OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 3.2 | June 2000

ISSN 1522-211X


Who You Gonna Call? Third Parties, Conflict Resolution, and the End of the Cold War

By Brian Frederking, Andrea Pyatt, and Shaun Randol

The end of the Cold War generated great concern about the relationship between regional conflicts and global security (Kanet 1998; Sisk 1996; Gamble and Payne 1996). It also generated contradictory expectations about whether the international community can more effectively resolve regional conflicts in the post-Cold War world. Some "pessimists" argue that the Cold War had a dampening effect on regional conflict. In the new multipolar world, the international community will be less capable of resolving the conflicts unleashed by the end of the Cold War (Gaddis 1991; Hurrell 1992; Betts 1994, 1992). "Optimists," however, argue the Cold War both exacerbated regional conflicts and thwarted the ability of international organizations to resolve those conflicts. In this view, the end of the Cold War should facilitate collaboration and increase the ability of the international community to resolve conflicts (Bennett and Lepgold 1993; Kolodziej and Kanet 1996).

The optimists urge the international community to pursue "preventive diplomacy" to resolve conflicts before hostilities begin (Jentleson 2000; Bercovitch 1996; Boutros-Ghali 1992; Cahill 1996; Gareth 1993; Licklider 1995). Lund (1996, 37) calls preventive diplomacy "action taken in vulnerable places and times to avoid the threat or use of armed force and related forms of coercion by states or groups to settle the political disputes that can arise from the destabilizing effects of economic, social, political, and international change." According to Lund, preventive diplomacy would depend on an early warning system, regional and/or global powers willing to support preventive action, credible third parties willing to intervene early, and autonomous domestic factions willing to moderate their words and actions.

The importance of third parties is widely held (Young 1967; Touval and Zartman 1985; Bercovitch and Rubin 1991; Damrosch 1993; Hampson 1996). The dispute is whether third parties are likely to be more or less effective in the post-Cold War world. The early empirical evidence regarding third party effectiveness in resolving post-Cold War disputes is mixed. For example, Wallensteen and Axell (1994) report that of the 43 disputes ending between 1989 and 1993, only six ended with a mediated agreement. Paris (1997) argues that only one of seven United Nations post-conflict peace-building efforts was successful. However, Hampson (1996) argues that third parties played a significant role in the peacekeeping processes in Cyprus, Namibia, El Salvador, and Cambodia.

In this article we empirically test the contradictory expectations about relative third party effectiveness in the post-Cold War world. These tests add to policy debates concerning global peacekeeping by breaking down the concepts of "third parties" and "the international community" into categories of great powers, regional actors, and international organizations. The pessimists tend to provide reasons for a decreasing effectiveness of the United States and the United Nations without systematically addressing regional actors. And as Lund's definition of preventive diplomacy illustrates, the optimists tend to provide reasons for an increasing effectiveness of the international community without specifying which category of actor is the most credible and legitimate. Neither side attempts to answer the question "who you gonna call?" to resolve conflicts.

Therefore, we ask three questions:

  1. What kind of third party was most effective during the Cold War?
  2. Did the type of conflict influence the effectiveness of third parties during the Cold War?
  3. Has the end of the Cold War altered the effectiveness of third parties?

We use the Computer Aided System for Analysis of Conflicts (CASCON) database of Cold War conflicts, into which we coded 20 additional post-Cold War conflicts, to determine the relative effectiveness of various third parties in resolving conflicts both during and after the Cold War. Our results suggest: 1) Regional actors were most effective during the Cold War; 2) Ethnic conflicts reduced the effectiveness of all types of third parties; and 3) The end of the Cold War has only marginally altered the effectiveness of third parties

This article includes three sections. First, we briefly discuss the CASCON database. Second, we ask the above three questions and present the results of our analysis. We argue that the analysis supports neither the pessimist's nor the optimist's argument. The end of the Cold War did not greatly increase or decrease the conflict resolution effectiveness of third parties. Both arguments emphasize the influence of systemic variables on conflict resolution, obscuring our finding that regional actors were most effective both during and after the Cold War. Third, we discuss the implications of our results. Using examples in Somalia and East Timor, we argue that the post-Cold War world is more complex than the pessimistic and optimistic portrayals. Conflict resolution in the post-Cold War world cannot be captured by a "the international community is more effective" versus "the international community is less effective" debate. The global distribution of power is not the most important influence on the effectiveness of conflict resolution. Instead, the nature of the conflict (e.g., ethnic) and the type of third party engaged in conflict resolution (e.g., regional actor) are greater influences on the effectiveness of conflict resolution.


CASCON is a conflict resolution software package developed by Bloomfield and Moulton (1997). It allows users to analyze past conflicts and search for empirical trends or historical analogies that might help resolve current conflicts. CASCON divides each case into six phases, and we concentrate on the first three: 1) dispute, where two sides quarrel about an issue but the use of force is not under consideration; 2) conflict, where two sides develop military options to achieve their objectives; and 3) hostilities, where the two sides begin fighting. To determine whether third parties prevent the hostilities in phase three from occurring, we concentrate on the conflict stage in phase two, when hostilities seem probable.

CASCON includes a database of 81 cases and over 500 factors that influence conflict. A list of the 81 cases is in Table 1. Each case is divided into two sides, a "status quo" side and a "non-status quo" side. Users can manipulate the cases into a variety of categories by region (Africa, Western Hemisphere, Europe, Middle East, South/Southwest Asia, and East/Southeast Asia), by conflict type (interstate, primarily internal, external intervention, and colonial), and by the issue in dispute (ethnic, governance, independence, resources, strategic, and territory). Users with specific interests can combine these categories (e.g., ethnic conflicts in Africa). Many other possibilities exist as well, including the ability to compare one case to all other cases and to compare one case to composite "profile" cases of conflicts that lead toward hostilities and conflicts that do not.

Table 1

Cold War Conflicts in Cascon Database (1945-1991)

Aden 1963-67 Afghanistan 1979-88
Algeria 1954-62 Algeria-Morocco 1962-72
Angola Civil War 1974-91 Angola 1961-74
Arab-Israeli War 1967 Bahrain 1970
Bangladesh 1971 Bay of Pigs 1961
Belize-Guatemala 1948-91 Bolivia 1967
Burundi 1965-91 Cambodia 1979-91
Chad 1979-91 Chile-Argentina 1977-85
China-Vietnam 1979-91 Columbia 1974-90
Congo 1960-1963 Cuba 1952-1959
Cyprus 1963-91 Cyprus 1954-59
Czechoslovakia 1989 Dominican Republic 1965-66
Dominican-Haiti 1963 Ecuador-USA 1963-75
El Salvador1980-91 El Salvador-Honduras 1969
Ethiopia-Eritrea 1974-91 Falklands 1982-91
Ghana 1964-66 Gibraltar 1963-91
Greece 1944-49 Grenada 1983
Guatemala 1954 Guinea-Ivory Coast 1966-67
Guinea 1970 Guyana-Venezuela 1970
India-China 1954-62 India-Pakistan 1965-91
Indonesia-Malaysia 1963-65 Indonesia 1945-49
Iran-Iraq 1980-90 Iraq (Kurds) 1958-63
Kashmir 1947-91 Kuwait-Iraq 1961-19
Laos 1959-62 Lebanon 1957-58
Lebanon 1975-90 Malaya 1948-60
Middle East War 1973 Morocco-Mauritania 1957-70
Morocco-Spain 1956-75 Mozambique 1975-91
Muscat-Oman 1957-70 Namibia 1947-90
New Caledonia 1984-91 Nicaragua 1980-90
Nicaragua-Costa Rica 1955-56 Nicaragua-Honduras 1957-60
Nigeria 1967-70 Palestine 1947-49
Panama 1964 Philippines 1946-54
Quemoy-Matsu 1954-58 Sinai 1956
Somalia-Ethiopia 1977-88 Somalia-Ethiopia-Kenya 1960-64
South Tyrol 1957-69 Soviet Union-Iran 1945-46
Spain-Basque 1968-91 Spratly Islands 1974-91
Sri Lanka 1950-91 Suez 1956
Syria-Turkey 1956-57 Taba Strip 1982-89
Trieste 1945-54 Ulster 1968-91
US-Mexico 1945-63 Venezuela 1960-63
West Irian 1962-63 Western Sahara 1973-91
Jordan Waters 1948-91 Yemen 1962-70
Zimbabwe 1965-80  

CASCON codes ten categories of factors for each case. The categories are: 1) previous of general relations between sides, 2) great power and allied involvement, 3) general external relations, 4) international organizations, 5) ethnic, 6) military, 7) economics, 8) internal politics of the sides, 9) communication, and 10) actions in the disputed area. The factors are coded on a 7-point scale according to whether and how much they influenced the conflict toward or away from the use of force. CASCON used the scale T3, T2, T1, N, A1, A2, and A3 to code the factors with T3 representing much influence toward use of military force, and A3 representing much influence away from the use of force. We transformed this data into an SPSS dataset with ordinal variables ranging from 1 to 7 for each factor.

What kind of third party was most effective during the Cold War?

The Cascon database includes 13 factors regarding third parties. To answer our first question, we analyzed the average scores of these factors (Table 2). The higher the mean score, the more that particular factor influenced the conflict away from hostilities. Table 2 shows the most effective third-party factor to be "regional powers pursue settlement" (5.90). This suggests that regional actors are more effective than great powers or international organizations. Perhaps successful mediators must share a common language, culture, and identity. If so, then regional actors would be more effective than global actors or great powers would.

Table 2

Cascon Factors Regarding Third Parties during Cold War Conflicts

  Number of cases Mean coding (1-7)
Regional powers pursue settlement 20 5.90
One great power becomes an active mediator 9 5.44
Third party urges resolution of conflict 36 5.42
Great powers collaborate to resolve conflict 9 5.22
Credible third party is available 42 5.21
Ally of non-status quo side prefers settlement 36 5.19
Ally of status-quo side prefers settlement 44 5.09
Influential third party seeks to restrain one side 28 5.07
US urges direct talks 48 5.04
UN urges both sides to settle 37 4.86
Regional organization takes action 29 4.83
UN sends observer or peacekeeping force into area 7 4.43
UN takes other action 23 4.13

The factors "one great power becomes an active mediator" (5.44) and "great powers collaborate to resolve the conflict" (5.22) were second and fourth on the list. This supports those who argue that the superpowers were able to dampen conflict during the Cold War. However, this great power influence rarely occurred (9 of 81). The factor "US urges direct talks" was the most common (48 of 81), but its effectiveness (5.04) was ninth out of thirteen. Together, these three factors suggest that great powers are effective only when they are actively involved. Routine diplomatic requests to urge direct talks have little influence.

The three United Nations (UN) factors - "UN urges both sides to settle" (4.86), "UN sends observer or peacekeeping force into area" (4.43), and "UN takes other action" (4.13) - are at or near the bottom of the list. Also, note that the bottom four factors all refer to international organizations, while the top nine factors are all either ambiguous or refer to individual states. This supports the widespread notion that Cold War politics within the Security Council hampered the UN's ability to resolve conflicts. However, it is also consistent with the argument that the end of the Cold War should increase the UN's ability to resolve conflict.

Another way to answer our question is to compare the factors in cases that ended in hostilities with those cases that ended peacefully. This is easily done with CASCON, which divides all cases into phases of conflict. A t-test reveals that 3 of the 13 factors were significantly different between cases going to phase 2 and cases going to phase 3 (Table 3). All three were significantly more effective in those cases that ended short of hostilities. Note that none of these factors specifically refer to the US, the UN, or a regional actor. All three vaguely refer to a "credible" or "influential" third party. But which type of third party is most likely to be "credible" and "influential" and, therefore, effective?

Table 3

Differences between third-party factors regarding phase of conflict

Factor Phase 2 Phase 3 Significance
Third party urges resolution of conflict 6.27 4.81 p=.000***
Credible third party is available 6.00 4.73 p=.000***
Influential third party seeks to restrain one side 5.90 4.61 p=.003**
*p<= .05, **p<= .01, ***p<= .001

To determine this, we ran correlations between all 13 third-party factors (Table 4). No factors regarding great powers, the US, or the UN are correlated with "credible" or "influential" third parties. The three "vague" factors highlighted by the previous t-test were all significantly correlated with each other. Only regional actors and allies are correlated with "credible" and "influential" third parties. Again, the analysis supports the importance of regional actors, suggesting that effective third parties must share a common language, culture, and/or identity. Also, note that no correlations exist between factors regarding the US, great powers, and/or the UN. This suggests that rarely do these actors collectively work toward the goal of conflict resolution.

Table 4

Kendall's tau_b Significance
Third party urges resolution of conflict    
  Credible third party is available .719 p=.000***
  Influential third party seeks to restrain one side .525 p=.008**
Credible third party is available
  Third party urges resolution of conflict .719 p=.000***
  Influential third party seeks to restrain one side .667 p=.001***
  Regional organization takes action .604 p=.001***
  Regional parties pursue settlement .573 p=.005**
  Ally of status quo side prefers settlement .449 p=.009**
Influential third party seeks to restrain one side
  Credible third party is available .667 p=.001***
  Ally of status quo side prefers settlement .634 p=.002**
  Regional organization takes action .611 p=.010**
  Third party urges resolution of conflict .525 p=.008**
  Ally of non-status quo side prefers settlement .399 p=.041*
*p<= .05, **p<= .01, ***p<= .001

Did the type of conflict influence the effectiveness of third parties during the Cold War?

CASCON divides cases by issue dispute and type of conflict. The issue disputes include ethnic, independence, governance, territory, resources and strategic. The types of conflict include internal, interstate, colonial, and external intervention. A series of t-tests on all of these categories again show the "vague" factors to be the only factors with significantly different influences (Table 5).

Table 5

Differences in third party effectiveness in various types of conflict

Issue Dispute - Ethnic (t-test)      
Factor Ethnic Other Significance
Credible third party is available 4.50 5.50 p=.004**
Influential third party seeks to restrain one side 4.30 5.50 p=.006**
Third party urges resolution of conflict 4.67 5.67 p=.011*
Issue Dispute - Independence (t-test)
Factor Independence Other Significance
Credible third party is available 4.58 5.47 p=.012*
Issue Dispute - Territory (t-test)
Factor Territory Other Significance
Third party urges resolution of conflict 6.00 5.05 p=.006**
Type of conflict (ANOVA)
Factor Interstate Internal Significance
Third party urges resolution of conflict 5.95 4.50 p=.004**
*p<= .05, **p<= .01, ***p<= .001

Regarding ethnic conflicts, all three factors are again significant. However, while these factors are more likely to resolve a conflict prior to phase three, they are less likely to prevent ethnic conflicts from reaching phase three. This suggests that combatants in ethnic conflicts are less likely to seek or recognize others as a "credible" and/or "influential" third party. This also supports the widespread notion that ethnic conflicts are more difficult to solve than any other type of conflict. Also, the ANOVA shows that "third parties urges resolution of conflict" is less likely to be effective in internal disputes than in interstate disputes. This is consistent to the extent that internal disputes are also likely to involve some level of ethnic conflict.

The remaining t-test results in Table 5 distinguish between political and ideological disputes and overtly material disputes. On one end of the continuum, third parties are less likely to be effective regarding political and ideological disputes and more likely to be effective in material disputes. For example, in conflicts over independence, only one factor, "credible third party is available," is significantly different, and it is less likely to be effective. In conflicts over governance (political), strategic (political and material), and resources (material), we found no differences in any of the 13 third-party factors. However, the factor "third party urges resolution of conflict" is more likely to be effective regarding conflicts over territory, a material dispute. We do not wish to overstate this pattern, though; of 65 potential significant differences (five t-tests involving thirteen factors), only two exist.

Has the end of the Cold War changed the effectiveness of third parties?

CASCON enables users to code factors for additional cases. We have included 20 post-Cold War cases to provide a tentative answer to this final question. The cases are Rwanda, India/Pakistan, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Algeria, Peru, Burundi, Cambodia, Chechnya (1994-1996), Chechnya (1999-2000), Nagorno-Karabakh, the Baltics, Macedonia, Congo, Columbia, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone, and Somalia.

The t-test results comparing the 81 Cold War cases with our 20 post-Cold War cases are in Table 6. Only 2 of the 13 third-party factors are significantly different in the post-Cold War conflicts. The Cold War trends of third-party effectiveness discussed above - particularly the relative effectiveness of regional actors - largely continue into the post-Cold War world. This contradicts both arguments that the end of the Cold War will drastically change the ability of the international community to resolve local conflicts. Against both the optimists and the pessimists, most of the evidence presented here suggests that the structural transformation away from global superpower competition has not altered the relative effectiveness of various third parties in resolving conflict.

The two factors in Table 6 provide only marginal evidence for both sides. One significantly different factor - "US urges direct talks" - suggests that the US is less effective in post-Cold War conflict resolution than during the Cold War. The pessimists can cite this as evidence that the more diffused power distribution in the post-Cold War world is limiting the ability of the US to resolve local conflicts. However, the other significantly different factor - "UN takes other action" - suggests that the UN is more effective in post-Cold War conflict resolution than during the Cold War. The two factors together weaken the pessimists' position by supporting a shift in the locus of responsibility for conflict resolution from unilateral great power action to multilateral action through global organizations.

Table 6

Differences in third party effectiveness in Cold War and post-Cold War cases

Factor Cold War Post-Cold War Significance
UN takes other action 4.13 5.75 p=.006**
US urges direct talks 5.04 4.44 p=.034*
*p<= .05, **p<= .01, ***p<= .001

The optimists' position is also weak. The argument that "other action" is now more effective does not have straightforward policy implications. Does this refer to authorizing humanitarian aid (Somalia), no-fly zones (Bosnia), fact-finding missions (Algeria), or something else? Also, only one of the three UN factors shows a significant improvement. There is no difference in "UN urges both sides to settle" or "UN sends observer or peacekeeping force into area," arguably the two most visible aspects of UN peacemaking. While the amount of UN activity has increased in the post-Cold War world, little evidence supports the contention that it is now more effective.


The results suggest two conclusions. First, regional actors tend to be more effective third parties than great powers and international organizations in resolving conflicts. Second, there is little difference between Cold War and post-Cold War trends regarding the effectiveness of third parties. Neither the pessimists nor the optimists addressed the first conclusion, and the second conclusion contradicts both positions. The end of the Cold War did not greatly increase or decrease the conflict resolution effectiveness of third parties. The shared focus on structural change hides an enduring pattern about the effectiveness of regional actors both during and after the Cold War. The type of third party engaged in conflict resolution - that is, whether the third party is a regional actor - is more important than the global distribution of power.

The policy implications of these results, however, are less clear than the theoretical implications. One way to interpret these results is that the international community should admit defeat and concede that only local and regional actors are "credible" and "influential" third parties. Our analysis showed that no factors regarding great powers, the US, or the UN were correlated with "credible" and "influential" third parties during the Cold War, and the post-Cold War patterns show few significant differences. If credibility is associated with a similar culture, language, and/or identity, then we cannot expect great powers and international organizations to fulfill this role. The results regarding ethnic conflict reinforce this conclusion: as, when the combatants do not share a common culture, language, and/or identity, finding a "credible" third party is inherently more difficult.

However, evidence that regional actors are better third parties than superpowers or global organizations must be qualified with the recognition that all regional actors are not alike. The ability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other regional actors to resolve conflicts are influenced by immense differences in resources, training, equipment, legitimacy, and the intractability of conflicts. We do not believe that this evidence suggests that the UN should forfeit its peacekeeping obligations. Instead, it must encourage and enable regional actors to pursue the peaceful settlement of conflicts. Two recent examples illustrate that mutual support between the UN and regional actors is extremely important.

Civil war erupted in Somalia when President Ali Mahdi refused to give up his position to Mohamed Farah Aideed, who was elected chairman of the United Somalia Congress (Lyons and Samata 1995). When the civil war in Somalia caused severe famine and a humanitarian crisis, the international community initially did little to intervene. When several African leaders tried to mediate between the warring factions at the Djibouti Conferences in July 1991, neither the UN, Western powers, nor the Organization for African Unity offered the support and resources necessary to influence the warring clans. After the Djibouti Conferences failed, Italy, a former colonizer of Somalia, offered its "good offices" to help resolve the conflict. However, Aideed's faction refused to participate, interpreting Italy to favor Mahdi because Mahdi favored an Italian-style government. While the Djibouti Conferences were not "influential," Italian efforts were not "credible."

In January 1992, the Security Council mediated a cease-fire between Mahdi and Aideed, but violence quickly flared up again, complicating efforts to send humanitarian aid to Somalia. Media coverage of the growing famine pressured the US to send troops to ensure the provision of humanitarian aid. Accomplishing even this minimal mission without a cease-fire agreement, however, turned out to be very difficult. Local clans interpreted the international community's efforts as aiding the enemy. Their attempts to subvert the humanitarian mission led to subsequent Security Council resolutions authorizing greater entanglement with the combatants, including one to disarm the population and another to capture Aideed. These entanglements, of course, led to a humiliating loss of American and Pakistani lives in March 1994. Within a year, all UN troops withdrew from Somalia.

The UN operation in Somalia failed because its lack of neutrality reduced its credibility to many of the local clans. At the most basic level, the composition of the UN peacekeeping forces included very few Africans. As the UN mandate increased into the realm of "state-building," success required a great amount of cooperation with many civilians. However, given the lack of control by Somali leaders over the warring clans, few listened to or respected UN troops. More importantly, identifying Aideed as the main aggressor changed the mission from a peacekeeping operation, where the UN is implicitly neutral, to a collective security operation, where the UN explicitly takes sides and becomes an enemy to some of the combatants. These conditions required an occupying force and, when the international community was unwilling to sustain one, it withdrew.

Civil unrest in East Timor ended with a different outcome. In August 1999, the citizens of East Timor overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia despite outbreaks of violence from pro-Jakarta paramilitary groups. After the referendum, the militia groups increased their violent attacks against pro-independence supporters. Thousands were forced to flee into West Timor. The UN even evacuated 200 personnel after a militia fired against them. Amid protests from the international community, Indonesia asserted that the disturbance was an internal matter, declared martial law, and sent 4000 police officers into East Timor. Given Jakarta's previous claims to provide "security" for the referendum, the international community interpreted this move skeptically.

After intense diplomatic pressure and US threats of economic sanctions, Indonesia finally agreed to allow an international force to restore order in East Timor. While the possibility of violence is always present, this mission has thus far been much more successful than the one in Somalia. The UN has taken greater steps to ensure neutrality and credibility. Seventy percent of the UN forces are from regional states like Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines with an interest in regional stability. Indonesian soldiers will work alongside them as "liaisons and advisers" so that the pro-Jakarta militias will not see the UN forces as an unwelcome occupying force. Finally, given Jakarta's statements that it will abide by the referendum, the goal of the mission is at least nominally supported by both sides.

These examples suggest that multilateral approaches with both global and regional actors are most likely to provide the influential, credible, and neutral third party necessary for effective conflict resolution. The international community is beginning to realize the arguments presented in this paper. For example, it is now standard for the UN to ensure that regional actors comprise a majority of all peacekeeping forces. The UN also routinely encourages and supports the efforts of regional actors like the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League, the European Community, and the Organization of American States to resolve local conflicts. While there is no one formula to resolve local conflicts, we argue that the UN should continue these efforts regardless of changes in the global balance of power.

The authors would like to thank Dana Vetterhoffer for her research support and the Editorial Board of OJPCR for their helpful comments.


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Brian Frederking is an Assistant Professor at McKendree College. His recent publications include Resolving Security Dilemmas: A Constructivist Explanation of the INF Treaty and articles in International Studies Quarterly and International Politics.

Andrea Pyatt is an undergraduate international relations major at McKendree College.

Shaun Randol is an undergraduate political science major at McKendree College.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.