Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Today these three nations share the dubious distinction of being labeled by the international community as well-armed rogue states ruled by leaders who are insane, criminal, or worse and who pose grave threats to regional stability and peace. They also share the fact that they have completely stymied the UN, the U.S. and most of the international community, who currently appear to have few viable solutions on the table for mitigating the escalating hostilities and rhetoric.
How can the UN or the U.S. break these deadlocks and avert new waves of atrocities or nuclear catastrophe? Most likely they can't. Constrained by their own policies, histories, symbolism and strategies, they are probably among the last actors in the international community with the power to ratchet down tensions with these nations. They are ironically too prominent and powerful.
Intractable, entrenched patterns of destructive conflicts like these typically reject out of hand strong-arm attempts pressing for peace and stability, or even less coercive approaches to statist diplomacy or third-party mediation. History provides countless examples of the UN, the US and other powerful outside parties' failing to forge peace in such enmity systems. Israel-Palestine, Cyprus, and Kashmir stand as three contemporary examples.
Nevertheless, peace does sometimes emerge out of long-term conflicts, and one path is through the power of powerlessness. That is, the unique influence of people and groups with little formal or "hard" power (military might, economic incentives, legal or human rights justifications, and so on) but with relevant "soft" power (trustworthiness, moral authority, wisdom, kindness, etc.) can have in these settings. Hard-power approaches in high-intensity conflicts tend to elicit greater resistance and intransigence from their targets. Weak-power third parties are at times able to weaken resistance to change by carefully introducing a sense of alternative courses-of-action, hope for change, or even a sense of questioning and doubt in the ultra-certain status quo of "us versus them" conflicts. They can also begin to model and encourage other more constructive means of conflict engagement such as shuttle diplomacy and indirect communications through negotiation chains.
In other words, what the world needs today are a few good weaklings.
Like Monsignor Jaime Gonçalves and the Community of Sant'Egidio in Mozambique in 1990. At the time Mozambique, which had won independence from Portugal in 1975, was in the throes of a bloody civil war that had killed one million of its 12 million people and ravaged the country for over 16 years. The continual interference of the neighboring anti-independence countries, Rhodesia and South Africa, made the emergence of a peaceful solution highly improbable. The international community tried and failed on many occasions. And the many failed peace attempts merely contributed to the peoples' hopelessness and increased resistance to new intervention. Ideologically, militarily, and politically there was no way for non-contentious communication and exchange between the warring groups. It was an impossible conflict.
While the violent conflict between the FRELIMO government and the RENAMO rebels in Mozambique became more entrenched, an unexpected group of actors began to explore alternatives. A young native, national bishop Monsignor Jaime Gonçalves was linked to the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay association that had already engaged with the FRELIMO government to facilitate religious freedoms there in the 1970s. These efforts had been successful, so Mozambique's president, Joachim Chissano, sought the help of Sant'Egidio to establish back-channel contacts with RENAMO.
Initially, Sant'Egidio met enormous challenges. Its power to exert influence was very limited, as was its recognition by the international community, and so communication with the leaders in Mozambique proved difficult. But using its channels, Sant'Egidio arranged for a clandestine visit of Bishop Gonçalves to RENAMO headquarters deep in the jungle. At this meeting, Bishop Gonzales and Alfonso Dlakama, the leader of RENAMO, were surprised (and lucky) to discover they were from the same ethnic tribe and spoke the same dialect. Their meeting was the beginning of an unpredictable series of events leading to an unorthodox journey to peace that included 27 months of negotiations over eleven sessions, resulting in the signing of the General Peace Agreement (GPA) on October 4, 1992.
In Mozambique, we saw the emergence of peace sparked by the actions of a few locally trusted actors. Change emerged at the margins through nonthreatening communications allowing decision-makers to begin to consider alternatives to the conflict. This initial consideration was made possible by the "weaknesses" of the proponents. Weak mediators, not perceived as a threat or source of pressure, can disrupt the certainty and constraints of enemy dynamics and begin to relax internal pressures for consensus.
This is not unlike to the role that Leymah Gbowee and the Women's International Peace Network (WIPN) played in the early 2000s, when they helped end Liberia's decades-long civil wars. This ordinary group of women -- mothers, aunts and grandmothers -- organized amid the grueling armed conflict in Liberia, with no formal authority and few "hard" resources -- and helped mobilize and shepherd the peace process between the government of strongman Charles Taylor and the rebels. For example, at one point in the war, UN peacekeepers were stuck in a protracted gun battle with rebel forces in the jungle and could see no way out. They contacted the WIPN, who arrived at the scene in their white T-shirts and headdresses. The women then entered the jungle with hands raised, dancing and singing. After spending two days there, feeding and speaking with the rebels, the women brought the rebels out of the jungle, ending the stalemate.
The moral: Weak power can be immensely powerful.
The UN, the U.S. and other nation states interested in fostering stability and peace in Syria, North Korea, and Iran can learn much from these examples.
First, the UN and the international community of nations need to see beyond themselves and their own capacities for brokering peace. Traditionally, peace processes are conceived of as attempts at bringing disputing parties to the negotiation table and securing an agreement which facilitates peace. However in studies we have conducted with effective peacemakers, they describe a much more complex scene; a multitude of inter-related stakeholder groups which extend far beyond those more readily identified as disputants and third parties, including the general population, marginalized groups, extremist groups, the diaspora, civil society, the elite, academics, informal decision-makers, funding agencies, community institutions, business and industry, activist groups, and agnostics (relatively unaware, uninterested, or unwilling groups whose active involvement is seen as critical for peace). This means that a wide variety of actors and constructive processes may be available, in addition to direct negotiations and mediation, for bringing about a host of complementary objectives related to readying, triggering and establishing sustainable peace.
Second, they need to understand the nature of the role they are playing in this complex system of conflict and peace. The pressures imposed by the international community on regimes such as Syria, North Korea, and Iran today are a critical -- but insufficient -- condition for peace. Research has shown that disputants locked in protracted conflicts become ripe for negotiating peace when two basic conditions are met: 1) they find themselves in an unwinnable, mutually hurting stalemate and 2) they can see a way out of the conflict. Actions by the international community today in Syria, for example, largely increase the pain of stalemate. What is missing is a vision of a feasible way out.
Third, they need to do what they can to support non-state actors like the Community of Sant'Egidio and WIPN and, even more importantly, not interfere in their efforts. Like it or not, the more powerful actors in the international community are not alone out there, and the sooner we recognize and learn to work effectively and constructively within our complex systems of war and peace, the better.
Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a social psychologist on faculty at The Earth Institute and Teachers College at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and author of the books: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011) and Psychology's Contributions to Sustainable Peace (with Morton Deutsch, 2012).