Negotiation Research: When Breaks from Conflict Build Trust

Research on cease-fires suggests when and how they promote peace.

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Briefings Articles

Parties engaged in armed conflict often agree to cease-fires as a first step toward negotiating a peaceful resolution. Yet cease-fires and the agreements they inspire often are unstable, as recent conflicts have shown.

In Colombia, for example, where the government and the Marxist guerrilla group FARC have been locked in conflict since 1964, four years of peace talks culminated in an agreement to end the conflict and forge a lasting peace on August 26, 2016. But on October 2, to the shock of both FARC and the government, the citizens of Colombia voted narrowly to reject the deal. The cease-fire nonetheless remained in place as negotiators went back to the table.

Also in October, after Syrian and Russian air strikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo ended a cease-fire in the region, the United States suspended scheduled talks with Russia on negotiating a peace agreement in Syria. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry accused Russia of breaking its promises to end the air strikes and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians.

As these recent examples show, cease-fires sometimes fail. Nonetheless, the mere existence of cease-fires can ultimately promote a peaceful end to conflict, research shows.

Creating virtuous cycles

In a 2015 study, Notre Dame University researchers Madhav Joshi and J. Michael Quinn studied 196 cease-fire and peace deals dating from 1975 to 2011. They found that the greatest predictor of whether a peace agreement succeeded was whether the parties had reached prior cease-fires, even failed ones. The existence of such agreements had a greater influence on the success of peace deals than the duration or intensity of a war.

As compared to a lack of cease-fires, failed cease-fires “pave the way for better agreements down the road,” Quinn told the New York Times. Why? Because over time, parties begin to view cease-fires as less risky than continuing to fight. When parties have been willing to engage in cease-fires, they create a so-called virtuous cycle in which trust and goodwill gradually increase.

The findings suggest reason for hope of a lasting agreement in both Syria and Colombia. In 2016, for example, cease-fires in Syria grew more frequent and broader in scope, suggesting that the conflict could be heading toward a more virtuous cycle.

The benefits of punishment

In his research, University of Richmond professor Stephen B. Long found that when parties are punished for violating cease-fires, they become more likely to comply with future cease-fires. Punishment reminds parties of the benefits of cooperating rather than defecting. The Korean War, for example, has been virtually frozen for decades, in part due to each side’s belief that the other side will punish any renewed hostilities, notes the New York Times.

On the other hand, when parties are punished inconsistently or not at all for violating cease-fires, they are less likely to live up to their other promises. Such cheating breeds a vicious cycle of retaliation and recrimination. That’s in part why mediators can help parties resolve conflict: The threat that a mediator will punish cease-fire violations improves cooperation, according to the late political scientist Donald Rothchild.

Beyond cease-fires

The research on cease-fires suggests possible applications for those embroiled in nonviolent personal or professional disputes. First, if early attempts to resolve your dispute fall apart, try to avoid viewing the effort as a failure. Instead, build momentum toward your next effort at forging peace, capitalizing on any trust you’ve built. Second, consider enlisting the help of a neutral mediator who can hold both sides accountable for meeting their obligations.