual states, under their own flags, to assume the risky and thankless task of mediating those conflicts that they have the best chance of resolving. Sponsored by the United Nations, unilateral mediation by great powers or other states who have a vested interest in conflicts within their sphere of influence offers the best chance to salvage waning U.N. prestige and to secure for many regions the peace that has been so elusive in recent years.


Former Secretary General U Thant has offered part of the explanation for the disappointing U.N. record as a peacemaker: "Great problems usually come to the United Nations because governments have been unable to think of anything else to do about them. The United Nations is a last-ditch, last resort affair, and it is not surprising that the organization should often be blamed for failing to solve problems that have already been found to be insoluble by governments."1

It is this category of "orphan" conflicts, which states will not mediate on their own, either because they have more urgent priorities or because they are loath to commit their prestige and resources to a risky or peripheral endeavor, that are placed in the public charge, thrown into the lap of the United Nations or other international organizations. By their very nature they are the most intractable disputes and require effective mediation, especially as they are often among the most costly in terms of lives and human suffering. This was the case during the Cold War, and it remains so in the present era, with the difference being that the number of orphan conflicts is growing.

States make the primary decisions about mediation. They decide whether to exert efforts to help settle a conflict and, if so, whether to act alone or through the United Nations. A state external to a dispute typically initiates mediation for self-interested reasons. The stakes of the Cold War usually prompted states to mediate on their own rather than through the United Nations. The United States, for example, mediated between disputing NATO allies Greece and Turkey. It mediated between its allies and anticolonial forces, as in the Anglo-Iranian and Anglo-Egyptian disputes. It also mediated between newly independent states in order to prevent Soviet gains, for example, between Indonesia and Malaysia, or Egypt and Israel. Other states have launched mediation efforts for similar self-interested reasons. The Soviets mediated between India and Pakistan at Tashkent; France mediated between Mali and Senegal and recently between Cameroon and Nigeria; India mediated in Sri Lanka; and Saudi Arabia has frequently mediated between disputing Arab parties.

Disputants often accept such interventions because they hope a mediator can help them win better terms than they could attain on their own, or because they fear that rejecting mediation might lead the third party to support their enemy. Mediation may, of course, also be driven by altruism. But self-interest is a useful working assumption, helping to explain much of the mediation in contemporary international politics.

The number of orphan conflicts, which includes those in Bosnia and Somalia, has grown in the post-Cold War era. States have seemingly broadened their perceptions of self-interest, perhaps in response to the pressure of public opinion, to include issues such as stemming refugee flows and humanitarian abuses. This broader range of concerns has prompted states to refer to the United Nations the mediation of conflicts in Haiti, Liberia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Rwanda, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, the great powers have become more reluctant to expend blood, treasure, and prestige to resolve this longer list of disputes that are nettlesome but do not directly threaten their security.

It is not necessarily the fault of the United Nations that it has been asked to mediate an increasing number of disputes. While the United Nations has certain institutional interests of its own, it is primarily an instrument of its membership. The secretary general is constrained by the views and interests of the Security Council’s five permanent members. To accomplish any significant intervention, he needs their active support. This fact is demonstrated by Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s efforts to engage the United Nations in Somalia and Rwanda. The United Nations mediates only to the extent that its membership desires and provides it with the necessary material and diplomatic resources. Unfortunately, states have become more likely to want the United Nations to mediate in situations where the organization has less chance of success than bolder and more persistent action by states themselves. Moreover, states have often become less forthcoming with the kinds of military or monetary support that might enable greater success.


Why would a state choose to pursue mediation through the United Nations? Contrary to popular belief, fears about legitimacy or antagonizing other states are not the most likely reasons. Those concerns cause states to use the United Nations to pursue military peacekeeping operations, not mediation. Since peacekeeping involves the movement of troops across borders, a multilateral framework gives all states a voice in that delicate process, alleviates apprehensions that deployment will harm the interests of other states, and constrains the self-serving impulses that might surround unilateral action. The U.N. imprimatur, then, legitimizes peacekeeping operations.

Mediation, on the other hand, while it may provoke some antagonism from rivals, is a diplomatic rather than military activity and tends to arouse less opposition. The West, for instance, did not object to Soviet mediation between India and Pakistan, and the Soviets took relatively mild diplomatic measures to obstruct American mediation between Egypt and Israel. These attitudes reflect a long-standing principle of international law, affirmed in the 1907 Hague Convention on the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes: "Powers strangers to a dispute have the right to offer good offices or mediation even during the course of hostilities. The exercise of this right can never be regarded by either of the parties in dispute as an unfriendly act."2

States most eager to mediate a conflict are those with important interests at stake, such as neighbors or great powers. But disputants are sometimes wary of such meddling. Thus a state that wants to reduce a conflict but cannot win acceptance as a mediator may channel its efforts through a multilateral organization. The United States, for example, has engaged the Organization of American States to help settle conflicts between Latin American states, and it has worked through the United Nations to mediate between India and Pakistan, between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus when Archbishop Makarios objected to American initiatives, and at certain times between Arab states and Israel.

Channeling mediation through the United Nations is also advantageous when states desire a division of labor. States may enjoy varying degrees of access to and influence over disputants, as was the case in Cambodia. The efforts of several states coordinated through the United Nations proved more effective than would have been those of any single state. Furthermore, if implementing a settlement is expected to require costly field operations, such as those in Cambodia and Namibia, a state may wish to enlist the resources and help of others. In particularly sensitive negotiations, using a multilateral organization distributes the burden of responsibilities, or blame, and enables a state to limit the risks to its resources and prestige. Such concerns have obviously motivated states to pursue mediation through the United Nations in the former Yugoslavia. U.N. mediation has served as a buffer to protect states from the possibly damaging consequences of a failed peacemaking process.

Yet pursuing mediation through the United Nations carries serious disadvantages. The intervening state in effect relinquishes control over the proposed policy. A state’s desired course of action may not win the support of others, or it may be modified until it no longer suits the state’s interests. Multilateral negotiations, moreover, require a time-consuming and uncertain process of consultation and coordination among a large number of actors. If reducing a conflict is considered urgent, a state may prefer to act alone rather than submit to the uncertainties and delays of multilateral diplomacy. Also, the benefits of success, taking credit for a settlement, winning the goodwill of disputants, or excluding a rival from a region, may be lost.

For disputants, too, U.N. mediation is a mixed bag. A disputant may prefer U.N. mediation if it is wary of entirely rebuffing the mediation offer of a particular state. But parties eager for a settlement, or those who desire strong guarantees of its terms, may prefer direct state mediation. The Bosnians have preferred the United States to the U.N.-European Union effort, for example, and Egypt in 1974 and 1977 wanted an exclusively American interlocutor rather than mediation through the United Nations or jointly with the Soviets. Alternatively, U.N. mediation affords greater opportunities to play participants in the mediation process against each other. Disputants thus sometimes choose a multilateral organization in an effort to deflect the pressure that a single state mediator might bring to force an undesired settlement.


Granted, the United Nations is saddled with the most intractable disputes, but its poor mediation record is nonetheless troubling. The reason is that the United Nations possesses inherent qualities that render it ill-suited to the task. One need only look at the functions that mediators must perform, then look at the United Nations, to sketch a stark contrast.

Mediators must offer their "good offices" to help disputants communicate. They try to persuade each party to change its image of the adversary or to interpret the adversary’s behavior in a manner that will facilitate a settlement. Mediators can help a party understand its adversary’s concerns and constraints. They also suggest compromises and help parties save face in making concessions. Disputants, for example, often believe that it is less damaging to their reputations to accept a proposal made by a mediator than an adversary.

Mediation stands a better chance of succeeding when a conflict is "ripe", that is, when adversaries feel exhausted and understand that the continued pursuit of their goals through other means would be costly or dangerous. But mediators can induce ripeness and contribute to the making of a "hurting stalemate." They help create a disposition among the disputants to settle the conflict. Having an interest in a settlement, mediators sometimes bargain with the parties, offer them incentives, or subject them to pressure in order to induce them to accept specific settlement terms. Finally, if an agreement is reached, mediators may provide guarantees that its terms will be honored and implemented.

Thus a successful mediator must be able to influence disputants to modify their positions. Foremost, it needs leverage. Some of a mediator’s leverage derives from the very nature of a three-sided process. Like any triangle, the shape of a mediated negotiation contains the potential for a coalition to be formed. The possibility of the mediator lending support to one’s adversary makes each disputant more dependent on the mediator and endows the mediator with bargaining power and influence. Such concerns, for example, were very much on the minds of Greek and Turkish leaders when the United States tried to mediate the Cyprus conflict in 1964 and 1967. But leverage also derives from military and economic resources, which great powers have in abundance. For example, by offering Egypt and Israel economic and military assistance, the United States was able to induce them to make important concessions leading to the Camp David accords.

Part of the U.N. problem is that it has no readily accessible military or economic resources of its own. It is entirely dependent on member states, or at least some of them, to provide the resources necessary for a successful mediation. The United Nations cannot even harness the assets of international financial and trading institutions. Doing so depends yet again on the decisions of member states. A U.N. mediator cannot commit the International Monetary Fund or World Bank to provide credits to reluctant disputants. While U.N. member states might theoretically be able to pool their resources and enhance the organization’s bargaining power, that type of cooperation seldom comes about. Governments are usually reluctant to commit resources to such a venture, negotiations for such commitments are slow and cumbersome, and the resources states do make available are often inadequate.

These U.N. weaknesses are perceived by disputants. Parties are likely to doubt that U.N. promises of assistance or threats of punishment will actually be fulfilled. The same holds true for other international organizations. When Jacques Delors, president of the EC Commission, tried to mediate between the disputing Yugoslav parties in the spring of 1991, he promised that the EC would provide financial assistance and conclude a favorable trade agreement if the Yugoslavs compromised on restructuring the federation and avoided a breakup. But the promise carried little weight because Delors did not have the authority to commit EC states and could not credibly deliver.

Leverage is, of course, also a matter of legitimacy and credibility. This is the main U.N. asset: the aura of legitimacy its actions carry as representing the consensus of the international community. But U.N. credibility is consistently eroded by its inability to formulate and pursue the kind of coherent policy essential to mediation. A mediator must be able to pursue a dynamic negotiation, reacting to events quickly, seizing opportunities, and having the necessary flexibility to adjust positions and proposals as the situation unfolds. States often have difficulty in meeting those demanding requirements. For the United Nations, it is nearly impossible.

That kind of policymaking, even for a state, requires constant trade-offs between inconsistent goals and compromises among multiple participants. Policymaking within an international organization does not merely add another layer of bargaining and trade-offs. It is qualitatively different. There is no ultimate authority empowered to decide between competing proposals. Voting rules give the appearance of effective decision-making capacity. Security Council decisions, for example, are made when 9 of 15 members vote in favor, provided that none of the permanent members casts a veto. In reality, however, those rules do not eliminate the need for consensus. When pursuing mediation, intergovernmental organizations adopt only those measures on which consensus is possible. Issues and measures on which unanimity cannot be achieved are usually excluded. Even those decisions that are adopted are likely to be hedged and balanced. They are often ambiguous, reflecting a compromise based on the lowest common denominator.

This tortuous decision-making process saps the United Nations of necessary dynamism and flexibility in pursuing mediation. Once the United Nations agrees on a mediating proposal or framework, it cannot easily be modified in response to changing circumstances. Modification requires renegotiation among U.N. members, an often lengthy process that delays mediation. Thus the U.N.-EU commitment to the Vance-Owen plan constrained their ability to adapt to new conditions once the Serbs rejected it in the summer of 1993.

U.N. decisions are further weakened in the practice of day-to-day diplomacy. U.N. representatives need to be backed fully by the member states. But inevitably member states speak with different voices, and mediation efforts lack a coherent strategy. Again, the Vance-Owen plan serves as an example. While official mediators and some states were trying to persuade parties to accept the proposal, the United States indicated that it did not support it. Such discord undermines a coherent mediating position. It reduces the mediator’s leverage and strengthens the hand of disputants. It provides an opening for a disputant to divide both the mediator from its adversary and the mediators among themselves.

The United Nations comes to mediation encumbered. It is bound not only by its own general principles but also by specific resolutions reflecting the membership’s consensus about the principles upon which a settlement should be based. Such resolutions "instead of being pointers to a settlement . . . become a prison," restricting the mediators’ room to maneuver.3 For example, the admission of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the United Nations, and the subsequent resolutions affirming its sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence, restricted the ability of U.N. and EU mediators to trade territory for peace.

Besides hindering the bargaining process, a lack of credibility can be fatal once negotiators must construct guarantees for implementing and observing an agreement. After the often incoherent U.N. negotiating process, disputants will have greater difficulty putting their faith in U.N. guarantees. Guarantees by great powers, motivated by a transparent self-interest, are likely to be more credible. It required an American presence in Sinai, unencumbered by U.N. auspices, to assure Egypt and Israel that their accord would be respected. An American commitment of ground troops to serve as a buffer between contending parties in Bosnia may similarly be required to lend credibility to any future settlement.


The problems in using the United Nations as a mediator are ingrained in the nature of intergovernmental organizations. No degree of devolution to less cumbersome multilateral organizations or U.N. restructuring is likely to improve U.N. performance. Moreover, member states are unlikely to agree to the kinds of reform required for the slimmest hope of making a significant difference in U.N. abilities.

Decentralizing mediation efforts by making greater use of regional organizations might ease the plight of the overburdened U.N. Security Council and Secretariat. It might also place greater responsibility on those states closest to the conflicts and presumably most interested in their resolution. Unfortunately, such a course is unlikely to be an improvement. Most of the problems that hamper the United Nations also impede regional organizations. They, too, are hindered by complex decision-making procedures, the inability to effectively commit usually scant state resources, and hence insufficient flexibility and leverage. By their very nature as intergovernmental organizations, they are incapable of pursuing coherent, flexible, and dynamic negotiations guided by an effective strategy.

To transform the United Nations into an effective mediator, states would have to agree to binding decisions by majority vote. U.N. mediators would have to be authorized to commit the membership to a course of action and to harness the resources of international financial and trade institutions as sticks and carrots. Member states, moreover, would have to learn to speak with one voice and refrain from any action that might undercut mediation efforts. But any of these ambitious reforms is difficult to imagine in the foreseeable future.

Instead of pursuing such quixotic reforms, it would be far simpler, more realistic, and probably more effective to focus on the particular problem of orphan conflicts. The United Nations should draw lessons from its more successful mediating efforts to develop mechanisms for an efficient division of labor between member states and the organization, allowing each to contribute what it does best.

The U.N. mediation in Afghanistan and between Iran and Iraq teaches that, when major powers are unwilling or unable to engage in peacemaking, international civil servants may succeed in laying the groundwork for direct state intervention at another time. International civil servants may serve best by facilitating greater understanding of adversaries’ positions and clarifying their concerns. They can also develop ideas and alternatives that might advance a settlement, then test and refine those proposals in discussions among the parties. They can help keep the major powers informed about the thinking of the disputants and the possible approaches to a settlement that have been discussed. Thus, once circumstances change, or a state becomes interested in mediating on its own, or several states decide to act in concert to assist the international effort, an agreement will be that much easier to conclude.

Cambodia suggests another lesson. Peacemaking there required negotiation with several disputants, each supported by one or more intervening states. Those negotiations were conducted primarily by states. But international organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the U.N. Security Council, made a crucial contribution by providing the framework and forums for negotiation and helping coordinate state policies. Thus in conflicts in which peacemaking requires cooperation among several intervenors, international organizations, in particular informal discussions in the Security Council, can provide the framework for concerted action. They can also serve as a flywheel, energizing the foreign policy machineries of the major powers and keeping them focused on a problem even when it is not perceived as urgent.

The most radical departure from present U.N. practice would be a reversal of roles. Instead of states referring the most intractable disputes to the United Nations, it would be the United Nations that would charge a state with mediating such disputes. The United Nations would encourage a state especially concerned by a conflict, but averse to assuming the risks of mediation, to overcome its reluctance. The United Nations would use the expectations and moral authority of the international community to energize those efforts. If a settlement depends on guarantees that the mediating state is reluctant to extend, the United Nations could coordinate a joint commitment by major powers to bolster those guarantees. If mediation by a major power arouses fears that peacemaking might be used to establish dominance of a region, as is currently the concern with Russian diplomacy in the former Soviet republics, the Security Council might prescribe guidelines that would encourage peacemaking efforts while constraining the mediator from harming the interests of others.

Other forms of allocating tasks between the United Nations and states can undoubtedly be devised. It is important, however, not to charge the United Nations with responsibilities that it is ill-suited to perform. Difficult disputes should not be thrown into the lap of the United Nations or regional organizations. Instead of putting the United Nations or other international organizations at the center of mediation efforts and exhorting states to support them, the roles should be reversed. Intractable disputes should be mediated by states motivated by self-interest to do so and possessed of the resources and credibility for effective negotiation, with the international community lending encouragement and support through the United Nations. Otherwise, the new world disorder will continue apace.


1 U Thant, View from the U.N., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1978, p. 32.

2 The Hague Convention I, Article 3, United States Treaty Series, 36 stat. 2199, no. 536.

3 Sydney D. Bailey, How Wars End: The United Nations and the Termination of Armed Conflict, 1946-1964, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982, vol. 1, p. 168.

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  • Saadia Touval is currently a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. He is former Professor of Political Science and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tel Aviv University.
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