Case #2158.0

A Puzzle Too Complex? James Baker’s Mediation Mission in Western Sahara, 1997-2004

Publication Date: June 3, 2019
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An uneasy ceasefire has held in Western Sahara since 1991, largely preventing a resumption of armed conflict. Yet a  final status agreement to sustainably resolve the conflict has proved elusive.  This case describes the strategy and tactics employed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to mediate an end to the Western Sahara territorial dispute from 1997 to his resignation as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Personal Envoy in 2004. A highly skilled and accomplished international diplomat, Baker’s attempts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict were ultimately unsuccessful.  The case maps out a complex web of relationships between Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, the US, France, UK, Spain and the “Frente Polisario” movement in Western Sahara. Every time the negotiations appeared to take a step forward, the process was put two steps back a matter of weeks or months later. Little changed on the ground in Western Sahara. The obstacles to determining the final status of the disputed territory had only grown increasingly entrenched during Baker’s fruitless efforts to negotiate a solution. Through the late 2010s, Western Sahara continues to be an important, if relatively neglected, conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Learning Objective:
The case study is ideally suited to introduce the “negotiation barriers audit” concept to students who have already acquired basic negotiation analysis skills. It is designed to facilitate a live, in-class discussion about three unique challenges that mediators and negotiators faced when bargaining over a resolution of the Western Sahara territorial dispute: a) internal fragmentation amongst negotiators, b) external shocks that tighten alliances and deepen divides, and c) powerful partners that create new barriers to agreement.


Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Authors:
Arvid Bell and Tom O'Bryan
Faculty Leads:
Brian Mandell and Arvid Bell
Pages (incl. exhibits):
Western Sahara
Funding Source:
Negotiation Task Force (NTF) at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies