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Great lesson in mediation by Swiss diplomat Olivier Long (Algeria negotiations 1961-1962)

Published on 12 June 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Fifty years ago Algeria achieved its independence. Switzerland, and in particular Olivier LONG[1], a trade diplomat, deserves credit for acting as go-between quietly and effectively, between Algeria’s Provisional Government in Tunis, and France, then the colonial power.

Oliver Long Twenty-five years after the event Amb. LONG published a memoir on the role of Switzerland[2] as intermediary. It should be required analytical reading for any budding diplomat, for it details the circumstances of the negotiations, rather than their content, and thus contains invaluable lessons on the negotiating process.

The role of “intermediary” is fundamentally different from that of “broker” a role e.g. successfully played by US Pres. Carter between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978: he was personally and visibly involved in the negotiations, using his country’s power to nudge the antagonists toward a settlement, and committed to a positive outcome. He put his reputation on the line in doing so.

An intermediary is a process facilitator and enabler, letting the principals deal with the substance of the negotiation. He is dedicated but not directly involved. He is not present at, nor does he participate in the meetings – he closes the doors behind which the process takes place. The intermediary concerns himself with everything surrounding the process, seemingly occupied and preoccupied with incidentals. He facilitates opportunities and removes disturbing distractions – he has no stake in the outcome, nor does he overtly work for one. Yet he mightily struggles for peace.


It seems a non-contentious issue, and it often is. It takes up a lot of resources, though, and it is often a distraction (remember Parkinson’s law on “bicycle shed discussions”[3]). Delegations without worries about logistics can be kept slim, and more effective.

Fickle issues of protocol and etiquette can be dealt without “loss of face”. One quirk in the Evian negotiations was that the delegations – as enemies – were not allowed by General De Gaulle to have joint meals – the Swiss supplied food to the Algerian delegation.

Overview of the agenda

The intermediary is usually informed by the parties of progress achieved and problems outstanding, for he may be called up to act as go between on contentious issues in between negotiating rounds. It is then a small step to becoming involved in drafting “agenda points”, in marking priorities, and signaling, or even devising “room for maneuver”.

As dedicated observer he soon gets a “sense of the process” – an overall, albeit intangible and subjective, assessment of the negotiation’s substantive progress. Precisely his “non-involvement” allows him not to lose sight of the ultimate aim, and to judge progress as well as outstanding issues. He’ll confirm or refute delegates’ opinions in this respect, by partially lifting the veil on the opponent’s view under cover of anonymity. It is the ambiguity of his observer role that allows him to encourage or warn without loss of face.

Rhythm of the negotiation

Time and again Amb. LONG speaks of the rhythm of a negotiation, and indeed, I concur in considering rhythm one of the key elements of the negotiating process. Shakespeare said:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Wich, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

Julius Caesar IV, 3, 218-224

A dedicated observer is often better positioned properly to weigh external and internal factors dynamically impinging on the outcome than the negotiator locked inside the “negotiating submarine”. This was of paramount importance in the Algerian case, where many forces outside the process were trying to influence or derail it.

Rhythm is a paramount factor inside the negotiating process itself. Progress invites further progress, yielding a virtuous cycle – “bootstrapping” as one says. This process is often subtly psychological: illusion can beget reality, as when “constructive ambiguities” lift the horizon of the possible.

Explaining what is lost is formulation

Amb. LONG makes a point I found worth noting: in a negotiating setting statements are exchanged that tend to be apodictic if not formulaic. They tend to be “principled”, when a negotiation is all about adapting the principle to the context. They therefore often tend to hide, rather than highlight, possibilities.

The intermediary is often asked to explore informally the application of the principle in the context – to “explain what the statement means” (pg. 162) and provide interpretation.

A prise of realism

Negotiators often tend to over-negotiate – to settle every detail – making the result unworkable. Amb. LONG explicitly warns against this danger (p. 143). Particularly in a complex issue like transition to independence, one cannot hope to foresee everything. As the reality unfolds, agreements can become obstacles, rather than guides, of this process.

Negotiations tend to be driven by “worst case” scenarios. These scenarios can be poor advisors. They may create an atmosphere of distrust that feeds on itself, as negotiators waver between their ambition to succeed, and the fear of being blamed for the outcome. As any mountaineer knows, travelling light allows one to get out of danger fast.

The facilitator is well equipped to advise on proper balance between “script” and “improvisation” as the play is performed.

Confidence building

To conclude: the role of the intermediary is all about “confidence building”.

First he must build, and then maintain throughout, confidence of both parties in his own selfless dedication to the process, discretion, and to impartiality. Both must come to see him as “friend in need”. May favorite quip here is: “Nothing is impossible if one does not want credit for doing it”. In LONG’s case this was both hard and easy. He happened to be friends with both the relevant French ministers. That he succeeded in gaining the unstinting respect of the Algerians is tribute to his superb skills as intermediary.

This is the capital he then uses in confidence building between the negotiating parties. This process needs constant monitoring. It will often feel like the burial shroud Penelope weaves by day and undoes by night.

Full measure of success will accrue to the intermediary as he fades into the background – forgotten, as Amb. LONG, by historians, who hardly know of his role as enabler.


[1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivier_Long Regretfully, this entry is hardly adequate.

[2]  Olivier LONG (1988): Le dossier secret des Accords d’Evian. Une mission suisse pour la paix en Algérie. É ditions 24 Heures, Lausanne. Regrettably, this text is not available in English, and even the French version is out of stock.

[3]  Parkinson noted that discussions on concrete trivia encourage extended discussions among members of a corporate board inversely proportional to the topic’s relevance. This is obvious: we all have marked opinions on trivia.

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