Mediating Peace

Mediating Peace
Photo by Midjourney

An examination of the roles of mediators through the lens of the Aceh Peace Negotiations.

The essence of mediation is persuasion, not coercion.

- Kjell Skjelsbæk [14]


Martti Ahtisaari is a world-renowned mediator. Ahtisaari has been instrumental in some of the largest international negotiations in the recent past, including conflicts in Namibia, Indonesia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, and West Africa. [3] In 2008, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation role in resolving international conflicts.

One of Ahtisaari's most interesting negotiations surrounded helping achieve peace in Aceh, Indonesia. In this paper, we will use an interview Ahtisaari gave focusing on how he, as a mediator, helped deliver peace for Aceh to weave a deeper understanding of mediation as a tool in negotiations. We will focus on the power of mediators in negotiations, how their individual reputations can foster trust and justice in negotiations, and finally how their BATNAs, as a third party, provide context to their involvement in negotiations. However, first, we will provide a brief background on the conflict between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Conflict Background

In 1989, GAM began fighting an intense guerilla war for its independence, in Aceh, from the Indonesian government. [2] Over 10,000 casualties occurred during these conflicts. Though there were many attempts at peace, it was not until after the Tsunami of December 26, 2004 (which caused the death of 230,000 Indonesians, 130,000 in the Aceh province itself) [2] that negotiations moved forward in any meaningful way. The mediation efforts of Martti Ahtisaari and his organization, the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), lead to the ratification of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between GAM and the Indonesian government. [10]

Power in Negotiations

If demands were totally impossible, I had to tell them so in no uncertain terms. At these talks, they had [a] commitment to a serious outcome.

- Martti Ahtisaari on the Aceh Peace Negotiations [5]

In the quote at the beginning of this section, Ahtisaari is revealing the kind of power he was wielding during the Aceh Peace Negotiations. Salancik and Pfeffer defined an individual’s power as "the ability to bring about outcomes they desire" or "the ability to get things done the way [they want] them to be done." [4] What is most interesting about the power mediators wield during a negotiation, is not so much how they wield it (though that is interesting), but more what their power level is for the active negotiation and how that affects the discussions. Smith [9] builds a model for the relative power of negotiators using two axes. The first axis is coercive potential, which is ultimately the mediator’s power outside of the negotiations.[9] What ability does the mediator possess to affect the party (or parties) outside of the negotiation? An example of a mediator with a high coercive potential would be the United States government. Very few businesses or countries have the power themselves to resist the coercive strength of the United States government. An example of a mediator with a low coercive potential would be a Real Estate Agent. While a Real Estate Agent can be instrumental in the negotiation between parties purchasing a home, both sides BATNAs are often high enough to strip the Real Estate Agent of any power to force an agreement. Smith's second axis is the mediator’s stake in the outcome. [9] The stake is the measure of impartiality on behalf of the mediator. An example of a mediator with a high stake would be Ahtisaari himself during the Aceh Peace Negotiations. Ahtisaari had a substantial personal stake in creating peace between GAM and the Indonesia government to end the conflict that had resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. An example of a mediator with a low stake would be a divorce lawyer. The lawyer, during a divorce mediation, has no high stake in the outcome outside of getting paid, although there is the possibility for a stronger stake related to professional reputation. We believe personal BATNAs reflect the level of stake a meditator has in a negotiation. These private BATNAs are a theme will tackle later in this paper.

Smith uses these axes to create two mediator categories. [9] The first he calls "pure" mediators, which are mediators with low power and low stakes in the negotiation. [9] The second he defines is "power" mediators, which are mediators with high power and high stakes. [9] Interestingly, Smith does not find value in giving definition to the other possible combinations of low power, high stakes or high power, low stakes. He posits that these types of mediators are an exception and not worth discussing. [9] We, however, believe this is incorrect. While Smith's position may have been valid at the time, the wave of integrative negotiations brought on by books such as "Getting to Yes" by William Ury [8] makes us believe that Smith's model should be enhanced. To that end, we have built a system to place mediators into one of four quadrants. The first two quadrants match Smith's ideas of "pure" and "power" mediators [9]. The new quadrants we propose are "patron" mediators, which are mediators with high power and low stakes, and "passion" mediators, which are mediators with low power and high stakes. With these quadrants, we would like to provide examples of each. It should be said we view no mediator quadrant as inherently better than the others; they each excel in different bargaining contexts.

The first category we will examine is the high power, high stake mediators in the "power" quadrant. The "power" quadrant is best exemplified by powerful nations such as the United States, Russia, and China. Each has tremendous power to influence other parties outside any negotiation through economic sanctions in the forms of tariffs to military intervention. "Power" mediators are apt to follow the negotiation tactics of Jim Camp [13] and Christopher Voss [11], which treat negotiations in a strongly distributive manner. "Power" mediators may perceive their high stake level from secondary incentives or personal BATNAs that are outside the scope of the consultation. For example, a strong personal BATNA for the United States was to be the "police of the world." The next category to discuss is the low power, low stake mediators in the "pure" quadrant. These negotiators attempt to be impartial and may benefit from not knowing or continuing relationships with either party. An example of a "pure" meditator is the Quaker Peace Makers. They strictly work to be impartial and to exert no influence on the parties involved; the mediator is there to guide the parties to a peaceful resolution. [9] "Pure" mediators may often identify with Ury's "Getting Past No" (GPN). [7] They may identify with GPN due to the pushback from the other parties due to their "outsider" appearance. "Patron" mediators experience high power and low stakes. An example of a "patron" mediator comes to us from the business world in the form of Angel Investors and Seed Accelerator venture capital firms. These investors have significant power, often in the shape of influence, personal networks, and private capital. They can lift a new business up quickly. They also, often, have little stake in the companies, investing small amounts money (or no money) to act as mediators between these enterprises and the larger business world. While more commonly they are advisors and facilitators, there are examples of Seed Accelerators such as Y Combinator whose primary purpose is to act as mediators between start-ups and the larger venture capital market. [12] The final quadrant we call the "passion" mediators. "Passion" mediators are categorized by their low power and high stakes. The best example may be Martti Ahtisaari himself. Martti comes to negotiations often through his organization CMI, which while highly respected in the international community, does not wield any traditional power. Instead, third parties award them power. However, their personal beliefs create BATNAs in their minds that result in high stakes. These individuals heavily value peace and justice. They are most likely followers of Ury's "Getting to Yes" (GTY) principles for integrative negotiations. "Passion" mediators like Ahtisaari are fascinating in that their personal incentives are not in line with most other mediators. Using Ahtisaari as a model, we will spend the remainder of this paper examining these "passion" mediators and their use of reputation to build trust. We will also consider their personal BATNAs and the influence it has on the mediator's stakes.

Relationships in Negotiations

I cannot make a mediation process 'pregnant' in the sense of bearing the fruit of peace. The parties themselves must do this. If the parties genuinely are ready for the birth of a peace process then a mediator can be the midwife, so to speak.

- Martti Ahtisaari on the Aceh Peace Negotiations [5]

We believe successful mediators must focus on building relationships between not only themselves and the parties involved in negotiations, but they must also work to create the relationships between the parties. As Ahtisaari affirms in the above quote, mediators cannot bring about conclusions themselves; they can merely act as agents that help individuals find solutions together. Lewicki, Barry, and Saunders describe the key elements for managing negotiations within relationships as reputation, trust, and justice. [6] Without a strong sense of these three pillars, a mediator cannot successfully help "birth" resolution. The first element, reputation, is paramount in high-stakes mediation. The mediator cannot be someone without a solid reputation. If they are, the parties involved are likely not to trust the mediator, or believe that he or she can bring about the justice they feel reasonable. Asked about being contacted in 1999 by GAM, Ahtisaari admits that he does not remember this, saying that it was a busy time [5]. This interaction shows clearly the high reputation that GAM and the Indonesian government had of him. It also indicates that Ahtisaari’s reputation did not wane in the six-year interim between initial contact and joining the peace process. This type of status is of great value to a mediator. It allows them to capture power and shows an automatic trust and acceptance of justice from the third parties.

As stated earlier, the second element of relationships, trust, is often a benefit given to the mediator by the third parties due to their current reputation. Freely given trust is a benefit only of "patron" mediators, we posit. The other forms of mediation, regardless of status, may not immediately receive trust due to a perceived misalignment of incentives. A "power" mediator may be viewed as a bully, while a "patron" mediator may seem aloof and not intimately tied to the third parties. Finally, the "pure" mediator may be taken weak, and an outsider. This high reputation, but little trust breeds mistrust between the third parties and the mediator. Kydd describes mistrust as what, "arises when actors are uncertain about whether the other side prefers to reciprocate cooperation or exploit it." [15] This applies to the "power" and "patron" mediators. They hold large amounts of authority compared to the negotiating parties. Meanwhile, the "pure" mediators are not so much actively mistrusted but are instead of an unknown trust level. In the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, "passion" mediators are known knowns, "pure" mediators are known unknowns, and "power" and "patron" mediators are unknown unknowns.

The final element of relationships in negotiations is justice. Justice is the ability of a mediator to bring "fair" results to the negotiation. [6] Kydd described mistrust as, "a form of uncertainty that can cause conflict but is susceptible to mediation." [15] The way that mediators remove this mistrust is through the fair usage of justice. In Ahtisaari's interview, he shows twice how he uses justice to help mediate peace. First, he describes of learning of atrocities committed in Aceh and how he "strongly advised" the offending parties removed before negotiation could continue smoothly. [5] This type of justice shows a mediator recognizing an issue that both sides agree separately needs to stop, but without the mediator, would require concessions and compromises to continue a negotiation. Through the mediator's trust, built by their reputation, both parties agree to something without the traditional back-and-forth of the negotiation table. This action is perceived as "fair" by all sides and is instrumental in moving forward with peace. The second example of justice by Ahtisaari in the Aceh Peace Negotiations came from his underlying principle he made both parties agree to, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." [5] This form of justice shows both sides that Ahtisaari was not going to let either party get an advantage or gain a key concession until the parties had agreed to the MoU. This principle allowed GAM and the Indonesian government to negotiate in good faith throughout the entire process. We have wondered how the Oil Pricing negotiation simulation performed in class would have worked out had the first meeting between teams involved a "passion" mediator.

Mediators' BATNAs

We have to keep in mind why we are in this business. It is to solve problems.

- Martti Ahtisaari on the Aceh Peace Negotiations [5]

As believers in the power of incentives to drive individuals, we have struggled to understand the personal BATNAs of "passion" mediators. "Power" and "patron" mediators have easy to comprehend BATNAs. Their incentives push them towards economic gains, both in the physical and personal capital, which drive them to help solve the conflict they are mediating. The "pure" mediators BATNA is also strong. Due to their low power and stakes, they are free to "walk away" from third parties who are not willing to negotiate. In a sense, they have nothing to lose. Why then, do "passion" mediators appear to have such weak BATNAs, which moves them to seek a solution to some of the hardest negotiation problems? We believe it comes down to what Ahtisaari says above; they are in the business to solve problems. More specifically, they feel a personal obligation to solve these terrible problems. Perhaps they believe that if they do not, no one else will. Another option may be that they gain immense personal satisfaction from the mediation of these difficult negotiations. We cannot make conclusions about this presently and consider this an open avenue for future research.


Throughout this paper, we have tried to break down the roles of power, reputation, and personal BATNAs of mediators and how their various levels can change the effectiveness of mediator. We believe that mediators who do not recognize these roles and actively manage them will lose their ability to mediate properly. As Firth concludes, "it is more useful to reserve the term 'mediator' for such specific roles, and to adopt another term, such as intermediary or liaison agent, to indicate the more general roles." [1] We believe this is true; mediators are not mediating if they are not cognizant of these roles and their personal incentives that affect the third party's perceptions of the mediator. However, we do admit a significant amount of bias and presumption in the preceding sections and believe further research and studies would need to be made to gauge the effect of role on mediated negotiations.


  1. Firth, Raymond. "A Note on Mediators." Ethnology 4.4 (1965): 386. Web.
  2. "ACEH PEACE PROCESS FOLLOW-UP PROJECT." (2012): n. pag. The Aceh Peace Process Follow-up Project. CMI, 2012. Web.
  3. "CMI - Peace Broker." CMI. n.p., n.d. Web.
  4. Salancik, G. R., and J. Pfeffer. "Constraints on Administrator Discretion: The Limited Influence of Mayors on City Budgets." Urban Affairs Review 12.4 (1977): 475-98. Web.
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  8. Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving in. New York, NY: Penguin, 1991. Print.
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