10 Things the United States has done right in Supporting a Peace Process: Lesson for the Middle East

In the recent flurry of attention to U.S. sponsored peace talks in the Middle East and Syria the critics have been plentiful. Much ink has been split on the preponderance of lost opportunities, missteps, and miscalculations. In the midst of the criticism, what the United States has broadly got right in its commitments to other ongoing peace processes barely makes the front pages of any western newspaper. This comment reflects on sustained U.S. foreign policy engagement and support in Northern Ireland, through the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement brokered by Senator George Mitchell to the most recent round of talks led by Richard Haass. While the Haass-sponsored talks have yet to produce a definitive break to the political stalemate that emerged in the past year following protests over flags in the jurisdiction, there are some important take away messages for those skeptical of U.S. engagement in peacemaking abroad.  The lessons are directly relevant on ongoing U.S. engagement in Syria and Israel-Palestine. The draft agreement published by Haass can be accessed here.

  1. Staying the course. United States’ engagement in Northern Ireland is an example of a mature long haul approach to difficult and long-standing conflict sites. Fifteen years following the peace treaty, the United States remains deeply engaged in the peace process it fostered. The perceived and actual success of the peace process in Northern Ireland is, in no small part, due to sustained U.S. engagement at multiple levels.
  2.  Talking to all sides. Since the Clinton administration forged a peace process in Northern Ireland in the early 1990’s, an operational principle has been, and remains, inclusivity. All protagonists to the conflict have to be kept at the negotiation table, no matter the claims to exclusivity and moral righteousness that are brought to bear on the politics of peacemaking. Keeping all actors close to the “deal” is the best way to avoid creating spoilers who undo the agreements made by resort to violence or the street.
  3.  Generally avoiding preconditions. Successive US administrations have avoiding setting thresholds and conditions that are likely to exclude key protagonists from negotiations.  This openness and persistence to the idea of equality for all at the negotiation table (whether state or non-state actors) stands in marked contrast to the positions of key protagonists to conflict in Israel-Palestine and Syria.  The comparative peace process lessons are clear. Without an inclusive peace process agreement fail.
  4. Taking real risks. American engagement with the Northern Ireland peace process, though broadly now regarded as a success story, was enabled by domestic political risk taking at critical points.  This included, for example, President Clinton’s decision, to allow Gerry Adams the then President of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the outlawed paramilitary organisation IRA) to visit the United States prior to any military ceasefire. There is no exact formula for the right risks to take, but a willingness to reach beyond safe boundaries builds trust, confidence, and capacity in fragile negotiation settings.
  5. Constructive ambiguity. Senator Mitchell, Richard Haass, and a cadre of committed American diplomats have worked wonders with the language of peace negotiations by avoiding legal and political framings which exclude or leave little space for highly divided political elites to share space.  Key concepts such as parity of esteem, dual nationality rights, consent based sovereignty, and binding the notion of self-determination to consent ensured contextual formulas were devised to respond to the specificity of this conflict and to prevent its recurrence.
  6.  Inclusivity. Apart from bringing all the military protagonists to the negotiation table, ensuring that civil society and smaller diverse political constituencies sat at the negotiation table enabled new spaces and alliances to grow in the peace making arena.
  7. Being tough. Successful peace process are only built by openness and a willingness to call out under-enforcement and actions which undermine the “deal.” Remaining committed to the integrity of the “deal” has enabled the U.S. to be a good friend by being a harsh critic of implementation at key points in the peace process journey.
  8. Making and keeping friends and allies as you build peace from the bottom up. The United States continues stellar work in Northern Ireland by sustained engagement with the other two key states with a stake in the conflict – the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Maintaining the good will and active engagement of other democratic states who are stakeholders in the “deal” is critical to long term, successful peace building.
  9. Investing Resources. Aside from its political and diplomatic commitment to the peace process, the U.S. has remained committed to supporting inward economic investment in Northern Ireland.  This includes promoting the provision of peace funds over a decade to the post-conflict economy and bolstering the capacity for peace by a commitment to addressing resource and economic needs in the process of transition from conflict to peace.
  10. Retaining a core commitment to human rights and democratic values.  At the heart of U.S. engagement has been a sustained commitment to human rights protection, rule of law reform, and democratic values. Embedded in the 1998 Agreement and all subsequent American engagements are mechanisms, structures, and processes to make the human rights rhetoric a lived political reality.  These values have sustained and nourished a peace process, and continue to benchmark progress and aspirations across the political spectrum.

Given our contemporary obsessions with the conflict of the moment, it is easy to forget what we have learnt and done well elsewhere.  The United States has engaged faithfully and tenaciously in difficult conflict transitions before, stayed the course, and steered outcomes that have had local, global, and self-interested value.  This is a good time to recall the value of peace process persistence.  It is also an opportune moment to reflect on the elements that gave rise to short and long-term success in arduous conflict settings.  There is no “one size fits all” formula with peace agreements, but there are transferable elements the enable success.  They should be borne in mind as the US engages another round of challenging and historic peace negotiations. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).