Summary of "Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict"

Summary of

Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict

By Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Crocker, Chester A., Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall, eds. Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict. Washington, DC: USIP Press, 2005.

The editors view intractable conflicts as "conflicts that have persisted over time and refused to yield to efforts-through either direct negotiations by the parties or mediation with third-party assistance-to arrive at a political settlement."[1] This volume is concerned not with the sources of conflict, but rather the factors that promote intractability. In the introduction, Crocker et al. briefly outline the broad range of sources of intractability. Intractability can arise from a combination of factors such as a multiplicity of bilateral issues, geography, predatory leaders, relative deprivation and discrimination, zero-sum notions of identity, failures of past peacemaking efforts, changing strategies on the part of actors. They go on to discuss a number of ways in which different types of intractable conflict can be distinguished. Interstate and intrastate conflicts have different dynamics. The level and persistence of violence also varies with some intractable conflicts active. Finally, abeyant intractable conflicts are those that are those temporarily frozen typically due to external intervention, but should the third-party leave they are liable to reignite. For third-party negotiatiors, they face the challenge of getting elites and constituents on board, dealing with factionalization, leaders that cannot deliver on commitments, solutions that are discredited or worn out, and situations in which the risk of being cheated by the other side are too great. Third parties can, in fact, make conflicts worse through inept action, through lack of attention, and by subsuming conflict resolution behavior for other interests be they strategic, economic, and the like.

In the conclusion, they suggest ways forward. First, they make the point that opportunities can be realized where factors are the mirror image of those that make conflicts more intractable. Second, the case studies point to the importance of leadership. Third, the external political environment is also important, something difficult to manipulate. For third-parties, the studies suggest that sometimes freezing the conflict may be the best alternative sometimes, showing partiality only works if the party is delivered to the table, and they offer the caution that third-parties can in fact make things worse.

Chapters in the first part of the book look at general patterns of intractable conflict and the challenges third-parties face in these situations. In his summary of the civil war literature, Licklider emphasizes that conflicts frequently are not 'resolved,' but rather they move from violent to political alternative means (and sometimes back again). Most conflict has moved from interstate to civil war since WWII. While civil wars often end quickly with the government victorious, access to resources and external support can help rebels sustain themselves. The longer civil wars persist, the more likely they will end in negotiated settlement rather than victory for one side. Reducing the security dilemma of participants will make it more likely the settlement will last. Zartman identifies protracted time, identity denigration, conflict profitability, absence of ripeness, and solution polarization internally and embeddedness, bias, and buffering on external dimensions as significant characteristics of intractability. He goes on to explore how these characteristics make positive steps more or less likely. Kriesberg looks at intractability through the lens of conflict phases. He proceeds to discuss internal, relational, and external factors shaping the phases of intractability. Finally, he suggests some positive steps for partisans and intermediaries to take at different phases. Bercovitch considers what contribution mediation can play in intractable conflicts. Mediation is affected by contextual factors such as systemic features, the nature of the conflict itself, and internal characteristics of the parties involved. Behavioral factors related to the identity of the mediator and their choice of strategy[2] are also significant. Chigas explores the contribution of unofficial intermediaries in intractable conflicts, a welcome step in that these efforts have multiplied in the post-Cold War world but little consensus on the merits of such a development. She provides examples of unofficial efforts of track one-and-a-half, track two, and track three diplomacy. Unofficial intermediaries may be more effective, particularly in situations where the parties may feel vulnerable or sovereignty at risk. However, they also may have trouble generating political will for real action. They appear to be best suited to helping to change attitudes and develop lines of communication and trust. She concludes that "the strengths of unofficial intermediation in intractable conflicts are also the source of its weakness; the elements that make certain conflicts intractable both make unofficial intermediaries more useful and limit their effectiveness in intractable conflicts."[3]

The second part examines eight intractable conflicts with a common set of questions. Each chapter seeks a similar analytical framework. They provide an overview of the internal factors of the conflict (goals, ideologies, strategies, and structure of the parties as well as the affects of developments in the conflict); external factors; and the nature of the intervention. Morrison and de Waal chronicle the case of Sudan, a civil war stretching more than two decades that appears to be moving in a positive direction with more active US involvement. The dissolution of Yugoslavia provides a natural experiment for Burg to explore the nature of intractability and identify some lessons for third-party mediators throughout the course of conflict. He finds that the structure of conflict places limits on mediators which, in turn, contributes to intractability. Hare discusses five phases of efforts to end the Angolan conflict, discusses the factors that made the conflict intractable, and suggests some opportunities missed. Arnson and Whitfield explore Colombia's long civil war. They argue that, while the collapse of the peace process is unfortunate, it has provided an opening for the international community to become more involved. King considers conflicts in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia, Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh region disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. While external mediators have done a good job, resolution has been hampered by the fact that all parties have benefited from deadlock. Schaffer and Schaffer discuss how September 11 may have created an opportunity in the fifty year Kashmir conflict. To take advantage of the opportunity, mediators not only need to address the bitterness that has set in over the long conflict, but also craft unconventional ideas such as partial sovereignty and cajoling India and Pakistan to take positive unilateral steps. Snyder's chapter on third-party action on the Korean peninsula emphasizes the ways in which regional interests in resolution are at odds with domestic factors inhibiting reunification. Cohen explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He discusses how the long history of the conflict itself provides an impediment to resolution as different narratives have proliferated. International intervention has largely been unhelpful because it fits a narrative of the conflict largely being dictated by the whims of great powers. Looking at the same conflict, Telhami focuses too on the narratives of the conflict and how they have changed over time, the logic of reciprocity when trapped in a cycle of violence, and argues that for the US to play a constructive role it must commit to it as a priority and build a domestic constituency for the strategy, part of what makes this so difficult to resolve.