top of page
  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

To shuttle, or not to shuttle?

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

As a result of the COVID19 pandemic, and the social distancing that entails, more and more mediators are engaging in shuttle mediation. But a few words of caution. Don’t let these rather extreme circumstances drive a process that can do more harm than good. Shuttle mediation is absolutely the correct course where the presence of the both parties will cause a visceral and unhelpful reaction that will undermine the conflict resolution process. A good example of this is where there has been harassment, physical sexual or racial abuse.

Shuttle mediation can also be effective where the power dynamic is heavily weighted in favour of one party. A dominant party may try to use a face-to-face meeting as an opportunity to threaten or scare the weaker party. If shuttling is used in these cases the weaker party may feel stronger and able to better able to convey his or her positions.

Even in less extreme cases, where parties have slipped into merely repeating their claims and counterclaims, or in the very early stages of the process, a face-to-face meeting can make the parties even more entrenched than they would have been without such a meeting.

In cases where a face-to-face is likely to be counter-productive, or even dangerous for one or either of the parties’ shuttle-diplomacy (or shuttle mediation) may be the only viable solution.

In shuttle mediation the mediator’s role is to convey information back and forth between the parties, serving as a reliable means of communication less susceptible to the grandstanding of face-to-face, media-based, or lawyer-led communication. By using an intermediary the parties will be able to fight a war with words, and don’t have to be guarded about the facts as they see them or their true motives and aims. Even if “shuttle sessions” turn highly emotional, and include venting against the other party, each participant can trust the mediator to convey only the substantively important issues across the hallway, while excluding statements that would trigger an unproductive reaction. By removing the highly charged feelings that come along with, say, divorce and custody cases, shuttle mediation allows for a more neutral fact-based conversation.

The mediator not only passes on questions and answers but can also make helpful suggestions to each party (privately) on how the conflict can be moved forward to a resolution. Of course, the mediator may only pass on information that the party has agreed that s/he can convey.

That said, shuttle mediation is certainly more time-intensive than holding joint sessions with parties present. It is also fraught with risk for the mediator as s/he can very easily be sucked into the dispute in the role of ‘the rescuer’ in the so-called ‘drama triangle’.

It’s useful to have a look at the history of shuttle diplomacy to find examples of where it’s worked, and what the possible pitfalls might be for mediators in using it.

Since the earliest days of civilisation wars have been brought to a halt through third party intervention. But shuttle diplomacy between countries has become more commonplace with the advent of modern transportation and technologies such as the telegraph telex, telephone, and now the internet. This is because, in complex international disputes, unless the intermediary can pass communications between the parties in real or near-real time, s/he is likely to be overtaken by events on the ground.

So, how did it work before international air travel, the internet, Zoom, and BlueJean?

In 1905, Russia and Japans’ fierce competition for control of Manchuria and Korea came to a head, when Japan launched a surprise torpedo attack on Russian ships at Port Arthur in Manchuria. So began the brief 3-week long Russo-Japanese war that left 100,000 dead or injured. As the battle raged Roosevelt quietly offered his services as a neutral go-between to explore a settlement that might end the dispute and save face for the Japanese and the Russians. Roosevelt invited delegations from both countries to join him for lunch on his yacht at Oyster Bay. Then Roosevelt cleverly had the delegations delivered to the meeting on two separate American warships – showing his power. During the ensuing roundtable discussions, he treated both sides with dignity, composure, and even-handedness. More than a passive host, Roosevelt stayed quietly but firmly involved in the proceedings. He lowered each side’s expectations, remained uncharacteristically patient with the usual diplomatic manoeuvring, and issued personal pleas to the rulers of both countries to end the conflict. It worked and the peace was secured - Teddy Roosevelt was awarded the first Nobel Prize for peace-making.

Another early 20th century proponent of Shuttle Diplomacy was the US Diplomat Colonel Edward House. In 1919 Italy withdrew from the Paris Peace Conference in protest at the other participants’ refusal to discuss Italy’s territorial claims over Yugoslavia. Faced with one of the major European players being absent from the talks to end WWI, House managed to get Italy to drop its demands by placing the Italian and Yugoslav delegates in separate rooms and brokering a compromise between the two.

In 1978 US President Jimmy Carter invited President Sadat of Egypt and Israel’s Prime Minister Begin to his country retreat, Camp David, to try to seal another Middle East peace deal. The meeting followed 14 months of painstaking pre-negotiations involving the Carter administration, the main parties and other key stakeholders in the region. This included a ground-breaking 3-day visit by President Sadat to speak at the Israeli parliament. From eye-witness accounts from Camp David it is clear that President Carter's relentless drive to achieve peace, and his reluctance to allow the two men to leave without reaching an agreement played a decisive role in the success of the talks. Carter was an accomplished mediator who arbitrated concessions with confidence, worked hard to find formulas, definitions, and solutions to the many intricate variables, regardless of perceived or real political limitations, and was capable of soothing fears and anxieties, always with the goal of keeping the negotiations going.

Israel’s Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian Premier Sadat had such mutual antipathy toward one another that they rarely had any direct contact during the talks. Begin was a particularly irascible character, who had been a guerrilla leader before Israel’s founding. According to those who were present, Carter spent days on end moving from Sadat’s cabin to Begin’s cabin, and vice versa. Carter worked on a single document, which he passed from one leader to the other. Subsequently, he carried proposals and counterproposals back and forth over the course of two weeks. Although negotiations seemed to be at an impasse several times, Carter eventually prevailed through his non-stop shuttle diplomacy. At one point, when the parties were in yet another stalemate, Carter took the two leaders to the nearby Gettysburg National Museum in order to show them how their present struggles were analogous to the American Civil War.

Shuttle diplomacy has subsequently become relatively common in dealing with tense international situations, such as in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, Wilkenfeld, Young, Asal & Quinn (2003) report that 30% of international crises between 1918 and 1996 were mediated at some point by a third party.

Although mediators can learn about conflict resolution from international conflicts, they are not identical to person-to-person conflicts. In particular meditators need to beware the risk of becoming manipulative when conducting shuttle mediation, especially where the parties are less sophisticated parties. Shuttle mediation can be very disempowering for the parties in dispute and can lead to any subsequent settlement being extremely fragile. Two shuttle mediation styles seem to be most common. One is what Touval & Zartman (1985) call facilitation communication meditation, or what Savun (2008) calls an information provision strategy. Here mediators work to facilitate the transfer of information between parties and the mediator “serves as a channel of communication as contact breaks down between the parties in dispute. For example, the mediator may act as a go-between to carry information, proposals, or concessions back and forth between the conflicting parties” (Kleiboer 1996). The Quakers, for example, used this method of mediation in the Sri Lanka conflict - simply carrying messages between the militant Tamil Tigers and the hardliner Singhalese politicians. The Quakers made it clear that they would do no more than facilitate the delivery of messages, without any input by them, and would withdraw if either side requested that they do so.

In some cases, a mediator may gather information independently about some objective factor relevant to the decision to settle. This is exemplified by US Secretary of State Robert Gates’ Mission during the 1990 Indo-Pakistan crisis. Here, during meetings with Pakistani and Indian leaders Robert Gates shared information taken from U.S. intelligence and ‘war gaming’ that provided convincing evidence about the short- and long-term consequences of war. The gist of Secretary Gates’ message to both sides was that a war would be to neither side’s advantage.

Mediator intervention can also be procedural, where the mediator acts as an agenda setter (Camina & Porteiro 2009) or is the exclusive source of settlement proposals, like in arbitration. Finally, the most powerful form of intervention is directive mediation, in which a mediator acts as an enforcer of agreements (Goltsman, Horner, Pavlov & Squintani 2009) or where the mediator gives selective incentives to settlement—often depending on the credible threat of punishment (Favretto 2009).

Henry Kissinger's Middle Eastern peace-making efforts of the early 1970s is a great example of shuttle-diplomacy which was both partial, self-serving and also manipulative. In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing Arab oil embargo, finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict became a high-priority in the international arena. Kissinger understood that following its defeat by Israel, Egypt was the weak link in the loose Arab coalition against Israel. Kissinger shuttled back and forth between Middle Eastern capitals for months. He cleverly managed to separate the short-term issues from longer-term problems between the warring parties. Kissinger's pivotal role as the intermediary allowed him to feign neutrality while secretly supporting the Israelis, and to turn the peace negotiations into a long series of small confidence-building steps which would give the appearance of progress that Egypt required to come to an agreement with Israel, but which would allow Israel to keep most of the Syrian and Palestinian land it gained after the 1967 Six-Day War. At the same time Kissinger served the interests of the US by keeping Soviet Russia – which hoped to increase its influence in the region – out of the talks.

Kissinger was also personally self-serving in his choice of a shuttle-diplomacy strategy. Between 1969 and 1973 the US was following a plan for Middle East peace drawn up by a political rival of Kissinger’s - William P. Rogers, who was Nixon’s then-Secretary of State. Rogers’ Plan emphasized a multilateral and comprehensive peace approach that advocated for UN 242’s land-for-peace deal. This involved the US taking a passive stance. The sharp pivot in US policy from UN 242 towards shuttle diplomacy after 1973 was a sign of Kissinger imposing his own distinctive diplomatic approach to the situation. Kissinger saw greater personal advantage in directly negotiating between the heads of Egypt and Israel, rather than being bogged down in slow-moving and multi-party UN politics. The pivot followed a prolonged campaign in which Kissinger undercut Rogers (for instance by personally advising Israel’s Golda Meir not to accept the Rogers’ plan) and undermined Nixon’s faith in Rogers. In this way Kissinger was able to create a political and bureaucratic environment where he was seen as the architect of the peace, rather than Rogers, or the UN. It also freed Kissinger from the constraints of having to work in collaboration with other world powers, or the bureaucratic UN. It had the added benefit of portraying Kissinger to Sadat and Begin as someone who spoke directly for the US, who could broker a deal, and was comfortable dealing with ambiguity.

The resulting 1973 Israel / Egypt peace treaty was viewed many in the Arab world as serving only the US, Israel and Egypt’s interests, but was equally unpopular with many in Israel. The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted, but the Middle East remains as fractured as ever.

In April 1982 US Secretary of State Alexander Haig acted as an ostensibly ‘honest broker’ shuttling between the UK and Argentinian Governments in the run up to the Falklands War. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth. Negotiations broke down between the UK and Argentina, and Haig returned to Washington shortly before Britain sent a naval taskforce to the South Atlantic. In December 2012, long after the Falklands War documents released under the UK’s "30 Year Rule" disclosed that Haig had planned to reveal British’s secret battle plans to Argentina in advance of the recapture of the island. In doing so, Haig wanted to show the Argentine government that the US was genuinely neutral and could be trusted to act impartially during negotiations to end the conflict. Had Haig revealed Britain’s invasion plans the result could have been much different, and certainly bloodier. If that weren’t bad enough - from classified documents recently released from the Reagan Library it is clear that Haig was also trying to persuade President Reagan to side with the Argentinians in the conflict.

So mediators, do be careful when using shuttle #mediation: - Ensure you have express authority to pass on information to the other party; - Make sure you know exactly how the party conveying the information wants it presented to the other side; - Resist the temptation to “fill in the gaps”; - Shuttle as quickly as possible. Any time delay could be perceived negatively by the recipient of the information; - Though it shouldn’t have to be said….don’t be partial or manipulative.

526 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page