The long catalogue of stuttering negotiations and failed mediation that litters the history of the Middle East and South Asia should validate the argument that third-party arbitration stands only the slimmest chance of success. But who would object to the making of that effort? Surely there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by trying?
In fact, Kyle Beardsley, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, strongly objects. In his scholarly new book The Mediation Dilemma, Beardsley claims, counterintuitively, that mediation is almost always doomed to failure in the long term, although it may produce short-term success.
"Mediation can decrease the incentives ... for belligerents to make the tough decisions necessary to fully resolve their conflicts," he writes.
Beardsley's main argument is that mediators take the onus off the combatants, perhaps by boosting the weaker side or easing the way with inducements. Then, once an agreement is signed, the mediators don't stay around to police it.
Success would be more long-lasting, the author asserts, if the opponents reached an accord on their own. When arbitration is involved, as he writes, "actors may not be able to learn enough about the capabilities and resolve of their opponents to bargain with better clarity".
There are other problems, as well. "Insincere" parties can use negotiations as a stalling tactic, buying time while they rearm, rebuild, reorganise, or - as in the case of North Korea - secretly develop a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, combatants may be tempted to resist compromise, if they think the arbitrator will favour their side.
And if mediation is ineffective between two independent countries, it is disastrous within one country in a civil war, the book claims. Probably the key reason is that the combatants "have to coexist within the same system of governance," on the same turf. They can't just go home and lick their wounds.
Beardsley concedes that third-party intermediaries can do some good. At the least, they can be an informal and formal channel of communication between opponents who will not publicly talk to one another. They can also provide political cover for unpopular concessions and suggest ideas that the antagonists may not have envisioned. Obviously, they prevent bloodshed, at least for the short term. And they can use a combination of sticks and carrots to push the two sides together, especially if the mediator has strong leverage, like the United States with Israel.
But when it comes to leverage, Beardsley also claims - again, counterintuitively - that the more leverage a mediator exerts, the less likely any agreement is to last, precisely because the pressure is imposed artificially. "Without external leverage," he says, "the belligerents must reach an agreement that is mutually preferable to conflict."
Examples from the Middle East are by far the most common in Beardsley's pages.
Two instances of American mediation between Israel and Egypt - the Sinai disengagement agreement, overseen by Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the Camp David accords negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 - jointly constitute one of the three key case studies that Beardsley raises repeatedly to illustrate multiple points. (The other two are President Carter's solo intervention, by then as a private citizen, to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear programme in 1994, and President Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.)
Both Camp David and the Russo-Japanese agreements led to Nobel Peace Prizes for the major participants, although not for Carter. He would have to wait until 2002 to be honoured for his "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts."
Camp David is actually one of the rare instances that Beardsley considers a long-term mediation success story. That's because several unusual factors pushed the participants to maintain the accord - in particular, the close US-Israeli relationship.