Prague, 24 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Diplomats have never found it easy to resolve conflicts, but in recent years, they have faced an ever more daunting obstacle to making peace: the increasing ability of individuals and groups to sabotage whatever accords their governments may agree to.
Nowhere has this problem been greater than in the conflicts that currently embroil post-communist countries in the southern Caucasus and in those of the former Yugoslavia.
Throughout both regions, the power and authority of political leaders are relatively weak, many individuals and groups in the population are well-armed, and many of these groups enjoy the direct or covert support of other governments that benefit from a conflict.
These factors reduced the effectiveness of traditional diplomacy except when it is backed by force. But even when they have not prevented diplomatic negotiations, these factors have defined how these governments choose to participate in talks.
Indeed, these structural features of post-communist regimes are probably more important in determining what diplomacy can achieve and what it cannot than is the "extreme nationalism" which outsiders usually invoke to explain why no agreements seem to be possible.
But because representatives of major outside powers sometimes do not take these factors into account when they attempt to intervene diplomatically, they often unintentionally lead the governments directly involved to behave in ways that preclude rather than produce peace.
Efforts by the international diplomatic community to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh are perhaps the clearest example of this difficulty. Neither Baku nor Yerevan is fully in control of its own population, much of which is heavily armed and deeply committed to prolonging the conflict until their particular goals are achieved.
Groups in both have been willing to undermine efforts to reach agreements in the past, sometimes by passive resistance and sometimes by the use of violence, including attacks on other people and on economic infrastructure such as pipelines and powerlines.
And neither Yerevan nor Baku can guarantee that any agreement the two of them may say will be accepted and implemented by the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. And the latter have enormous resources including the possibility of violence to undermine any agreement.
One consequence of this is that many in the Armenian government have been reluctant to agree to anything which might either cost them popular support or even ignite violence against themselves.
Another is that many in Azerbaijan have been willing to support for authoritarian measures by their own government in order to create a situation in which an agreement might be possible, one that would allow oil to flow and to enrich their country.
And still a third result of this pattern is that everyone involved faces a situation in which the parties will not be able to resolve very many issues unless they are willing to face all of them. If they do not address all these issues, those individuals and groups most directly affected by them will have little incentive to support an agreement.
For all these reasons, the international diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Caucasus has not yet achieved any agreement that is likely to last.
But the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina suggests that even in an age where non-governmental groups are playing an increasingly large role, the diplomacy of states can achieve a great deal if it is backed by another major resource of the modern nation state: the use of force.
NATO-led troops on the ground there have ended most of the violence and given both diplomats and governments there the possibility of dealing with the situation in a non-violent way.
This application of force, of course, is no more certain to solve the situation in the former Yugoslavia than has been the use of diplomacy in the southern Caucasus. But it has restricted the activities of independent individuals and groups and thus given the states a chance to act in a more traditional way.
And perhaps most important, the contrast between these two cases in post-communist countries has highlighted the importance of building strong political institutions. Unless they exist or have the chance to grow with some outside protection, individuals and groups living in these states may make it impossible for anyone to make peace and to move on to a better future.