How to end the Ukraine war: Talks can’t aim to solve everything, everywhere all at once

Both sides have to realise they need peace
The colours of the Ukrainian flag. Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

Richard Haass is a professional peacenik. In the sense, that he’s an American diplomat and is president of the influential think tank, Council on Foreign Relations. (Wisecracks about American diplomats dealing in war, not peace, are exactly that – wisecracks.)

Anyway, Mr Haass’s recent fulminations on the Good Friday Agreement are enormously insightful considering we’re faced with a war seemingly without end in Ukraine. He points out that no party in Northern Ireland achieved everything it wanted by bringing about peace, but there was something for everyone in ending the conflict. More to the point, all parties realised that the peace agreement allowed them to accomplish more than they could ever hope achieve by continuing to fight.

Noting that the most fundamental lesson of the Good Friday Agreement is “that diplomacy can succeed only where and when other tools cannot,” Mr Haass suggested that a series of British prime ministers were able to create conditions that gave diplomacy a chance. Those conditions included sufficient security forces in Northern Ireland, so that those “who sought to shoot their way to power could not succeed”. Meanwhile, Britain also signalled openness to political dialogue.

When the time came, negotiators from the UK and Ireland, with former US Senate majority leader George Mitchell as chair, set modest aims. The talks were not meant to solve everything, everywhere all at once. Negotiators were particularly careful, Mr Haass points out, to avoid “final status” issues, such as whether Northern Ireland would remain in the UK .

This underlines the fundamental reality of diplomacy and realpolitik, he writes: “Peacemaking must often accept goals less than full peace. Sometimes, aiming for a state of non-belligerence is sufficiently ambitious”. He quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s pragmatic comment: “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.”

Quite so. Peace-making should be about ending violence even if the conflict as a whole is not over.  With little prospect of Ukraine or Russia achieving a decisive victory any time soon, it is natural for thoughts to turn to at least the cessation of the violence, with final status issues left for later. For, Ukraine would be within its rights to argue for the return of all its territory, while Russia would probably continue to insist that the land it has taken by force now belongs to it. The whole situation would take years to get to some sort of resolution but for now, the goal must be to cease the hot war and the bloodshed.