The International Wingman: A Case for Soft Power Mediation

I remember peering at Dadaji from the corner of our wholesale store in Ambikapur. He sat upright on his gaddi, opposite two FURIOUS men. They refused to talk to each other but were willing to discuss their issues with my grandfather. After a good long conversation, he gave them each some advice and they left, their faces neither happy nor sad. Just calm, satiated. Quite a contrast from the angry grin they came in with. 15 years on, I now understand that I’d witnessed mediation, albeit small-scale, but comprising the true essence of the famously mediated Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.


Originating in ancient Greece, mediation is almost as old as human civilization. Roman Law finds several mentions of mediators: generally wise men, kings and tribal chiefs. Their basic function was to get disputing parties to communicate and help them reach an amicable settlement. The disputes handled were mostly minor and personal.

For a long time, mediation kept its original form. The judicial systems handled important cases and mediation persisted as the wallflower. It remained a voluntary exercise, with the mediator being a person commanding considerable respect, power and love in the community. There were a few instances of big-dispute mediation (1648 Treaty of Westphalia), but they were limited.

The Hague Conference in 1899 was a watershed moment. It laid down mediation as a first step “in case of serious disagreement or conflict, before an appeal to arms”. The role of the mediator was clearly laid down as “reconciling opposing claims and appeasing feelings of resentment”. The mediator was to be one/more friendly power(s), strangers to the dispute, and somebody who could be trusted to directly communicate with the parties. The mediation was only advisory and did not have binding force. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was set up as a recourse when a problem could not be settled by diplomacy (which includes mediation). Here, arbitration was clearly distinguished as a more formal, codified method of dispute resolution.


Several inter-state conflicts (mostly political power struggles) often took the shape of military war. With the rising dominance of The United States of America and The European Union, mediation became prominent in solving these disputes. Let’s see why:

For starters, they could draw on their soft power to get other states to comply. They had attractive, flourishing economies. Their iconoclastic cultures, right from the popularity of jeans to the idea of a democracy, were a huge attraction for the rest of the world. Countries aspired to be like them and hence were willing to listen, taking it as a guide to achieving what the US and the EU had achieved. Their power seemed legitimate and encountered low resistance. This soft power was hard to measure but had been crucial to mediation since its beginning.

That said, the mediators possessed tremendous hard power too i.e. the ability to force their decisions via military threats and sanctions. But it wasn’t a sufficient criterion for being called upon to mediate. Beyond a minimum tangible strength, soft power was always a greater draw.

Lately, however, the dynamics seem to be changing………

Hard power is becoming an increasingly dominant narrative. The US is imposing sanctions, engaging in trade wars, and threatening nations with both military and economic consequences for not obeying. And they’re not alone. The “hubris of soft power” is believed to be breaking down. The Palestine Commission, India-Pakistan commission and even the Korea Commission mediations have fallen apart. Mediations in Sudan and Somalia haven’t done very well either.

But history is a testament to the consequences of employing hard power for dispute resolution. We’ve had two barbaric world wars, a very long and draining cold war and far too many battles. Not all that’s old is gold. It is important to bring back soft power mediation. Mediation may have failed at times, but on the whole, has been very successful in solving both personal and some international disputes. The end of the 16-year war in Mozambique, the Camp Davis Accords mediated by the US, and the Good Friday Agreement are testimonies to its incredible success.

Mediation’s USP is that it is not a red-taped judiciary. It’s not thump-and-forget. It is meant to be a forward-looking method of fixing the root cause of a conflict. It helps parties resolve underlying differences and have cordial relations long into the future. This is only possible when the threat of hard power gives way to the development of mutual trust. Countries too would do well by trying to develop their diplomacies around respect, love and faith. It is the only reliable way to get through the uncertain geopolitics of today and exercise positive control over global events.

PS- The Singapore Convention on Mediation is being described as a breakthrough in this arena. The quick-signing by several countries is a sign that the countries are learning to engage in multilateral dispute transformation.

Trying to figure out if I should be trying to figure out my life.