Crisis Diplomacy Under Discussion

Essay, 2012

16 Pages


Table of Contents

1.1 Understanding crisis
1.2 Red phones and signals
1.3 A concept in crisis
1.4 Mediation as crisis diplomacy?

2.1 Mediation as a lesson in crisis diplomacy
2.2 Track One, Track Two and Track One and a half
2.3 An argument for non-professionals
2.4 Professional diplomats unparalleled


Reference List

‘In crisis situations, there is simply no alternative to the skills and expertise that professional diplomats have to offer.’

The nature of crises threatening the international community has fundamentally changed due to processes of globalisation and fragmentation. Though the types of crises facing contemporary decision makers may be different to those tackled by their predecessors it remains true that in crisis situations, there is simply no alternative to the skills and expertise that professional diplomats have to offer. Diplomacy has traditionally been understood as the notion of dialogue and negotiation between agents of the state as a means to advance important ends, primarily the avoidance of armed conflict. This conception of diplomacy has been around since ancient times, however recent processes have affected the nature of diplomatic activity. The once clear separation between domestic and foreign spheres of policy has been eroded as states’ increased interdependence has meant that issues which were once considered domestic, have been elevated to the international agenda. In turn these processes, particularly the information technology revolution, have altered the balance of power between state and non-state actors. This, coupled with the evolving nature of threats, has given rise to the increased prominence of non-state actors in world politics. This has led some to claim that the importance of professional diplomats in international relations is diminishing. This paper will argue that though the character of crises occupying the international agenda may have changed, the skills and expertise possessed by professional diplomats have proven to be irreplaceable in addressing crisis situations. It will do this in two parts. First, it will briefly examine traditional formations of ‘international crisis’ and ‘crisis diplomacy’, arguing that these concepts need to be adjusted to encompass the contemporary global environment. Second, it will compare the efficacy of state and non-state agents in mediating crisis situations, demonstrating that professional diplomats are still without equal.

1.1 Understanding crisis

The term “crisis” has been used in assorted ways by social scientists, historians and commentators to the point where a common definition appears unachievable[1]. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the sequence of events that can be attributed for giving rise to the popularity of the use of the term ‘crisis’ in the international relations discourse, and is the situation with which traditional understandings of the concept tend to be associated. A vast amount of literature is available on the traditional understanding of the term crisis and the requisite diplomatic actions, with the field flourishing as an area of study. Several works have made significant contributions to the subject, including: Wright’s ‘A Study of War’, Richardson’s 1994 book ‘Crisis Diplomacy’ subtitle ‘The great powers since the mid-nineteenth century’, and Paul Diesing and Glen Snyders ‘Conflict Among Nations’. Snyder (1977) suggests that an international crisis is ‘sequences of interactions between governments involving a dangerously high probability of war’[2]. On the other hand, Richardson defines it as ‘an acute conflict between two or more states, associated with a specific issue and involving perception by decision makers of a serious risk of war’[3]. The definitions offered by this understanding have tended to feature several characteristics; a focus on states and governments as the basic unit, the high probability of war or the perception by state decision makers that there is a high probability of war, and less frequently, that there is a set and short timeframe and that the crisis is the result of/concentrated on a specific issue[4].

1.2 Red phones and signals

Crisis diplomacy has traditionally referred to strategic bargaining, signal sending and the endorsement of a diplomat with a certain character. The traditional understanding of the components necessary for successful crisis diplomacy have largely been detailed by the scholars mentioned in the previous paragraph. Prominent practitioners such as Robert Kennedy and Thomas Schelling have also influenced this understanding. Diplomats are assumed to be agents representing their state[5]. There are two main schools of thought associated with crisis diplomacy, one originating from strategic studies and another taking a more psychological/behavioural perspective[6]. Rational choice theory emanating from strategic studies sees crises as the supreme occasion for strategic bargaining, attempted coercion and manipulation and assumes that the agent is rational[7]. In this approach the decision-maker will choose from the available options the course of action that best advances their interests[8]. Decision makers act purposefully and prudently in light of the information that is available to them[9]. Misunderstanding may result from incomplete information but not due to any issues with the actor’s rationality[10]. This approach has several key assumptions; preferences/interests are set and ‘given’, national interests are assumed to reflect the logic of the state’s position in the international system and highly simplified descriptions can identify patterns, structures and or causal mechanisms[11]. Influenced heavily by Charles F. Hermann, the second school of thoughts main difference is the emphasis on the perception of the decision maker. There is emphasis on the decision maker’s ‘impaired rationality’, which is due to stress associated with crisis situations, the role of domestic political pressures and the need to obtain an accurate perception of the adversary[12]. Based on a traditional understanding of crisis diplomacy, a decision maker with the right disposition and character, and the right information, can effectively manoeuvre their way through crises to obtain a favourable outcome.

1.3 A concept in crisis

The traditional understanding of crisis is increasingly ill fitted to capturing contemporary crises. It has limited applicability because crisis settings are becoming increasingly varied, with the prospect of being directly involved in interstate war no longer the sole or even the most pressing concern[13]. Globalisation and the information technology revolution have changed the nature of international crises and notably the actors who are seeking to resolve them[14]. It is in this context that it is important to consider what an international crisis is and who is best equipped to manage them. Traditional understandings of crisis diplomacy are inadequate as they do not do capture the ‘power shift’[15]. That is, it cedes little space to the prominent role that non-traditional actors are playing in international relations and falls short of conceiving instruments to deal effectively with intrastate and global security threats[16]. For instance, both the 2003 SARS epidemic and the on-going situation in Syria may be defined as global crises yet neither are covered under the traditional definition[17]. The traditional understanding of both international crisis and crisis diplomacy leaves policy makers and diplomats with the wrong means for out-dated ends[18]. It is therefore necessary to revise these definitions so as to enhance their ability to explain contemporary events.

This paper understands international crisis as comprising ‘a disruption to an interaction process between international actors’[19]. This understanding of crisis has several notable developments: that individuals are the referent objects, that the modality by which their lives are affected need not be interstate war and that it is not time contingent. A crisis is identifiable because it involves a change in the communication process of the actors involved[20]. This is generally the result of the perceived threat[21]. This threat is not just to states, as traditional understandings have tended to focus, but to the lives of the individuals that constitute the international system[22]. This shift towards a critical approach to security is not only reflected in large proportions of IR literature but is also recognized by the UN, with the High Level Panel on Threats and Challenges emphasising the ‘we the peoples’ in the preamble of the Charter to enhance the basic understanding of security[23]. This understanding is grounded by the notion that as agents and structures of the international system are mutually formative, they are both affected by the presence of a crisis[24]. This understanding is by no means comprehensive or definitive, but seeks to build upon the existing literature to provide a workable understanding through which to capture and explore contemporary crisis diplomacy.

1.4 Mediation as crisis diplomacy?

The change in the nature of crises has forced the international community and individual political actors to adapt how they respond to crisis situations. The potential for interstate wars is no longer the only or even the most significant issue[25]. Though the post-Cold War has period has seen an overall reduction in conflict and a 70 per cent decline in the interstate variety[26], the number of conflicts is once again on the rise[27]. This phenomenon tends to be due to the increased number of intrastate crises[28], such as those in the Arab Spring in 2011. Although intrastate conflicts and crisis resolution has been on the agenda of international relations for a long time, they have generally been lost under the shadow of dramatic state-to-state posturing and other attention-grabbing forms of crisis diplomacy[29]. The change in crises has resulted in an emphasis on different diplomatic techniques with the international community and the political actors within it seeking to widen and enhance their diplomatic toolboxes in order to be able to manage these crises effectively[30]. One such development has been the emphasis on mediation as the diplomatic technique of choice[31].


[1] RICHARDSON, J. L. 1988. New Perspectives on Appeasement: Some Implications for International Relations. World Politics, 40.p.11.

[2] SNYDER, G., AND P. DIESING 1977. Conflict Among Nations: Bargaining, Decision-Making and System Structure in International Crises Princeton .p.6.

[3] RICHARDSON. 1988. p.12.

[4] BELL, C. 1971. The Conventions of Crisis: A Study in Diplomatic Management Oxford, Oxford University Press, BRECHER, M., AND J. WILKENFELD 1997. A Study of Crisis, Ann Arbor Mich, Michigan University Press, BRECHER, M. 1999. International Studies in the Twentieth Century and Beyond: Flawed

Dichotomies, Synthesis, Cumulation. International Studies Quarterly, 43 , 213–264. LEBOW, R. N. 1981. Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis Baltimore RICHARDSON. 1988. SNYDER, G., AND P. DIESING 1977.

[5] BOOTH, K. 2005. Critical Explorations In: BOOTH, K. (ed.) Critical Security Studies and World Politics Boulder

[6] RICHARDSON. 1988.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] ACUTO. 2011. p. 522.

[14] MATTHEWS, J. T. 1997. Power Shift Foreign Affairs, 76 , 50-66.

[15] Ibid.

[16] HEINE, J. 2006. On the Manner of Practising the New Diplomacy Waterloo CIGI Working paper on Reshaping Diplomacy

[17] ACUTO. 2011. p. 522.

[18] BOOTH. 2005. p.3.

[19] SNYDER, G., AND P. DIESING 1977. ACUTO. 2011. p. 525.

[20] ACUTO. 2011. p. 525.

[21] BRECHER, M., AND J. WILKENFELD 1997. A Study of Crisis, Ann Arbor Mich, Michigan University Press.

[22] LEBOW. 1981.

[23] THE UNITED NATIONS 1967. UN Charter. UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2004. A more secure world: our shared responsibility: Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. A/59/565

[24] REUS-SMIT, C. 2005. Constructivism In: SCOTT BURCHILL, A. L., RICHARD DEVETAK, JACK DONNELLY, MATTHEW PATERSON, CHRISTIAN REUS-SMIT AND JACQUI TRUE (ed.) Theories of International Relations Basingstoke

[25] ACUTO, M. 2011. p.521-539.

[26] HUMAN SECURITY CENTRE 2005. Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

[27] THEMNÉR, L., AND P. WALLENSTEEN 2012. Armed Conflicts, 1946-2011. Journal of Peace Research , 1.

[28] Ibid.

[29] BERCOVITCH, J., AND J. LANGLEY 1993. The Nature of the Dispute and the Effectiveness of International Mediation. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 37 , 670-691, BEARDSLEY, K. 2006a. Politics by Means Other than War: Understanding International Mediation, San Diego, CA, University of California, BEARDSLEY, K., . AND D. M. QUINN, B. BISWAS, J. WILKENFELD 2006b. Mediation style and crisis outcomes. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50 , 58–86, BERCOVITCH, J., AND S. S. GARTNER 2006. Empirical studies in international mediation: Introduction to a special issue of Interna- tional Interactions. International Interactions 32 , 319–328, BERCOVITCH, J., AND A. HOUSTON 2000. Why do they do it like this? An analysis of the factors influencing mediation behavior in international conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44 , 170-202, DIAMOND, L., AND J. W. MCDONALD 1996. Multitrack Diplomacy: A Systems Approach. , Sterling, VA, Kumarian, DIXON, W. J. 1996. Third-party techniques for preventing conflict escalation and promoting peaceful settlement. International Organization, 50 , 653-681, GLEDITSCH, K. S., AND K. BEARDSLEY 2004. Nosy neighbors: Third-party actors in Central American conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 , 379–402, NAN, S. A., AND A. STRIMLING (ed.) 2004. Track I–Track II cooperation, Boulder, CO: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, REGAN, P., M. AND A. AYDIN 2006. Diplomacy and other forms of intervention in civil wars. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50 , 736–756, RUBIN, J. Z. (ed.) 1981. The Dynamics of Third-Party Intervention: Kissinger in the Middle East, New York: Praeger.

[30] UNITED NATIONS REPORT OF THE SECRETARY GENERAL 1992. An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping. New York: United Nations.

[31] UNITED NATIONS REPORT OF THE SECRETARY GENERAL 2011. Preventive diplomacy: Delivering Results United Nations.

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Crisis Diplomacy Under Discussion
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crisis, diplomacy, Krisendiplomatie, Verhandlungen, NGO, Mediation
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Samantha Smith (Author), 2012, Crisis Diplomacy Under Discussion, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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