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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

How past wars were settled

As we endeavor to understand how to end conflict and achieve peace today, it behooves us to look at how others have done it in the past. This is especially important when examining conflict between countries, since there are some unique characteristics in resolving interstate war.


Those characteristics include the fact that there are international legal considerations and the absence of an overarching authority that can provide an enforcement mechanism. Thus, it is incumbent upon the parties to conflict to employ whatever legal tools they have and implement the terms of any peace agreements themselves.


There are several types of peace agreements recognized under the United Nations system. There are peace treaties, interim agreements, bounded agreements, framework agreements, declarations, joint statements, and communiques. The choice for which type of agreement to pursue is left to the respective governments who must decide what is acceptable based on their respective interests vis-a-vis the level of formality and ratification requirements.


While there are many examples from which to choose, there are seven useful representatives.


World War I

Many will recall the famous quote, "On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent." This referenced the cessation of hostilities in World War I, per the Armistice that was signed the morning of 11 November 1918 in a railway car in the Compiègne forest. That was the day the fighting stopped, but not technically when the peace was settled.


The peace agreement that officially concluded World War I came on 28 June 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. There were 66 signatories to the agreement representing 32 countries.


World War II (Pacific Theater)

Some might argue that the war in the Pacific theater ended three times. The first time was when the Japanese Emperor Hirohito issued the Imperial Rescript on Surrender on 15 August 1945. The second was the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS MISSOURI on 2 September 1945. The third, lesser-known time came six years later on 8 September 1951, when Japan and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Peace in San Francisco.


Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese government, 2 September 1945


Arab-Israeli War (Israel & Jordan)

In the late 1940s, Israel was engaged in a multi-front war with several Arab states, one of which was Jordan. In 1949, Israel and Jordan signed an Armistice Agreement, but the two countries would experience intermittent conflict for the next several decades. It was not until 26 October 1994 that the two countries settled the political issues needed to conclude a permanent diplomatic peace treaty.


Some may wonder what took so long to achieve diplomatic resolution of Israeli-Jordanian conflict, but examination of the peace treaty reveals some of the political issues that the two sides needed to resolve. The 75-page peace treaty includes all of the standard provisions one might expect (territory and borders, normalization of relations, etc.), but also includes things like water rights and engagement on issues related to Jerusalem--holy ground for both countries.


Sino-Indian Border War

Following the end of World War II and the achievement of independence, the Indian government looked favorably at prospects with its neighbor in China. However, the two countries had disputed territory. To mitigate any issues, the two countries signed the "Agreement (with exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India" on 28 April 1954. In 1959, the Chinese government designated a "Line of Actual Control" within the disputed territory, which served as a de facto boundary line.


This attempt to manage the territorial dispute succeeded for a few years until the first major conflict between India and China in 1962. After a month of fighting and thousands dead or wounded on both sides, the Chinese reestablished positions at their claimed "Line of Actual Control."


There was no formal peace agreement in 1962; rather, the first major peace deal came on 7 September 1993. "The Agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Area" was the first diplomatic attempt to establish a rule-set for the opposing military forces. Since then, the two governments have since concluded three additional agreements bounded to the border issue.


To note, the Line of Actual Control continues to be a flash point today, with the most recent clash occurring in Galwan in June 2020 resulting in 20 Indian deaths and (reportedly) more than 40 Chinese casualties.


Indian and Chinese forces square off in footage released from the June 2020 Galwan Clash


Vietnam War

The decades-long war between the United States and North Vietnam ended with the signing of the “Agreement on Ending the War in Vietnam” (also known as the “Paris Peace Accords”) on 27 January 1973. The negotiations took place over the course of five years--in secret up until 1972--and involved the highest levels of negotiators from the United States and North Vietnam. Included in the agreement were provisions for securing a follow-on peace deal between North and South Vietnam that never materialized.


By May 1973, North Vietnamese leaders had already decided to retake South Vietnam by force and decided that they would justify such an action by claiming U.S. and South Vietnamese violation of the accords. When the U.S. government was unable to get congressional appropriations for implementing the accords as designed, it gave North Vietnam a viable excuse. By March 1975, just two years after the signing of the accords, North Vietnamese forces initiated an all-out assault against the South, formally reunifying the country under Communist rule by July.


Persian Gulf War

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the UN Security Council authorized member-states to exercise collective security to repulse Iraqi forces and restore peace in the area. The war between Iraq and coalition forces lasted less than a year and did not end with an interstate Peace agreement. Instead, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687 that offered the provisions for a concluded peace between Iraq, Kuwait, and the multinational coalition that came to Kuwait's aid.


Afghan War

After nearly two decades of fighting, the United States concluded its involvement in the Afghan War with the "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America." Like the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan included provisions for concluding a follow-on peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government that never happened.


U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan in Doha, 29 February 2020


* * * * *


This survey offers a few key takeaways.


1. There is no single way to end a war. In this small sampling alone, there was a broad multilateral peace treaty, a peace treaty including only belligerents in the war, a bounded peace agreement, a bilateral peace treaty, and a UN Security Council resolution, among others.


2. History offers many examples of how to settle conflict, some better than others. Of the seven examples, three agreements eventually failed, with the parties to the agreement completely abandoning their obligations to their respective deals.


3. There is often a gap between the cessation of hostilities and the achievement of a permanent diplomatic peace. While parties to conflict may be able to achieve a negative peace (meaning the absence of war), resolving all of the political issues requires additional negotiation and conciliation--a process that can take far more time than negotiating a cessation of hostilities.


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