De-escalating Gestures

Louis Kriesberg

September 2003

Interrupting an intractable conflict is difficult. Even if a person or group on one side of an intractable conflict wishes to act in a way that might end, transform, limit, or otherwise mitigate the conflict, doing so safely and effectively is fraught with risks. People on the other side, having become angry, mistrustful, and fearful are likely to reject the overture as a trick or otherwise misunderstand it. Some people in the same camp as those attempting the de-escalating move are not likely to support it either. They may brand the attempted peacemaker a "traitor," or at least "misguided."

Nevertheless, de-escalating initiatives are often critical in transforming intractable conflicts so they become more manageable, and eventually resolved. For example, in October 1978, the President of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat, offered to go to Israel and speak to the Knesset if invited. This ran contrary to all other Arab policy. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, all Arab governments had refused official recognition of Israel and had avoided direct official contacts. Sadat was quickly invited and was warmly greeted by Israeli officials and by enthusiastic crowds.[1] Bilateral negotiations then began, but they soon reached a stalemate. Nevertheless, with the mediation of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a peace treaty was reached and signed in 1979 and it has held ever since.

In this essay, first, the various kinds of conciliatory gestures are mapped out and examined as part of different strategies. Second, we discuss the factors that affect undertaking disarming behavior, including the external structure, internal developments, and changes in the adversarial relations. Third, the effectiveness of various de-escalating actions is analyzed.

Kinds of Disarming Behavior

The focus here is on initiatives undertaken by members of one side and presented to the other, as a step in transforming or ending the conflict between them. These may be dramatic unilateral acts, such as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, or they may be unilateral public expressions acknowledging past errors or signaling a readiness to make concessions. The actions may be carefully orchestrated and jointly executed; others are conducted privately and in an exploratory manner. The gestures frequently are elements in a sequence of actions, constituting a broad strategy. In this section, the various kinds of conciliatory gestures are differentiated and examples are provided, but the gestures' effectiveness will be assessed in the concluding section.

Assertions made in speeches by representatives of one side, directed at the opposing side, are one of the most frequent kinds of de-escalating acts. The assertions often are peace proposals or the proffering of concessions. During the Cold War, officials of the United States and of the Soviet Union often made proposals for disarmament and for arms control, which typically were dismissed as self-serving propaganda by the other side. Indeed, neither side anticipated a positive response, prior to the Soviet Union's acquisition of substantial nuclear capability and the mutual scare of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.[2]

Some speeches express regard for the other side and to some degree acknowledge responsibility for the ongoing conflict. Although the speech of President John F. Kennedy at American University in June 1963 contained Cold-War rhetoric, it also conveyed much that was transforming. He said, "Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Cold War individuals and as a Nation -- for our attitude is as essential as theirs... We are not here distributing blame or pointing the finger of judgment. We must deal with the world as it is."[3] Kennedy went on to declare a unilateral halt to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and to announce that discussions would soon begin in Moscow for a comprehensive nuclear test-ban agreement. In August 1963, those negotiations resulted in the U.S., Soviet, and British representatives signing the limited nuclear test-ban agreement.

Conciliatory gestures sometimes are made in a private and exploratory fashion, either directly or through intermediaries. Thus, prior to the American University speech, unofficial conversations with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, paved the way for the exchange of conciliatory gestures that would eventuate in the agreement. Prior to Sadat's startling visit to Jerusalem, secret exchanges between Egypt and Israel included a meeting in Morocco between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and a high aide of Sadat, Hassan Touhamy.[4]

Disarming behavior is often conducted at non-official levels as well as between the primary leaders of the opposing sides. This behavior often takes the form of meetings and exchanges of views, but also provides the opportunity to explore possible ways out of the intractable conflict. Intermediaries or quasi-mediators coming from one side sometimes facilitate such encounters. Thus, during the conflict to end apartheid in South Africa, meetings between leaders of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and white leaders in the media, business, religion, education, and other spheres were conducted outside of South Africa. The first was a meeting of ANC officials and Afrikaner newspaper editors held in December 1984; it was facilitated by Hendrik W. van der Merwe, an Afrikaner and director of the Centre for Intergroup Studies in Capetown.[5]

De-escalating moves sometimes take the form of carrying out cooperative acts, or of modifying conduct that might have been viewed as threatening or hostile by the other side. Such an act was the South African government's unconditional release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990, after 27 years in prison. As another example, the final transformation of the Cold War began soon after Mikhail Gorbachev became the new head of the Communist Party and of the Soviet government, in 1985.[6] He undertook policies of domestic openness and modified the Soviet military posture so that it would be more clearly defensive.

This discussion indicates that de-escalating acts are often linked together in a sequence, their effectiveness depending in part on the nature of the connections among several actions. Two important linkage strategies deserve attention here. One is Graduated Reciprocation In Tension-reduction (GRIT)[7], and the other is a Tit-For-Tat (TFT) strategy.[8] In the GRIT strategy, one of the parties in a conflict unilaterally initiates a series of cooperative moves; these are announced and reciprocity is invited, but the conciliatory moves are continued for an extended period, even without immediate reciprocity. In the TFT strategy one party initiates a cooperative act and then simply reciprocates the other party's actions, whether a cooperative or a non-cooperative action.

Analysts have tried to assess these strategies by examining actual de-escalating interactions, particularly in the protracted United States-Soviet conflict. For example, Amitai Etzioni has interpreted the de-escalation in American-Soviet antagonism in 1963 as an illustration of the GRIT strategy.[9]

The GRIT and TFT strategies were compared by Joshua S. Goldstein and John R. Freeman in an analysis of reciprocity in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC), and between the Soviet Union and the PRC, for the period 1948-89.[10] Ironically, GRIT was proposed as a strategy to be undertaken by the U.S. government to break out of the Cold War, but a Soviet leader undertook its most spectacular enactment, conducting what Goldstein and Freeman call super-GRIT. It led, they say, to normalized relations with China. It also transformed relations with the United States, although initially, as the Soviets offered concessions, U.S. demands were raised.

Factors Affecting the Escalation Progress

The probability that disarming behaviors will take place, and the likelihood that they will actually contribute to reducing a conflict's intractability, depend on many factors.[11] Those factors pertain to the external setting, the developments within each side, and the changes in the adversaries' relationship.

The external context includes the engagement of various intermediaries, the significance of other conflicts, and changes in regional or global norms and power relations. For example, surprising as Sadat's visit to Jerusalem was, it followed several developments that made it possible.[12] First, external structural changes were important in this case as in other conflict transformations. When Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970, he soon began to shift from Egypt's reliance upon the Soviet Union to win support from the United States. The United States, beginning to view Egypt in the Western camp, could be a trusted intermediary in Egypt's relations with Israel. Indeed following the 1973 war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mediated two agreements between Egypt and Israel, entailing partial withdrawals from the Sinai, which Israel had occupied after the 1967 war. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he quickly moved to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and tried to organize a regional peace conference. As these efforts floundered, Sadat decided to take his bold initiative and have the United States as a full partner.

Internal changes within one side in an intractable conflict are also important in giving support to a leader who would undertake de-escalating actions toward an adversary. Moreover, that support would lend credibility to the actions for the members of the other side. Thus, in South Africa, the whites' increased sense of apartheid's immorality, economic costs, and long-term impracticality lent support to initiatives for a new relationship with non-whites.

Finally, changes in the relationship between adversaries contribute greatly to de-escalating initiatives and their reciprocation. One important aspect of the relationship is the belief by each side that it cannot defeat the other and each finds the ongoing conflict painful.[13] In such a hurting stalemate, de-escalating actions may seem to provide a way to a better option and are likely to be so regarded by the adversary. A better option is a joint solution to the problems posed by the conflict. Some changes within one or more sides, which affect their relationship, may raise the plausibility of such joint solutions. Changes may arise from a sense that the adversaries are increasingly challenged by a shared external threat, or that they both will suffer devastatingly from persisting in their ever more destructive conflict. A joint solution may also appear attractive when the adversaries can envisage substantial gains from new economic, political, or other opportunities, as the success of the European Union has done for adversaries in Northern Ireland and in Spain.

Effectiveness of Disarming Behaviors

However promising the external, internal, and relationship factors may be for disarming behaviors, their effectiveness also depends on their specific qualities. Some actions may be inappropriate for the circumstances and be poorly executed, so that they are not supported by the relevant constituencies, are not reciprocated, or even exacerbate the conflict. If effective, de-escalating gestures are often a prelude to formal negotiations, agreements, and new institutions marking the transformation of an intractable conflict.

Mitchell suggests several features of gestures that increase the likelihood of successful conciliation:[14]

  • the gesture represents a major change from the past;
  • it is novel;
  • it fits into the target's orientation;
  • it is made in an undeniable manner;
  • it involves costs and risks for the initiator;
  • it is made unconditionally and voluntarily;
  • it is made so that it would be difficult or impossible to reverse; and
  • it is structured so that the other side can easily respond positively.

In addition, attention needs to be given to the appropriate channel for conveying the gesture.

A single gesture alone does not suffice to end or even interrupt an intractable conflict. Its effectiveness depends on prior and subsequent actions, which should be consistent with the intended message of the gesture. Effectiveness is more likely if the gesture is convincing and appears to be widely supported and binding for the future.


Conciliatory gestures are often necessary to interrupt an ongoing intractable conflict and to help bring about its transformation. However, they are not easy to carry out effectively. Their success depends on many factors pertaining to the external context, the internal conditions, and the relations between the adversaries.

The actions also must be appropriate to the conditions and the capacities of the person or group undertaking the initiatives. The actions should seem fresh and fitting to the particularities of the situation. They are not without risk to the initiators, and indeed that risk enhances the chances of success.

Finally, the impacted character of an intractable conflict and the many people with reasons and feelings that help sustain it, mean that no one person or group can succeed in ending or transforming it without the cooperation and support of many other people over an extended period of time. The initiatives can be undermined by outside actors, constituents, and of course some of the opponents. Those people who would stop the early transforming moves need to be countered, isolated, or won over.

[1] Louis Kriesberg, International Conflict Resolution: The US-USSR and Middle East Cases (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) and Christopher Mitchell, Gestures of Conciliation: Factors Contributing to Successful Olive Branches (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000)

[2] Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race (New York: Pantheon, 1982)

[3] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 901-902.

[4] William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

[5] Hendrik van der Merwe, Peacemaking in South Africa: A Life in Conflict Resolution (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2000)

[6] Kriesberg (1992)

[7] Charles E. Osgood, An Alternative to War or Surrender (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962)

[8] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984)

[9] Amitai Etzioni, "The Kennedy Experiment," The Western Political Quarterly 20 (1967): 361-380.

[10] Joshua S. Goldstein and John R. Freeman, Three-Way Street: Strategic Reciprocity in World Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990)

[11] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd Ed (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)

[12] Kriesberg (1992)

[13] Saadia Touval and I. William Zartman, International Mediation in Theory and Practice (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985)

[14] Christopher Mitchell, Gestures of Conciliation: Factors Contributing to Successful Olive Branches (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 285-286.

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "De-escalating Gestures." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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