November 19, 2013

Diplomatic negotiators do not get to pick their counterparts, said Chester Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador who played a key role in international efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. “Sometimes you need to negotiate with people you would not invite for dinner,” Crocker said.

Visiting SIPA on November 19, Ambassador Crocker joined Álvaro de Soto, former United Nations mediator for conflicts in locales including El Salvador and Timor-Leste.

De Soto, a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute at the City University of New York, also serves as a member of the board of advisors of Columbia’s Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR) at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

Conversing for a couple of hours, the two men shared stories from their illustrious careers.

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Crocker, who currently teaches at Georgetown University, drew on his experience in Southern Africa in discussing the importance of talking with uncomfortable counterparts. Addressing the Syria crisis, he said the U.S. should take steps toward sitting with the Iranian leadership to work out a road map.

“Engagement is not playing nice, having tea,” Crocker said, in the context of Iran. “It is testing the party you are engaging with, asking questions that party would rather not have to answer.”

To get to an effective conversation, Crocker stressed, mediators should not be limited in who they can talk to. Barring any sort of engagement with those on designated terrorist lists, for example, can be counterproductive in the search for peace: “It is a way of unilaterally disarming yourself if you refuse to talk to them,” he said.

Despite recent evidence that the Syria conflict may be edging toward a stalemate, belligerents’ positions require still more “ripening,” noted de Soto. In the absence of leverage exerted on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad by Russia or Iran, dynamics on the ground are not yet favorable for a negotiated settlement, de Soto and Crocker agreed.

Crocker addressed other general challenges in the field of mediation. When groups set preconditions before coming to the table, he said, it is a sign they are not yet ready to negotiate.

He also noted that the proliferation of mediators has complicated the field from within. Mediators must determine their value added, Crocker argued. Fewer barriers to entry for mediators after the Cold War have resulted in a more crowded and competitive environment for would-be peacemakers. Overlapping mediation efforts risk fragmenting and weakening prospects for conflict resolution. “Do not mediate when others are doing a good job at it,” Crocker explained.

— Miriam Bensky MIA ’14 and Thomas Gilchrist MIA ’14

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