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The myth of negotiated peace

It is not the only way to end a war.

By Lawrence Freedman

Those that demand Ukraine and its Western supporters work out what concessions will be offered to Russia  to cut a deal to end the war, often claim that this will have to be done at some point because “wars always end with a negotiation”. Despite its regular repetition, and however the Russo-Ukraine War concludes, this claim is simply not true. Not all wars end with negotiations. 

Some end with surrenders, as was the case with both Germany and Japan in 1945; regime change, as with Italy in 1943; or cease-fires, which might require some negotiation but leave the underlying dispute unresolved, as with Korea in 1953. Even when there are negotiations intended to end a war, they often fail.

The idea that war is essentially transactional and that there is a deal always there to be struck (a view which seems to infuse Donald Trump’s approach to international conflict) ignores the high stakes for which they are fought, which become even higher when lives have been lost in their pursuit. Compromises are best found before the fighting starts. Once a war has begun, compromises become much harder to identify let alone agree and confirm in treaty form. This will require intense bargaining over specific language in the full knowledge that any ambiguity will later be exploited.

Trust between the belligerents will be in even shorter supply than before. Both sides will want outcomes that demonstrate their resolve and leave them with some credibility, as well as addressing whatever caused the conflict in the first place. Any deal proposed will be judged against criteria of fairness – have enemies gained from unwarranted aggression – but also stability – if we agree to this, how easy will it be for them to aggress again? The pressure for “peace now” can result in a deal that settles little for the long-term, and leaves a legacy of bitterness and frustration, creating the conditions for war later.

Which is why remarkably few wars end with negotiations on the dispute which prompted the war. More often, negotiations towards a lasting settlement take place well after an  initial cease-fire. Yet while the fighting is underway, not only will the belligerents insist that they want peace, albeit on their terms, their friends and supporters will also be anxious to show that they really do have an interest in a diplomatic exit. This interest will have to be affirmed at sessions of the UN Security Council or as would-be mediators offer their services to find some common ground. As it is hard to ignore these efforts or refuse to engage with the peacemakers, the belligerents will be working out what they can say and do to at least appear reasonable. They will wish  to deflect blame for the likely failure of these efforts by showing that it is the other side that has no interest in a settlement.

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It’s useful to look at the attempt to reach a deal to end the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina which began on 2 April 1982. (The account is drawn from my book Official History.) If any war was going to be ended by a negotiation this was it. The value of the disputed land was questionable. (The war was famously described as being like “two bald men arguing over a comb”.) It lacked the scale, ferocity, and duration of the wars that currently dominate the headlines. It was confined to combat between regular forces, and fought away from populated areas (although there were civilian casualties).

The conflict was limited by logistical considerations, as distance created issues of supply for both sides. The long journey from the UK meant that after the initial Argentine invasion and occupation, weeks would pass before the British Task Force sent to expel the Argentine forces would reach the islands. This provided opportunities for mediators to get to work without much fighting going on in the background. There was no lack of effort – first from the US Secretary of State Alexander Haig and then the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar – to get a deal. Both sides cooperated in these efforts.

Still they failed to end the war. So even in these optimum conditions for a war-time negotiation – limited fighting, powerful mediators who could not easily be ignored, a degree of urgency yet with sufficient time for a serious diplomatic effort, and apparently low stakes – a solution proved to be elusive. The reasons why may help explain the problems being faced in the much more fraught circumstances of current wars.

Two points need to be noted. The first is that whatever the value of the disputed territory there were important principles at stake – territorial integrity for Argentina and sovereignty and self-determination for the UK. The view in Buenos Aires was that these islands (to them Las Malvinas)  had been illegally seized by the UK in 1833 and that all their efforts to get them back through years of peace-time negotiations had been thwarted by British obduracy. They now sought to resolve the issue once and for all.

The UK insisted that the Argentine claim had no basis in international law, and while there may not have been many islanders (around 1,800) they still had a right to self-determination. In 1968 the British government had committed to not transferring sovereignty against the “wishes” of the islanders, which meant an effective veto, and they clearly did not wish to abandon their land to a military dictatorship.

The second point is that once the war began the freedom of manoeuvre for both governments narrowed. The Argentine Junta seized the islands expecting that it would lead to negotiations but then discovered that retaking Las Malvinas was the most popular thing they had ever done and were reluctant to abandon the prize, especially as doing so would look like they were withdrawing in the face of the threat of the British Task Force. For Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the loss of sovereign territory to a military dictatorship, undermining her reputation as the Iron Lady, could have meant resignation. She was persuaded to send a Task Force sufficiently substantial to retake the islands by force if necessary, but there was still a widespread assumption as it set sail that its main value would be to provide leverage in the inevitable negotiations.

US President Ronald Reagan saw this as an unnecessary conflict between two governments with whom America had good relations. So rather than take sides, he authorised Haig to negotiate a solution. It is fair to say that Thatcher was deeply unimpressed by the apparent American inability to come down on behalf of the aggrieved against the aggressor, but she also did not want to be seen to be refusing the American offer of mediation. She went along with Haig’s back and forth from London to Buenos Aires and even made some serious concessions to show that Britain was not opposing a peaceful resolution.

We pick up the story on 16 April 1982 when Haig sent London a draft agreement which he suggested  would be acceptable to the Argentine Junta. (Though he had been told that it was, at the last minute as he left Buenos Aires he was informed that it was not). This put Thatcher’s War Cabinet in a quandary. They found the draft unacceptable yet they feared getting the blame if rejecting it led to the breakdown of negotiations.

After getting a stern letter of complaint about the pressure under which the UK was being put despite being the aggrieved party, Haig replied in conciliatory tones and urged Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to fly to Washington to negotiate on the text. This was agreed, but in part to strengthen Pym’s hand it was also decided to approve an operation to recapture the island of South Georgia, also British territory, where the crisis had begun just over a month earlier.

The FCO (who had long wanted to find a “solution” to the anomalous position of the Falklands) took the view that they needed a serious response to show that the UK was being reasonable. The basic structure of the package was accepted: withdrawal of forces, an interim administration while a final settlement was negotiated, and then negotiations on future status. There were worries on all these points in the US draft. Allowing any Argentine role in the administration of the islands was already a major concession. There was now concern that this would be disproportionate, providing Argentina opportunities to change the character of islands.

There would be a US role, but the British would be wholly dependent upon the Americans taking their side in any disputes, for example over Argentine immigration into the islands. When it came to the  negotiations designed to find a permanent solution, Haig was ruling out returning to the previous colonial status of the Falklands. This meant that the alternatives were either a full merger with Britain or Argentina, independence or some sort of lease-back. While the UK position was to respect the “wishes” of the islanders, the Argentines spoke of their “interests” (about which the islanders might not be the best judge) and Haig referred to “rights” (which would always be subject to interpretation).

Haig discussed all these issues with Pym in Washington, he offered some reassurances, but the text largely remained intact. By now the Secretary of State had decided that there was no point in trying to renegotiate the terms with Buenos Aires. He decided to ask both sides to accept the American proposal as the best way to end the conflict.

Haig’s text was sent back to London, with an accompanying note from Pym indicating that “his personal reaction was sympathetic”. Pym also warned that if Britain failed to agree “we might be on our own”. Without a quick and satisfactory military solution, which might be difficult to achieve, international support could quickly evaporate. Even a military victory would still leave a requirement for either a permanent military presence in the area or else a political solution that would be no easier to achieve or more favourable than that currently proposed.

When he got back to London he found that this was not the view of his colleagues. Thatcher saw Haig’s draft as a “conditional surrender” and was prepared to resign rather than accept it. Out of the debate in the War Cabinet a way forward emerged. There would be no outright rejection but instead a request that the draft be first put to Argentina. If, as hoped, it was rejected by the Junta then the Americans would be obliged to come down firmly on Britain’s side. If the Junta accepted then all that could be done would be to put it to Parliament.

With a boost from the South Georgia operation, which was successfully completed on 26 August, and the Task Force moving into position close to the Falklands, the British announced that the military pressure would be stepped up on 30 April when a Total Exclusion Zone would be established around the Falklands, preventing the resupply of the Argentine garrison by either air or sea.

The British expected Haig to ask Argentina for a straight “yes or no” answer by midnight on 27 April. Yet by 28 April there was still no word from Argentina and Haig was resisting calling an end to his efforts, even if that meant considering Argentine amendments to what was supposed to be a final text. He told the British Ambassador that he had “to go right down to the end of the line before coming down on our side”.

But the Argentine government was also not in a mood for concessions. Having occupied the islands the Junta was only interested in a process that ended with the transfer of sovereignty. They were prepared to discuss “how” but not “whether”. They were confident in their military position. The South Georgia operation had not changed this. Instead it made them more suspicious of American motives, as they supposed, incorrectly, that the operation had only been accomplished with American support. When writing to the Argentine government with his final draft, Haig expressed his concern that “full-scale conflict with the United Kingdom is imminent”.  He commended his proposals as enabling Argentina:

“to set an entirely new direction for the Islands, one whose ultimate outcome cannot be in question even if it cannot be made fully explicit. You will have made your point. The course of Argentine history will have been irrevocably changed.”

Meanwhile Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez was playing on American fears of the Soviet Union coming in on (the extremely anti-communist) Argentina’s side, while exploring whether there was flexibility in the American draft.

All this was viewed in London with consternation. Haig seemed to be prepared to allow the situation to carry on until 30 April, resisting the idea of an ultimatum and was even prepared to countenance “minor” amendments. Instead of getting Argentina to withdraw without a fight, the prospect was now of fighting without American support. 

Washington had remained neutral: taken no economic measures; refused to take a stand on the sovereignty issue; been ready to conduct business as usual with Buenos Aires. Thatcher wrote to Reagan insisting that the Argentine silence must be construed as a rejection:

“I cannot conceal from you how deeply let down I and my colleagues would feel if under these circumstances the US were not now able to give us its full support.”

Eventually on 29 April the Junta replied to Haig that his draft fell short of Argentine demands. They were still after certainty about an eventual transfer of sovereignty. The Americans now accepted that there was nothing more to be done and that they had to back Britain. On 30 April Haig made a public statement, choosing his words carefully:

“We had reason to hope that the United Kingdom would consider a settlement along the lines of our proposal, but Argentina informed us yesterday that it could not accept it.”

The British ploy had worked.

Concrete steps were now to be taken to demonstrate that the US “cannot and will not condone the use of unlawful force to resolve disputes”. The steps took the form of limited economic sanctions and a Presidential directive “to respond positively to requests for materiel support for British forces”. (The Pentagon, conducting its own independent policy, had actually been doing this for some time).

The Americans were nonetheless convinced that a deal would eventually have to be done. Reagan wrote to Thatcher:

“A strictly military outcome cannot endure over time. In the end, there will have to be a negotiated outcome acceptable to the interested parties. Otherwise, we will all face unending hostility and insecurity in the South Atlantic.”

Meanwhile Reagan explained to reporters that it was vital to oppose aggression even though the fight was over that “little ice-cold bunch of land down there”.

The negotiations did not stop. Haig carried on, this time working through the Peruvian government, in a half-based effort that ground to a halt after the sinking of an Argentine cruiser, the Belgrano, on 2 May. Then the UN effort began, covering the same basic elements as before. The British took more control over the process, because they wanted the effort concluded before the amphibious landing by British forces, scheduled for 21 May. They came up with a draft which offered Argentina sufficient to appear reasonable but the Junta again baulked because it did not provide a certain route to the transfer of sovereignty. After British forces had landed and were preparing for the final battles, the pressure for a diplomatic settlement did not abate, with a resolution being put to the UN Security Council requesting an immediate cease-fire, which was vetoed by the UK. In the event the Argentine forces capitulated and were eventually repatriated without any agreement on future negotiations. That remains the position.

What can we learn from this episode in which negotiations failed to produce a result despite relatively favourable circumstances?

First, the distinct elements – cease-fire/disengagement of forces, negotiation of a final settlement, and interim arrangements while the negotiations take place – are similar to those found in any peace process. Each of these elements requires a separate negotiation. The negotiations on a final settlement cannot conclude without the other steps, but it is possible to have a disengagement agreement, or even a simple cease-fire, without the others.

The problem with trying to negotiate a final settlement while the fighting is ongoing is that neither side will wish to concede on their core interests. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a decisive military defeat, and certainly so long as the military outcome is uncertain there are no incentives for this to be accepted. When the issue is who controls territory, the compromises are rarely obvious. In practice there might be a de facto concession of territory as part of a cease-fire agreement but that is not the same as agreeing to make this permanent. With a cease-fire there is always the possibility of returning to the fray.

Second, there is always a link between readiness to make concessions and expectations about where the fighting is leading. The UK would have had no negotiating position without the Task Force but the Junta were still confident, until the British bridgehead had been established on the Falklands, that they could beat them off.  Once it became apparent that this was going to be difficult, their negotiating stance became more conciliatory. Even after the successful landing, British operations were conducted with a view to ensuring a strong position should a cease-fire be unavoidable, for example following the loss of an aircraft carrier. As the British military position strengthened, its negotiating position hardened.

Third, even when governments are fighting a war they do not wish to be seen to be denying the possibility of a negotiated peace, though privately they see no basis for a satisfactory deal. This is especially true when they are being pressed by important supporters, such as the US, to show seriousness. There is therefore always a performative element around negotiations of this sort, with an effort to demonstrate reasonableness, ensuring that the other side is blamed for any breakdown in the process.

Fourth, a credible display of reasonableness still requires concessions. Those made by the British government during the Haig negotiations were not trivial and if accepted by Argentina would have been seen in the UK as rewarding aggression. Haig was probably right that an Argentine role in an interim administration while negotiations on the final status were pursued could well have created the conditions for a deal that would have met the Junta’s demands. The Falklands economy was weak, and a small population was becoming even smaller. Patience would have worked for Argentina.

Their hasty action was counterproductive. Instead of the previous record of not investing in the Falklands, and watching them become progressively less viable, both economically and politically, the effort that went into their liberation, including lost lives, meant that they were now seen as a prize to be cherished. The links with the UK were strengthened, the economy boosted, and the population recovered. The military victory removed uncertainty about their future.

Fifth, despite the expressions of concern in 1982 that without a diplomatic resolution of the dispute it would never go away, so both sides could soon be back for a return match, it turned out that a decisive military solution was not necessarily a recipe for continuing conflict. There are still regular calls for negotiations on the status of the Falklands to resume, but this has not stopped Argentina and the UK having diplomatic relations. Forty years have now passed and Argentina has yet to try military action again. The UK has a permanent garrison on the Falklands while Argentina’s armed forces have never been fully reconstituted because of its weak economy.

There is of course an important qualification to this last point as a general lesson. The alternative to a negotiated agreement is not necessarily a decisive military victory by one side. Wars can continue for some time without either side achieving a commanding position. The disincentives for conceding to the enemy through negotiations what it cannot achieve through battle will remain. In these circumstances the best that can be achieved, as both sides struggle to sustain their military efforts, is a cease-fire, which may turn out to be temporary.

In addition it is important to keep in mind that the negotiations surrounding the Falklands involved mediators trying to find common ground between the warring parties. Haig came up with a draft that satisfied neither side but he was not in a position to impose his plans against their wishes (although the British were worried that he might try). There are circumstances in which a solution can be imposed, although this will involve outside parties committing resources, including possibly their own forces, to the territory in dispute.

It is not hard to apply these lessons to the current diplomacy around both the Russo-Ukraine and Hamas-Israel Wars, for example in the way that the Israeli government was anxious to avoid a firm commitment to President Joe Biden’s cease-fire proposal for Gaza, even after it had been backed by the Security Council, and relied on Hamas rejecting it first. Or in the way the Ukrainian and Russian governments have recently sought to garner support for a negotiating effort that would see their maximum demands met. It is important to remember that contrary to the idea that wars must end with a negotiated solution in practice they rarely do.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: How to fix a nation]

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