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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Breaking down the modes of interstate interaction

Peacemaking comes in many forms. Many tend to think of things like mediating between warring parties or dispatching peacekeepers to pacify a postwar environment. While those are certainly important, a different form of peacemaking is a never-ending task for diplomats and other government practitioners who seek to mitigate an outbreak of open conflict between their countries and others. For practitioners, maintaining peace means managing the interactions and interests that could fuel an escalation to hostilities. Those interactions occur across a spectrum that runs from war through the the negative peace to a positive peace. Within that spectrum, there are five fundamental ways that states interact, each with their own bounded sets of interests. Some of those interests overlap while others do not. This spectrum is depicted in the figure below:

To break this down further, let's first examine the differences between war, negative peace, and positive peace War is a state of open hostilities. It is the most violent and horrific form of interaction that can exist between countries short of outright genocide. A negative peace is simply the absence of conflict. It is a raw, tenuous form of peace.

Meanwhile, a positive peace is where relationships, linkages, and sentiments exist that render the thought of using military force to resolve disputes or achieve one's interests as inconceivable.

Thus, for peacemakers, the ultimate goal is to find a way to foster a positive peace between potential parties to conflict.

With those definitions in mind, we can look at the different modes of interaction. 

The first is competition. Competition occurs between almost all states that interact with each other, even the staunchest of allies. For example, the United States and Japan were simultaneously engaged in fierce trade wars in the eighties and nineties while remaining steadfast security partners. States can compete but still have cordial relations because not all competition lends itself to the use of military force, and states may have interests rooted in cooperation and coordination with each other. 

Cooperation is when unilateral actions converge for mutual achievement of a common objective. Importantly, cooperation does not necessarily mean the existence of a positive peace among states. For example, Russia and the United States cooperate in a wide array of activities (e.g. arms control and counter-terrorism) but are still engaged in competition that could potentially fuel conflict.

Coordination differs from cooperation in that the interaction is not simply the outcome of converging interests and unilateral actions taken toward a common goal. This is a higher form of cooperation wherein both sides have a mutually agreed-upon vision or objective and work together to achieve that goal. A contemporary example is the goal of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" with involvement from countries like Australia, India, Japan, the United States, and certain other middle powers.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there may be interests vis-à-vis competition that overlap with those tied to crisis and conflict. An example is illustrative: Two states are engaged in a dispute over a border territory with lucrative natural resources. Both states claim sovereignty over the borderlands and compete to gain control of those resources. The drive to compete overlaps with the incentive to invade and occupy the other side's territory, and an incident on the border could spark a crisis that either side might seek to exploit. In this case, competition does not necessarily lead to war, but it could.

Between competition and conflict is crisis. There are few examples in modern history where parties to conflict have jumped directly to open hostilities without first experiencing a moment of crisis. The initiation of that crisis can be accidental or intentional, but it represents a unique form of interaction with its own characteristics. Crisis, if unmanaged, often leads conflict. The final mode of interaction is militarized conflict. Conflict does not automatically mean a transition to a formal state of war, but it certainly could if the parties do not find a path to de-escalation and conciliation.

So, what does this all mean for peacemakers?

First, it is important for peacemakers to recognize the various modes of interaction and look for agreements and opportunities that foster cooperation and coordination while disincentivizing conflict, managing crisis, and channeling competition into non-violent arenas. For example, peace agreements can declare specific areas of cooperation and prescribe action related to them. They can build coordination mechanisms for information sharing and dialogue. They may also set rules for the different modes of interaction. Finally, they can impose third party oversight for managing competition, crisis, and potential conflict.

Second, peacemakers must seek to understand as much as possible the interests associated with the different modes of interaction. One cannot guarantee that policymakers are conscious of all the potential interests at play, and they may be more focused on a single mode of interaction that obscures the potential benefits of others. For peacemakers, they should be able to answer the question of what interests cooperation, coordination, and peaceful competition could satisfy, because there is never a guarantee that someone else will.

Finally, understanding this spectrum of interaction reinforces the principle that peace is a process. One cannot simply content him or herself with achieving a cessation of hostilities. The existence of a negative peace still presents the risk of a backslide to war, especially if the nature of competition tilts countries in that direction. While one should never erode the foundational conditions that prevent an outbreak of hostilities, additional measures are necessary to build upon that foundation in fostering cooperation and coordination with the ultimate aim of achieving a positive peace.

Cable No 8_Breaking down the modes of interstate interaction
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