Michelle Maiese

August 2003

Their Role

Top-level leadership includes the key political, religious, and military leaders involved in a conflict. These people are often the highest leaders of the government and opposition movements, and speak for their constituencies. In most cases, they represent a few key actors within the broader conflict setting.

  • This level of leadership has certain characteristics.
  • First, these leaders are highly visible, and receive a lot of media coverage.[1]
  • Their movements, statements, and positions are typically under close scrutiny.

In some cases, leaders may even find themselves elevated to celebrity status by intensive press coverage and significant air time.

  • The high profile and publicity further consolidate a leader's legitimacy, and allow the leader to publicly voice the concerns of his or her constituency.
  • Publicity also enables a leader's statements to carry enormous weight in the framing of issues and the processes of decision-making.
  • Thus, publicity is often integral to securing a position of influence.

However, publicity also limits the effectiveness of elite leadership in various ways. First, by virtue of their visibility, these leaders often become locked into positions on issues related to the conflict.

William Ury tells how he managed to build trust with the leaders in Venezuela and through shuttle diplomacy and focusing on their interests got them working together to prevent violence.

  • They typically feel pressured to maintain a position of strength, with respect to their adversaries as well as their own constituencies.
  • Acceptance of anything less than their publicly stated goals may be seen as a sign of weakness.
  • This fear of losing face may limit their freedom to maneuver.[2]

Second, in the public eye, these leaders are often perceived as having almost exclusive power and influence. The international community often perceives them as being in a position to represent and make decisions for their constituencies. However, in many cases, power is far more diffuse. For example, in the wars in Bosnia, Somalia, and Liberia, the degree to which hierarchical power was operational is unclear.[3] When the international community relates to hierarchical leaders as if they have exclusive power, it neglects the possibility that there may be many lower-level leaders who do not fall in line behind the more visible leaders.

Top-Level Approaches

Top-down approaches to peace emphasize that accomplishments at the highest level will 'trickle down' to the rest of the population.

The "top-down" approach to peacebuilding centers on achieving a negotiated settlement between the principal high-level leaders in the conflict. Peacemakers tend to operate as intermediaries or mediators, and they work to bring the appropriate high-level leaders to the bargaining table and set the agenda for negotiations. The close media scrutiny to which negotiations are typically subjected may make it difficult to create the trust and flexibility required for compromise.[4] In such a highly visible environment, lead negotiators face the challenge of maintaining their publicly articulated goals while at the same time moving toward settlement.

Peacebuilding approaches at this top level often focus on achieving a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities, as a first step in a series of political and substantive negotiations. In later stages, such agreements can be broadened to include more sectors of the society and involve the political leadership in developing democratic institutions. Such negotiations can eventually culminate in an agreement that institutes mechanisms for a transition from war to peace. It is sometimes thought that accomplishments at this high level can "trickle down" to the rest of the population.[5] If the top leaders can agree, this sets the stage and the framework for implementing peace agreements and ending war.

While the role that elite leadership plays in peace building is no doubt significant, Lederach notes that it is often over-emphasized. Some believe that the greatest potential for achieving peace lies with the elite leaders of the parties to the conflict. In fact, the leaders' role is often more limited.

William Ury explains that the third side is a self-organizing social movement that works at all levels of the society from the grassroots to the elite. Outsiders can help get the movement started and can give it support, but basically the work is done from within.

Lederach notes that several problematic assumptions underlie top-level peacebuilding actions and interventions. First, peacemakers sometimes assume that achieving peace is primarily a matter of identifying the representative leaders and getting them to agree. This assumes that the representative leaders can be identified, that they will truly articulate the concerns giving rise to the conflict, and that they possess the power and influence to guarantee their community's support for any agreements reached.[6] However, as previously noted, leaders often do not have this sort of centralized power.

Second, the top-level approach assumes a step-by-step, issue-oriented, short-term peace process carried out by top-level leaders.[7] However, the development of peace often does not occur according to this time frame. It is unlikely that those operating at lower levels will wait for an accord to be reached, and only then become engaged in its implementation. More likely they will be acting on their own...some in a way that supports peacebuilding, others likely working to continue or even escalate the conflict if they see that as serving their interests better than peace would do. A more realistic approach to peacebuilding, Lederach (and many others) argue, is a more comprehensive approach that stresses the interdependence of levels and integrates the activities of the various tiers of leadership in the peacebuilding process.[8]

[1] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 38.

[2] Lederach, 40.

[3] Lederach, 40-1.

[4] Lederach, 44.

[5] Lederach, 45.

[6] Lederach, 45.

[7] Lederach, 45.

[8] Lederach, 46.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Elites." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/elite>.

Additional Resources