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Interview with Giandomenico Picco and Gabrielle Rifkind, authors of “The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution”

By Joana Cook, Managing Editor, Strife


Giandomenico Picco served for over two decades as a UN official. Among other work, he led the UN efforts which brought about the release of many of the Western hostages from Lebanon and the agreement which ended the Iran-Iraq war. He has been a consultant in the private sector as Chairman of GDP Associates, a USA based company. He has published articles and co-authored books on matters related to the larger Middle East, among other subjects.

Gabrielle Rifkind is the Director of the Middle East programme at Oxford Research Group. She is a group analyst and a specialist in conflict resolution immersed in the politics of the Middle East. Rifkind combines in-depth political and psychological expertise with many years’ experience in promoting serious analysis and discreet dialogues with groups behind the scenes.


Joana Cook: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s begin with the title itself, why have you chosen ‘The Fog of Peace’?

Giandomenico Picco (GP): This is the other side of the coin of the famous book The Fog of War that former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara wrote about the war in Vietnam. This is to say that war is a very complex business, and we are suggesting that unfortunately for all of us, peace is also a very complex business.

Gabrielle Rifkind (GR): McNamara had said: ‘We didn’t understand empathy, we didn’t understand the mind of the enemy. We were fighting different wars: they were fighting a war of independence, we were fighting the Cold War.’ For both Picco and me this is how we wanted to frame the book and show, how to be more effective at solving conflict you have to get into the mind of the enemy. What are their red lines? How do they think differently to you?

What is original about your approach to conflict resolution and the book itself?

GP: The approach that I contribute is derived from my history as a conflict resolution individual negotiator over a few decades. I look at my human journey as a conflict resolution individual, from two specific levels. First, the very personal individual role I played and second, trying to walk through time, and therefore being aware that history moves on, and tomorrow is never like yesterday. Basically it is elements taken from my human journey as somebody who has gone through negotiations in a very unorthodox way; I was kidnapped, I was the object of attacks by dictators and all the rest. It was not a history of a simple kind of journey, it was a history of somebody who went through what is usually considered inappropriate. You may not have noticed, there is one word in that book which has been avoided by myself and by my co-author as well, and that word is ‘impartiality’. Impartiality is the illusion of those who never understand that conflict resolution is known and never valued let alone successfully. Impartiality is just a myth which was used as a very useful route after World War Two for a specific purpose, in a specific region, in a specific culture; in practical terms it has never served any purpose.

GR: I come from a psychological background, and have worked in conflict resolution in the Middle East for the last 15 years. I believe that often when you are trying to resolve conflict, you can not just do it with guys in grey suits, or those who just think like us. It’s comfortable for us to engage with those who see the world in the same way as us, who share our values, but this is one of the reasons we aren’t successful, because the nature of conflict is changing and most wars are not between states, but asymmetrical. Often this means, the side with the power is not often directly involved on the ground fighting the group. The groups which are weaker – Hamas or the Taliban would be examples of this – have often experienced members of their family, or those close to them being killed, and will have suffered eight levels of trauma. Its all the more important to get into their heads and understand how their experiences have shaped who they are and how they think.

You mentioned the phrase ‘unorthodox methods’ in your approach to conflict resolution. What do you mean by this? How do you teach these kinds of methods to the next generation of negotiators when many of them will be able to access such work through international institutions, such as the UN?

GP: My only advice would be walk in the streets. Learn as much as one can about the official history of a country and a place, but not to forget to speak to the people you meet in the streets, and you will learn more. You mentioned earlier what have been my guiding pillars, in doing what I did in wars and beyond, the individual narrative and the national narrative; that to me is a fairly practical, not just a theoretical, thing. The first time I was taken hostage in Beirut [negotiating hostage release with Hezbollah], I was blind-folded and locked up in a car only to be taken out and asked if I was prepared to enter negotiation. I realised very quickly that it was not the great treaties or the great books of Professors in Harvard or King’s College who write about how to negotiate that could teach this; how to negotiate when someone has blindfolded you, practically naked amongst masked individuals. What kind of theory would teach you how to deal with that? Theories will not teach you that; your knowledge of their history, your attempt to understand their narrative and your own narrative will provide some answers. If you’re lucky you survive, and if you’re luckier yet, you find a solution to the negotiation you’re involved in.

Empathy is a key theme of your book and there is this growing awareness of the importance of empathy in international relations in negotiations. But when engaging in negotiations means putting yourself in situations like the one you described in Beirut, how can you be empathetic and how do you think greater empathy can be cultivated amongst foreign policy professionals more broadly?

GP: Empathy should not be confused with a sympathy, or understanding, or agreement, or even impartiality. Empathy means that you have a person in front of you, an individual who comes from a particular human journey. For example, the first of four times I was taken in Beirut, this masked man asked me: ‘Why do you risk your life to save the lives of people who are not members of your tribe?’ And I will never forget that, for me it has been such an incredible point of reference in my life. His condition, his culture, his history, his human journey is so different from mine, and it was difficult to answer. This is empathy in the sense of trying to enter the mind of the person in front of you; empathy to me is not only to understand the present mind but to see where it comes from. There is also a fundamental difference in the way we deal with the world now than, say, during the Cold War. The number of variables today is so high that negotiations are becoming more difficult.

GR: How do we go about ensuring that empathy doesn’t come off seeming idealistic or naïve? The last thing you want to do in war is empathize. It’s unrealistic to ask enemies to have empathy. However, we call for the role of credible third party mediators. You don’t come from your own values and what you think is right, but understanding why the sides are thinking as they are. What happens at the kitchen table is not so different from what happens at the mediating table. Understanding what happens when you humiliate people, or make them feel powerless, or marginalized, and the link with violence; this is what we all understand in our own self-knowledge and this is very powerful to understand how conflict begins and how it may end.

How do you get into the mind of the enemy?

GR: Often the enemy is not going to say the things we want to hear. Partly, because of the consequences of endless trauma and conflict they are not in the state of readiness to resolve conflict. What’s important is that you need to build this trust, quietly, behind the doors and off the record, often unknown to the public. When there has been violence from Hamas against Israel, Israelis were not in the state of mind to resolve conflict, but it’s still important to engage in this dialogue so you understand if there is, over time, a readiness to end violence, and building real relationships.

Another argument you make in the book is how we lack the ability to understand others due to our ‘lack of imagination’. Can you elaborate on this?

GR: Imagination can help take us into the future and that’s where we can have hope. Often where there has been conflict and trauma for generations, people get attached to traumas from the past. One of the roles of trying to support peace processes, and these groups, is to try and stimulate hope and a way through. For example, in Gaza, many people walk around wearing the keys from the homes they were expelled from in 1948 around their neck. At one level, you can understand this and the idea that they will return, but if this seems very unlikely in the peace process and you are working with these groups on the ground you have to start asking them about their vision for them and their children for the future, spark their imagination.

Earlier you mentioned there are variables changing the nature of negotiations; which would you specifically point out as distinctly changing the nature of negotiations?

GP: The number of variables is much larger and the relationships between individuals and institutions, otherwise said as between individuals and the nation state to which they belong, are quickly changing. In the last two decades, the power of the individual has grown tremendously vis-à-vis the power of institutions, and the institution is also the nation state. Never in human history has the individual been so powerful vis- à-vis the institution, as he or she is today. The very nature of the nation state is not only changing, but morphing into something different, and we don’t yet know what.

Speaking more broadly, I immediately know when someone has never done negotiations, let alone successfully, when they say, ‘how do you negotiate with Iraq, how do you negotiate with Norway?’ You don’t negotiate with a country you always negotiate with people. If I had negotiated with President Rafsanjani of Iraq that same way I had negotiated with President Khatami of Iraq I would have failed. They were Presidents of the same country, living in the same culture and yet there were two different individuals. There is a difference between a theory of negotiation and the practice of negotiations.

Is there a difference between how an individual, and an individual representing an institution, would approach negotiations?

GP: There is a clear difference between an institutional approach and my individualistic approach. If you expect that in an institution you will solve the conflicts, think again, particularly now as institutions are getting weaker and weaker in respect to individuals. In a seminal book which I quote, by John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, Ralston writes something which has always been with me. When leaders came together to discuss the changes required for nation-states established in Westphalia in 1648, Ralston noted, ‘the institutions would no longer be allowed to marry to genius but only to mediocrity’. That was two centuries ago, and that is why conflict resolution is not done by the institutions, but by the individuals who have the good fortune, the luck to enter the mind of the person in front of them. This is what it is; it’s really the individual meeting with another mind. How could you agree with someone who takes hostages? One of my masked kidnappers from Hezbollah told me: ‘Do you think I do not know that taking hostage civilian innocent persons is wrong? Of course I do, my point is I do not have another weapon.’

I want to discuss Syria, another example from your book. Applying your ‘Fog of Peace’ lens to the number of international actors currently involved in Syria, as you mentioned Iran and Saudi Arabia for example, how did we get it wrong? What role could informed/informal negotiation have in finding an end to this conflict?

GP: Two years ago it took Gabrielle and myself a long time to get a newspaper which would publish an article where we wrote that the time has come to stop using the expression ‘civil war’ for Syria. This is not a civil war, this is the third chess game in 30 years between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria is a manifestation of what I’ve being saying for some time, which is the entire region is morphing into something else. The nation state per se, not just there but all over, is weakening, the individual identities are getting more and more localised, the borders are less and less significant. The two chess players, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are now communicating for the purpose of going beyond what is happening today in Syria. We need an understanding that is not a treaty or a formal agreement. Syria can be dealt with, in my view, by having at the very basis an understanding of sorts between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be further strengthened, if possible, by an understanding between Washington and Moscow. Under the cover of these two understandings, the first one being much more important, the Syrians of all denominations can probably sit with more profit together.

GR: Syria is a good example [of where we got the psychology wrong and the conflict has been prolonged]. There are now over 130,000 dead, over 6.5 million displaced, and 2 million refugees. Western governments always demanded Assad to go, and from a human rights perspective this may have seemed correct; but what’s morally right doesn’t necessarily save lives. What would have been perhaps more sagacious is for governments not to take sides at the beginning, but instead to put all their efforts into creating a ceasefire and stopping the flow of weapons. If we would have managed this more constructive ambiguity, it is possible that we, Western governments, could have worked with the Russians more closely, much earlier on, as this has been one of the core reasons we haven’t been able to get back to Geneva II. Calling for Assad to go doesn’t solve the problem; he has always had a group of supporters in Syria who remain so, not least because they feared for their own lives. This is also not often how wars end. One of our primary objectives with this book was to question how you end this violence.

One of the other terms you come up with in this book and promote is the idea of ‘minilateralism’ rather than multilateralism. Could you explain the concept further and how it is influencing world politics?

GP: If you look at the history of the last twenty-two years – 1992 to 2014 – every single conflict which has been some way partially or totally resolved has not been resolved by multilateral approach, but only by a ‘minilateral’ approach or bilateral approach, namely a few countries. That was the case from Yugoslavia to Eastern Africa and further. Multilateralism has failed for one simple reason: the multilateral worked during the Cold War because it was a fake multilateralism, hidden by the great bipolar world. Institutions of a multilateral nature cannot solve conflicts in the way that they are these days, and the last twenty years demonstrate what I have just said. Then there is, of course, also the other issue, a question of individuals. Traditional institutions will not accept the role of the individual and that’s what we’re talking about in conflict resolution – multilateralism has proven to be over. Let’s be honest, how many leaders have today led without enemies? Leaders do not lead without enemies. The leaders who can lead without enemies are the real leaders of history; the others are mediocre they won’t want an enemy to lead. Let’s get rid of leaders who can’t lead without enemies, then we will have a better world.


You make a recommendation in the book to create an international institution for mediation. What would this look like? Who should lead this?

GR: This is one of the strongest recommendations from our book, the idea that we should get much smarter around early intervention. It is the idea of embedded mediators on the ground working on three levels: locally to try and prevent an outbreak of sectarian violence; at the government level where you already have very experienced mediators with strong working relationships with governments, but quietly, off-the-record, behind the scenes; and at regional/international level. In Syria we saw clearly early on, that it was a proxy war between Syria and Iran for Sunni-Shi’a regional dominance. If we had systems of mediators who were experienced, who had pre-existing relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran, early on, there could have been processes to bring them together and find a way to stop the violence, and find out what is between them, what some kind of accommodation might look like. We don’t have a blueprint for this institution yet, but I would like to work further with a group with the expertise to work out how we can locate something like this. It must be serious. You must have mediators in different regions of the world, working at all the different levels. This would cost a fraction of what it could cost militarily, but we have to change minds about making this kind of long-term investment. Why doesn’t the UN do this? They would perhaps be well-placed there, but they must be agile and nimble and never get caught in a bureaucratic quagmire which is sometimes the case with the UN. One could consider it as something similar to the ICC, where people would buy into because they see the advantage of early warning.

How can we train our minds to relate to others in ways that go beyond the barriers you mention, such as racism, nationalism and the need for an enemy?

GR: It’s a very natural thing to do, to look for an enemy. It creates social cohesion and you can bind yourself together through this, if there is someone you hate on the outside. A lot of this is the politics of self-awareness and though this may sound antithetical, the idea that politics is even constructed in this way, but so often countries in conflict, particularly in the Middle East, know who they stand against, but not what they stand for. And in the end, conflict is about learning how to collaborate, and how you don’t split the world into enemies. One of the ways through, I believe, is to have more women trained in these roles and, without sounding like I’m caricaturing too much, I think that because women are so used to multitasking, they are less prone to a bipolar view of the world, where people are only good or bad. I do believe though, that it would be positive to include more women in these roles. While it has to do with the individuals in negotiations themselves, and not necessarily gender, it has to do with the ability to listen and to tune into cultural differences, and not come in with decisions already made. You must have a willingness to get into the mind of the enemy, why they are thinking as they are.

How do you see this happening with groups which may have a very hard-line view, like the Taliban, who may have very specific views on gender?

GR: We explore this in the book. If you look into the background of the Taliban you see many of them were orphaned during the civil war, and lost both parents, then were put in madrasas which were very austere institutions and only had contact with men, which may have made them afraid of women. Where fear may be unacceptable, they may have turned this into hatred, which may lay the seeds of their policies. This means you may not have female negotiators, but you have to be sensitive to being able to think of why they think in ways we may view as unpalatable.

Do you have any final words on what the new human face of conflict resolution looks like?

GP: Conflict resolution is not a theory, conflict resolution is life and if we don’t enter that life then there is no point in inventing stories. We have to enter the narrative of the individual and the narrative of the nations [we are working with].

Thank you very much.


The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution was released in March 2014 by I.B. Tauris. You can find more information on the book at




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