Summary of "Intractable Conflicts and their Transformations"

Summary of

Intractable Conflicts and their Transformations

By Louis Kriesberg

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Intractable Conflicts and their Transformations. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell Northrup and Stuart Thorson, eds. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989, 249 pp.

Intractable Conflicts and their Transformations brings together essays from a number of authors who explore intractability through diverse theoretical frameworks and case histories. In all of these essays, intractable conflicts are seen as resisting resolution, but are not considered "unresolvable." These essays were first presented at a conference sponsored by Syracuse University's Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts.

Intractable Conflicts will be of interest to those who seek to understand and avoid or resolve apparently intractable conflicts. This work is divided into ten essays in three parts, with a foreword by Elise Boulding. This book, Boulding observes, offers an "antidote to the frustration and despair that many in the peace studies field feel" in the face increasingly intractable conflicts. These essays offer cogent analyses of the sources of intractability, and offer suggestions for preventing and transforming intractable conflicts.

In the Introduction, Stuart Thorson lays out some of the shared themes which run through the essays which follow. When we analyze conflicts, Thorson observes, we label them as tractable or intractable (resistant to resolution). These are not absolute characteristics, however. Rather it is our perception or framing of the conflict that makes it tractable or not. Thus, in order to transform the conflict from intractable to tractable, we need to reframe or redescribe it.

Thorson gave an example: during World War II the Germans issued an order requiring Danish Jews to wear the Star of David. If the Danish people had followed the order, they would have been divided into Jews and Danes. This is the way that the Germans wanted to frame the situation. However, King David announced that there was no such differences dividing Danish people and all of them would be wearing the Star. Thus he redescribed the situation it in such a way that identification (and hence discrimination) against Jews became impossible. In this case a one sided reframing of the problem influenced the perceptions and led to conflict transformation. After the King and his people started wearing the Star, the Germans disavowed their order.

A mutual reframing of the problem can have an even greater impact on the conflict's development. Grobachev's "new thinking" can be understood as a suggestion for mutual reframing of U.S.-Soviet relationships. The articles presented in this book show how changing shared perspectives or defining the problem in common terms can move conflicts toward their resolution.

Part One of the book explores the sources of intractability. Fred Frohock evaluates the potential for reason to resolve conflicts. Practical reasoning can and does admit contrary conclusions. Hence, intractable conflicts do not simply reflect a lack of reasonableness in one party or another. Susan Hunter explores the case of environmental conflict in the Lake Tahoe Basin to provide a framework for analysis of intractable environmental conflict. She argues that intractable conflict between environmental and pro-development actors tend to stem from "ontological" differences, that is, basic differences in identity, values and perception. Taking another tack, John Agnew explores the spatial and temporal sources of ethnic conflicts, suggesting that intractability "is generated by the dynamics of the conflict, rather than by the reasoning processes of the parties to it."

The second part of the book describes the dynamics of intractable conflict. Terrell Northrup addresses the role of identity in the development, maintenance, and transformation of intractable conflicts. Participants' identities form the basis for their subjective interpretations of the external conditions of conflict. Such subjective interpretations are crucially important to an understanding of conflict. (A summary of this chapter alone is included in this set of abstracts). Ruth Wynn analyses the history of child custody disputes. Jeffrey Haydu discusses the sources of and increasing intractability in labor conflicts from 1897 to 1911, with emphasis on the perceived legitimacy of collective bargaining.

Part Three focuses on the transformation of intractable conflicts into more tractable forms. Louis Kriesberg discusses conflicts in the Middle East and Central Europe. Drawing on these cases, he argues that "tractability or intractability is not an inherent characteristic of a conflict." He identifies three critical issues in preventing a conflict from becoming intractable, and suggests strategies for preventing intractability. (A more detailed summary of this article is also included in this set of abstracts.)

John Nagle examines the rise of the West German Greens as an evolving response to intractable political conflicts, and evaluates their potential for success. James Palmer and Richard Smardon investigate the human-use values associated with wetlands, particularly the wetlands near Juneau, Alaska. While differing values and goals form the basis of such environmental conflicts, accurate information about such values may identify points around which constructive dialogue can occur. Richard Schwartz examines Arab-Jewish dialogues in the United States. He argues that "grass-roots reconciliatory dialogue can occur across adversarial lines." While such dialogues do not involve decision makers, they may contribute to successful resolution of conflict by promoting understanding and fostering creative ideas.

Louis Kriesberg concludes this book by discussing the research and policy implications of its essays. The cases in the book, he observes, can be characterized according to the nature of the of the adversaries, the social systems within which they contend, and the issues they struggle about. Transformation of the conflicts depends on those characteristics. For instance, Kriesberg observes, "social conflicts involving one or more adversaries who are not clearly bounded or highly differentiated are likely to follow different patterns of intractability transformation than are conflicts among clearly bounded and highly differentiated adversaries" (p. 121). The transition toward tractability would be faster if adversaries are bound by the decisions of their leaders. For example, the shift toward tractability was easier to achieve between the governments of Israel and Egypt than between Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians.

Further, Louis Kriesberg identifies areas for future research in transformation of intractable conflicts. Those areas include: how to achieve a settlement without ontological changes in the parties' views; how conflicting interests are transformed toward recognition of common aspects; how other conflicts prevail over the original one and shift the parties' views about the primary enemy and even unite them to fight with a new enemy; what is the role of the intermediary in facilitating de-escalation; how formal and informal intermediaries compare. There is a debate about the nature of intractable conflict transformation. One opinion is that transformation should be gradual. This allows the parties time to reassess each other and develop trust that will lead to the conflict becoming tractable. Another view is that when the conflict has reached the stage of intractability, a dramatic shift in its nature is needed to transform the relationships. Meeting basic human needs can encourage transformation. There is a need to examine examples of conflict transformation toward tractability.

Kriesberg suggests policy decisions that can prevent conflict from becoming intractable. These include: efforts by policy makers to prevent some parties from developing deep interests in continuing the conflict, or from threatening the identity of the opponent; or they can develop institutional ways of managing conflicts.

In order to stimulate transformation, policies can be pursued which encourage gradual development of support for accommodation with the opponent; identifying some issues that can be settled and working to resolve them; redefining the past and present relationships between adversaries to achieve reconciliation and accommodation. There are also several short-term strategies that can de-escalate the conflicts, such as finding parties that would agree on a partial settlement; finding issues on which agreement can be reached; using intermediaries to transform the destructive patterns of relationships by, for example, adding compensatory benefits. "What seems obvious and necessary about a conflict can be recognized as a social convention that could be different under changed circumstances" Kriesberg observes. (p. 220) This suggests that even the most intractable conflicts can be transformed if the circumstances that causes them--and contributes to their perseverence can be changed.