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Internal Conflict, the International Community and the Promotion of Principled Compromise

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2013


The international community has many reasons to promote compromise between the parties to internal conflicts. Yet to do so effectively, the international community ought to treat principled rather than strategic compromise as its default position. To make this case, we begin by defining ‘compromise’ and by distinguishing principled from strategic compromise. We then defend the idea of principled compromise against the realist who thinks that that idea is implausible. We conclude by offering a number of practical reasons why principled compromise ought to be preferred. Our argument does not deny that strategic compromise will sometimes be the only option. But, unlike principled compromise, strategic compromise does not provide the parties with any particular reason to look beyond their own particular concerns or to give any ground beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2012.

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1 According to the Heidelberg Institute on International Conflict Research, there were 363 conflicts worldwide in 2010. Of those, 269 were internal conflicts, 32 of which involved high, sustained levels of violence. For a detailed analysis of global trends since 1945, see

2 Crick, Bernard, ‘The High Price of Peace’, History Today, 40: 10 (1990), pp. 79 Google Scholar, at pp. 7–8.

3 According to Brian Barry, something is in my interest if it helps me to get what I want. Yet while I might want a compromise that was fair or just, I could also want a compromise that was simply good for me. See Barry, Brian, Political Argument, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990 Google Scholar.

4 e.g. Margalit, Avishai, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 67 Google Scholar and passim.

5 One could contemplate a situation where the international community thinks that the parties should want to compromise, even though they do not wish to do so (possibly the Taliban in Afghanistan); but, for the purposes of this article, we are only concerned with situations in which there is already some motivation to compromise, and the issue is what form the compromise takes.

6 Benjamin, Martin, Splitting the Difference: Compromise and Integrity in Ethics and Politics, Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 1990 Google Scholar.

7 Bellamy, Richard, Liberalism and Pluralism: Towards a Politics of Compromise, London, Routledge, 1999 Google Scholar.

8 But see Lepora, Chiara, ‘On Compromise and Being Compromised’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 20: 1 (2012), pp. 122 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Theodore Benditt, ‘Compromising Interests and Principles’, in J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (eds), Compromise in Ethics, Law, and Politics (NOMOS XXI), New York, New York University Press, 1979, pp. 26–37, at p. 30.

10 Arthur Kuflik, ‘Morality and Compromise’, in Pennock and Chapman, Compromise in Ethics, Law, and Politics, pp. 38–65, at pp. 39–40.

11 This point is easily overlooked. E.g., Sumantra Bose describes the Dayton Peace Accords as a ‘strategic compromise’. Sumantra Bose, Bosnia After Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention, London, Hurst, 2002, p. 53. Yet this is not accurate since its provisions were largely dictated by Richard Holbrooke and his team. What is more, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats had no direct representation of their own; nor was the agreement ever put to a referendum.

12 For discussions, see Benditt, ‘Compromising Interests and Principles’, pp. 28–30; Margalit, On Compromise, pp. 53–4.

13 J. Patrick Dobel, Compromise and Political Action: Political Morality in Liberal and Democratic Life, Savage, MD, Rowman and Littlefield, 1990, pp. 3, 35.

14 Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 146–7Google Scholar.

15 On this point, see further Peter Jones and Ian O'Flynn, ‘Can a Compromise be Fair?’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, forthcoming.

16 Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism, p. 102.

17 Dennis F. Thompson, ‘Mill in Parliament: When Should a Philosopher Compromise?’, in Nadia Urbinati and Alex Zakaras (eds), J.S. Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 166–99, at p. 168.

18 Benditt, ‘Compromising Interests and Principles’; John E. Coons, ‘Compromise as Precise Justice’, in Pennock and Chapman, Compromise in Ethics, Law, and Politics, pp. 190–204; Lister, Andrew, ‘Public Reason and Moral Compromise’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 37: 1 (2007), pp. 134 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Cf. Benjamin, Splitting the Difference, pp. 4–8.

20 On the relationship between fairness and compromise, see Jones and O'Flynn, ‘Can a Compromise be Fair?’.

21 Noël, Alain, ‘Democratic Deliberation in a Multinational Federation’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 9: 3 (2006), pp. 419–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 433.

22 May, Simon, ‘Principled Compromise and the Abortion Controversy’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 33: 4 (2005), pp. 317–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although May draws the distinction in this way, he doubts whether ‘principled compromise’ is a plausible notion.

23 Sher, George, ‘Subsidised Abortion: Moral Rights and Compromise’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1: 4 (1984), pp. 361–72Google Scholar, at p. 369. But see Lister, ‘Public Reason and Moral Compromise’, p. 18.

24 Benditt, ‘Compromising Interests and Principles’, p. 31.

25 Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism, pp. 93–114.

26 Ibid., pp. 95, 103.

27 Zartman, I. William, Negotiation and Conflict Management: Essays on Theory and Practice, London, Routledge, 2008, pp. 8299 Google Scholar.

28 In discussing the equivalence principle that governed the details of the agreement on Namibian independence, Zartman writes that the ‘formula was not merely based on “getting something” in exchange for independence but rather a matched and balanced trade-off that provided a guide for further details’, ibid., p. 90. The language of ‘a matched and balanced trade-off’ is unhelpful here, since the point Zartman seeks to make is that the equivalence principle ensured that the compromise it guided was not reducible to a mere strategic compromise.

29 May, ‘Principled Compromise and the Abortion Controversy’, p. 319.

30 One reason has to do with ‘the cause’ becoming central to the group's identity, and in particular its principal myths and narratives. See, e.g. Vamik Volkan, Blood Lines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1997. Cf. Kornprobst, Markus, ‘Argumentation and Compromise: Ireland's Selection of the Territorial Status Quo Norm’, International Organization, 61: 1 (2007), pp. 6998 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 On a related note, someone might say that principled compromise is the same as moral compromise, or a compromise governed by norms of a Kantian sort. Since the parties to a compromise make concessions, and since making concessions means that a kind of apportionment or distribution is taking place, it is natural to ask if it is fair. To ask that is to ask a deontological question. But it is not necessarily to ask a Kantian question – by ‘fair’ we might simply mean ‘not unreasonable’.

32 Kuflik, ‘Morality and Compromise’, p. 51.

33 Benjamin, Splitting the Difference, p. 34. Cf. Lister, ‘Public Reason and Moral Compromise’, pp. 19–21.

34 It might be objected that, in restricting common ground to basic principles, we have overlooked other sources of commonality – for example, commonalities between different visions of the good life or different virtues. Those commonalities could help, but only if they provided guidelines for dealing with conflicts, in which case they are likely to be deontological in character.

35 Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis, ‘The Mindsets of Political Compromise’, Perspectives in Politics, 8: 4 (2010), pp. 1125–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 1132.

36 See, e.g. the ‘Declaration of Support’ with which the Agreement begins and Paragraph (v) of ‘Constitutional Issues’: ‘The Agreement: Agreement Reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations‘, available at

37 Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 131–72.

38 Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism, pp. 99–100.

39 See Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot be Avoided in Politics and What Should be Done About It, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, pp. 84–91, on the idea of an ‘economy of moral disagreement’.

40 Most especially, Lijphart, Arend, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1977 Google Scholar.

41 See, e.g. John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary, The Northern Ireland Conflict: Consociational Engagements, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 25; Stedman, Stephen, ‘Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes’, International Security, 22: 2 (1997), pp. 553 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 O'Neill, Shane, ‘Justice in Ethnically Diverse Societies: A Critique of Political Alienation’, Ethnicities, 3: 3 (2003), pp. 369–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 386.

43 Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. 158–68.

44 See Jürgen Habermas, ‘Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State’, in Amy Gutmann and Charles Taylor (eds), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 107–48, at p. 134. This argument is not as fanciful as it might seem. By way of supporting evidence one can point to the negotiation literature and in particular to the Harvard Programme on Negotiation's research into ‘positive-sum games’, ‘principled bargaining’ and the like. See, for example, Howard Raiffa, The Art and Science of Negotiation, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1982; Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Boston, MA, Houghton and Mifflin, 1981. For an overview and discussion, see Luban, David, ‘Bargaining and Compromise: Recent Work on Negotiation and Informal Justice’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14: 4 (1985), pp. 397416 Google Scholar, at pp. 399–400.

45 Thompson, ‘Mill in Parliament’, p. 176.