Bargaining in intrastate conflicts: The shifting role of ceasefires

Date01 November 2021
Publication Date01 November 2021
AuthorSiniša Vuković,Valerie Sticher
SubjectRegular Articles
Bargaining in intrastate conflicts:
The shifting role of ceasefires
Valerie Sticher
Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University & ETH Zurich
ˇa Vukovic
School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University & Faculty of Governance and Global
Affairs, Leiden University
Research shows that conflict parties engage in ceasefires in pursuit of a variety of objectives, some of which reduce
while others fuel violent conflict. This article provides a framework that links these objectives to a larger process.
Building on bargaining theory, three distinct bargaining contexts are specified for intrastate conflicts. In the Dimin-
ishing Opponent context, leaders believe that a military solution yields a better outcome than a political settlement.
In the Forcing Concessions context, they recognize the benefit of conflict settlement, but expectations about a
mutually acceptable agreement still widely diverge. In the Enabling Agreement context, expectations converge, and
leaders seek to pursue settlement without incurring further costs. In line with these readings, conflict party leaders
adapt their strategic goal, from seeking to set up a military advantage, to boosting their bargaining power, to
increasing the chances of a negotiated settlement. They may use ceasefires in the pursuit of any of these three goals,
shifting the function of a ceasefire as they gain a better understanding of bargaining dynamics. A comparison of
violence and ceasefire patterns in six contemporary peace processes and a congruence test conducted on the 2012–16
peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerilla organization FARC offer support for the
theoretical framework. The findings highlight the important, and shifting, role ceasefires play in the transition from
war to negotiated peace.
bargaining theory, ceasefires, civil wars, peace negotiations, violence
Ceasefires are a common phenomenon of intrastate con-
flicts. Since 1990, conflict parties have formally agreed to
cease hostilities from a specific point in time on more
than 200 occasions (Clayton & Sticher, forthcoming) –
not counting the many more informal, often unilateral
Many scholars highlight the risk that
parties may use ceasefires simply to buy time in order
to regroup, rearm, or improve their military position
(Crocker, Hampson & Aall, 2004: 158; Gartner &
Melin, 2009: 566; Toft, 2010: 15). Because ceasefires
reduce the costs of conflict, they also reduce domestic
and international pressure to negotiate. Power holders
may thus be interested in implementing a ceasefire, with-
out a genuine intention to move towards settlement
(Zartman, 2008; Chounet-Cambas, 2011: 15).
Parties may also engage in a ceasefire in order to
enable peace negotiations. Ongoing hostilities may make
it impossible to attain a comprehensive settlement, and
Corresponding author:
The ETH/PRIO Civil War Ceasefire Dataset records 2,107
ceasefire arrangements between 1989 and 2018 (Clayton et al.,
Journal of Peace Research
2021, Vol. 58(6) 1284–1299
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343320982658
one side often requests a ceasefire as a precondition to
engage in negotiations (Smith, 1995: 155–162; Mahieu,
2007: 209; Chounet-Cambas, 2011: 8). Even in the
absence of preconditions, a ceasefire can stabilize a situ-
ation and thus may make it easier to negotiate (Mahieu,
2007: 210). Parties may engage in a ceasefire in an effort
to gain international legitimacy or use ceasefires to send
signals about the cohesion, command, an d control of
their group (Ho
¨glund, 2011). A ceasefire may also pro-
vide an opportunity for a conflict party to demonstrate
good faith and can help parties establish confidence in
each other (Ho
¨glund, 2011: 222–223, 238; see Akebo,
2013: 201–203). Finally, recent research has highlighted
the role of ceasefires for state-building purposes by both
state (Sosnowski, 2019) and non-state actors (Harrisson
& Kyed, 2019).
In short, existing ceasefire research offers great insight
into the breadth of possible objectives parties may pursue
through a ceasefire. What we lack is a systematic frame-
work that links these objectives to strategic decisionmak-
ing processes. Yet such a framework is crucial to
understand how ceasefires affect the transition from war
to (negotiated) peace.
To fill this void, we turn to the bargaining theory of
war, arguing that a conflict party leader’s reading of a
bargaining situation shapes their use of ceasefires in rela-
tion to a military or political resolution of the war. We
offer a typology of three distinct bargaining contexts. In
the first, that is, the Diminishing Opponent context,
conflict party leaders believe that a military solution
yields a better outcome than political settlement and seek
to set up a military advantage. In the second (Forcing
Concessions) and third (Enabling Agreement) contexts,
they recognize the benefits of settlement and strive to
reach a peace agreement. However, in the Forcing Con-
cessions context they are willing to endure further costs
of war to reach a better settlement for their side, while in
the Enabling Agreement context they want to settle
without unnecessarily prolonging the war. Accordingly,
leaders adapt their strategic goal, first seeking to gain a
military advantage, then to increase their bargaining
power, and finally to increase the chances of a negotiated
settlement. They may use fighting, peace negotiations,
and ceasefires in pursuit of these strategic goals. We focus
in particular on the use of ceasefires, which has received
less attention from bargaining scholars than the use of
fighting and peace negotiations.
Our conceptualization of the three contexts resonates
with previous work that conceives the bargaining process
as made up of stages (Hopmann, 1996; Walter, 2006;
fighting, peace negotiations, and ceasefires as instru-
ments that may be used in all bargaining contexts,
rather than defining the stages around these instru-
ments. This is consistent with a widely shared under-
standing that the onset of peace negotiations or
ceasefires does not always represent a genuine shift in
the bargaining process (see Richmond, 1998; Gartner
& Melin, 2009; Toft, 2010). By conceptualizing our
contexts around uncertainties, we contribute to the
understanding of information provision in civil con-
flicts, which – despite its importance in shaping bar-
gaining processes – has to date received scant attention
in conflict resolution literature (Findley, 2013: 907).
To assess the validity of our framework, we pursue a
two-stage empirical assessment. We first test two key
implications in a comparative study of contemporary
intrastate conflicts. We then conduct a within-case con-
gruence test (George & Bennett, 2005: 181–204; see
Beach & Pedersen, 2013: 4), assessing whether in the
2012–16 Colombian peace negotiations, observable
implications of the theory with respect to the three bar-
gaining instruments align. In both tests, we find support-
ing evidence for the theory, with important theoretical
and policy implications.
To understand the parameters that shape the reading of a
conflict and its expected outcome, we turn to the bar-
gaining theory of war. Actors may go to war for various
reasons, pursuing a wide range of issues. The bargaining
theory of war adds a level of abstraction, disregarding the
nature of contested issues or how they arose. Instead, it
seeks to understand why – where there are contested
issues – some parties go to war or fail to settle wars,
whereas others find a negotiated agreement (Reiter,
2003; Walter, 2009). The underlying assumption is that
war is costly, and hence parties should have an incentive
to find an arrangement without resorting to fighting.
Bargaining scholars have identified two key explanations
to this puzzle: imperfect information and the credible
commitment problem. All parties have an incentive to
Peace negotiations refer to all negotiation processes through which
conflict parties address their underlying incompatibilities on socio-
economic and political levels. Ceasefires relate to such negotiations in
that they may seek to regulate conflict behavior during negotiations
or dismantle the status of war following a peace agreement (Clayton
et al., 2019). Ceasefires may be negotiated or declared unilaterally.
Sticher & Vukovic

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