The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime

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The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime by Oriana Skylar Mastro. Cornell University Press, 2019, 197 pp.

In this path-breaking study, Oriana Skylar Mastro, assistant professor at Georgetown University, asks two major questions: “After a war breaks out, what factors influence warring parties’ decisions about whether to offer talks, and when may their position on wartime diplomacy change?” (1). Her book addresses a crucial theoretical issue that the literature has long neglected. But it also offers compelling historical case studies and important policy implications.

Mastro’s novel analytical framework examines how “states incorporate talking with the enemy into their war-fighting strategies” (6). According to her “costs of conversation thesis,” two factors obstruct the emergence of direct unconditional negotiations: “the likelihood that the enemy will infer weakness from an open diplomatic posture” and the enemy’s “strategic capacity,” or “degree to which [it] can prolong, intensify, or escalate its war effort in response” (14). Belligerents, who constantly reassess those factors based on subjective perceptions, open talks only if convinced that they have demonstrated enough “strength and resiliency” (4).

While Mastro’s thesis moves the field to a new stage, Mastro also carefully probes the literature to infer competing hypotheses. Alternative explanations include ideational factors (e.g., honor, beliefs), domestic parameters (e.g., public outrage, troops’ morale), and international constraints (e.g., patrons’ influence). But the book’s key contribution is to refine the traditional bargaining model of war, whose various strands obliquely predict that talks will emerge only if a state is defeated, or if belligerents agree on the “balance of power and resolve,” or if they believe an agreement is sustainable (26).

To test her argument, the author investigates four cases. The first one investigates China’s strategy after the country entered the Korean War in October 1950. Mao’s initial absolute aims dictated a closed diplomatic posture. But military setbacks forced him to downgrade his objectives in February 1951. However, even at that point, Mao still believed that he had to demonstrate Beijing’s resiliency and ensure “that the US ability to intensify or escalate its way out of a stalemate was limited” (10). It is only following the relative success of China’s fifth offensive that he agreed to talks in July 1951—a path that had then already been endorsed by US leaders, convinced that they had done enough to prove America’s resiliency.

The two following cases cover the Sino-Indian War, which started on 20 October 1962. Before hostilities began, China was “obsessively concerned . . . with avoiding any impression of weakness” (68). However, Chinese troops immediately demonstrated their superiority thanks to better training, weapons, and geographic positions. Thus, just four days into the war, Beijing offered New Delhi “to resolve the issue peacefully, pull back to the [Line of Actual Control], and organize a [high-level] meeting” (64). Yet Indian leaders knew that they were “heavily outnumbered and outweaponed” (82). Their failure to anticipate Beijing’s initial offensive also led them to “engage in worst-case scenario thinking” (87). As a result, Prime Minister Nehru stuck to his initial preconditions for talks even after the Chinese unilateral ceasefire of 20 November.

The final case study delves into the Vietnam War. Thanks to its vastly superior power, the US quickly endorsed an open diplomatic posture in 1965. Fearing further escalation, though, North Vietnamese leaders wanted “to deal . . . enough blows [to the enemy to] enter into talks without looking weak” (108). The Tet Offensive of January 1968 eventually demonstrated Hanoi’s resiliency. However, North Vietnam only endorsed talks in April, after President Johnson renounced seeking reelection and decided “to limit bombing to areas south of the 20th parallel without any reciprocal . . . de-escalation” (115).

This analysis serves the book’s argument superbly. Mastro’s narrative is meticulous and builds upon a massive set of archival sources (Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, American, etc.), interviews with direct participants, and a sheer command of the literature. As such, the book makes notable contributions to diplomatic history, including a critique of the view that Beijing withdrew from India’s northern territories because of logistical difficulties in 1962, a new explanation of New Delhi’s persistent refusal to talk, and a rebuttal of the argument that America missed opportunities to negotiate in Vietnam before 1968.

Most importantly, Mastro convincingly demonstrates why her thesis prevails (or why alternative explanations fit into it) and makes major theoretical contributions. First, her book corrects the erroneous assumption that “states [are] constantly talking while fighting.” Second, it disaggregates the costs of talk from the content of negotiations, which helps account for “within-case and across-country variation.” Third, showing how combat outcomes and diplomatic posture interact with each other adds a “channel of information through which states can learn about their prospects of victory” (22). Finally, although focused on interstate wars, the book has many insights with theoretical implications for our understanding of coercion, peacetime negotiations, diplomatic crises, mediation, war duration, and intrastate conflicts.

Mastro also proposes highly valuable policy recommendations. Her work contradicts the traditional practice of “issuing the compellent threat [while finding ways] to assuage the reputational costs” (137). It stresses the role that third-party guarantees (US, UN, etc.) could play by “destroy[ing] the linkage, or decoupl[ing] the signal, between talks and weakness” (139). More fundamentally, it suggests that coercion and escalation often backfire, a sobering assessment that questions America’s current pressures on Iran, North Korea, and China.

Some aspects of Mastro’s work might deserve more developments in the future. One could ask how the “thresholds” necessary to open talks could be measured; wonder about the impact of nuclear status, the new media, and other post–Cold War developments; inquire about connections with scholarly studies on “credibility”; or debate the coverage of episodes like the impact of Indian domestic politics in 1962 or America’s diplomatic prospects in Vietnam. However, these potential areas of discussion only reflect the depth, nuance, originality, and other exceptional qualities of Mastro’s book. Her brilliant work is a major contribution to the field and offers powerful insights that any policy maker should bear in mind.

Thomas P. Cavanna
Visiting Assistant Professor, Center for Strategic Studies
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."