Summary of "Getting to Peace: Transforming Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World"

Summary of

Getting to Peace: Transforming Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World

By William Ury

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Getting to Peace: Transforming Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World, by William Ury, (New York: Viking, 1999).

Respected mediator and negotiation scholar William Ury, author of Getting to Yes, and Getting Past No, turns to the larger issue of peace, asking "Is peace a possibility--or a pipe dream?" Ury gives a brief history of conflict, and then focuses on the roles of the "third side" in resolving conflict.

Ury begins by identifying three common beliefs that make peace seem impossible. First, people say that "when push comes to shove" people will always resort to war to resolve their serious disagreements. Second, people often believe that war, violence and aggression are basic parts of human nature and inevitable parts of life. Third, people assume that there is nothing an individual can do to end war; the best approach is to stay out of other peoples' conflicts.

In contrast, Ury notes that peaceful coexistence is by far the most common situation in human life. "Most of the time, most people get along."(p. xviii) Hence Ury argues for a very different way of seeing the project of getting to peace: "Seeing human life as peaceful conflict resolution interrupted by periods of strife, rather than the other way around, transforms the challenge from the negative one of ending war to the positive one of extending the peace. Our not to go from zero percent peaceful interaction to a hundred percent, but rather to go from something like ninety percent to something like ninety-nine percent."(p. xix) Despite the obvious challenges, Ury's own experiences make him optimistic.

The Third Side

In western or modern societies, conflicts are typically thought of as having two sides: the opponents. As an anthropologist, Ury has studied two simple societies, the Semai and the Bushmen, which are well known for their peacefulness. He argues that those societies recognize what moderns have largely forgotten. "Every conflict occurs within a community that constitutes the 'third side' of any dispute."(p. 7) The Semai and the Bushmen both employ this third side purposefully and vigorously, to contain and resolve conflicts before they escalate. Ury sees traces of the third side in action in modern societies, in situations ranging from family conflicts to international disputes.

Ury describes the third side as "people--from the community--using a certain kind of power--the power of peers--from a certain perspective--of common ground--supporting a certain process--of dialogue and nonviolence--and aiming for a certain product--a 'triple win.'"(p. 14) The presence of third parties usually has a moderating effect on conflicts. The third side perspective, the view from the broader community, can remind disputants of their shared interests. The third side strives for a solution that satisfies both the disputants and the wider community.

The third side is made up of both insiders and outsiders. In the case of South Africa's conflict over apartheid, the governments, institutions and peoples of the other nations were the outsiders. Insiders included church and business groups, most notably Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, who together made a powerfully effective voice for the third side. Ury also suggests that there is an inner third side in most people; an innate resistance to violence which, although it can obviously be weakened, can also be cultivated and strengthened. In short, the third side is all of us. By ignoring a conflict or taking sides we all contribute to escalating it. And so, preventing violent conflict is everyone's responsibility. Even when we are ourselves directly involved in a conflict, we have the option of adopting the third-side perspective.

A Brief History of Conflict

Ury also addresses the common misconception that humans are naturally violent and warlike. Archeologists have found no evidence of war or organized violence during the vastly greater part of human and pre-human history. Evidence of war only occurs in the past 10,000 years. Moreover, organized violence would not have been adaptive in the prehistoric environment. Humans existed for hundreds of thousands of years in gatherer-hunter societies. Groups were small and mobile, population density was low, and resources were relatively plentiful. Survival depended on the ability to cooperate, and share labor, food and resources.

Under such conditions, war made very little sense. There would be little to gain. Loss of even a few members could devastate a group. Other groups could retaliate, or at least stop sharing and cooperating with the aggressive group. Moving away was always a feasible, and much lower cost, option. "Faced with the challenge of survival, everyone could benefit from cooperation while everyone would usually lose from fighting."(p. 46) Anthropological studies suggest that early human would have had as many conflicts as modern ones, but that they would have contained those conflicts and avert violence by using a combination of the third side, and exit options. In strongly interdependent societies, social discipline is strong, and people rarely disregard the communal will. Ury concludes that "humanity evolved in what might be called a 'co-culture,' where conflict was handled most constructively--through coexistence and cooperation."(p. 55)

To say that humans are naturally aggressive is misleading. Humans (and other primates) certainly have the capacity for violent aggression. Yet humans also show a capacity to control aggression. Modern human societies show extreme variations in their rates of violence--as great as a thousand-fold from the most peaceful to the most violent. Ury notes that "the level of variation alone suggests that far more than human nature is at play."(p. 55) Violence is simply one tactic among many that people may use to handle disputes. Violence is a capacity that humans exercise by choice, rather than an instinct that manifests itself uncontrollably.

Why then did warfare arise in the last 10,000 years? Ury argues that war arose with an increase in population, the relative scarcity of resources, and so a shift to sedentary, agriculture-based societies. Ury notes that "the form of social organization changed from an open network to a relatively closed village."(p. 65) The agricultural revolution created the first human cities, and a population explosion. Under these new conditions, war begins to make sense. The aggressor stood to gain possession of fixed resources, the value of which outweighed cooperation. Slavery became feasible. With the population boom, people were increasingly expendable. Moving away from the conflict was no longer an option. At the same time, traditional structures for managing conflict were weakened.

This era also saw the invention of human organizations based on coercion and hierarchical power. Power over others becomes a vicious goal; pursued from greed and from the fear that of one does not dominate then they will be oppressed. As Ury describes it, "networks of negotiation turned into pyramids of power."(p. 70) Rulers are even more compelled by the logic of war, since their personal costs are low (soldiers do the dying) and the potential gains are high.

Ury argues that the conditions of human life are again changing, and changing in ways that make creating peace and ending war more possible. The basic resource of human society is shifting from land to knowledge. Land is a fixed resource, and so invited fixed-pie thinking, emphasis on boundaries and competition. Knowledge is an expandable resource. It increases through being shared, and so invites cooperation and erodes boundaries. Because modern weapons are relatively cheap and massively destructive, violent conflict is changing from a win-lose proposition, to an all-lose situation. In a nuclear exchange, no one would win; conventional bombs and landmines are little better. Knowledge also offers an alternative to coercion as a source of power. Correspondingly, hierarchical power structures are increasingly being leveled, and replaced with decentralized networks.

People are also increasingly, globally interdependent. Increased interdependence leads to more conflicts, with potentially widespread impacts, and to greater vulnerability. However, "growing vulnerability means greater motivation for the community to take action to prevent harmful conflict."(p.101) The knowledge revolution creates both the motivation and the tools to resurrect the third side. Ury sees an increase in the amount and quality of negotiation happening in all areas of human life: negotiations between citizens in democracies, between managers in decentralized business corporations, between spouses in egalitarian marriages. He predicts that "the pyramids of power are collapsing into the time-honored networks of negotiation."(p. 108)

Preventing, Resolving and Containing Conflicts

Conflict cannot and should not be eliminated, since it is necessary for creating change. Peace requires conflicts be channeled into constructive, cooperative processes. The third side has three basic tasks in channeling conflict. First, it seeks to prevent destructive conflicts from arising by addressing tension early. Second, it seeks to resolve overt conflicts when they do arise. Third, it seeks to contain escalating conflicts. Ury describes ten roles the third side can play.

Three roles are aimed toward conflict prevention. They are the roles of provider, teacher, and bridge-builder. Conflicts often arise when people have unmet needs. Tensions escalate when people lack the skills to defuse them. Strong relationships help prevent conflict. Providers work to enable people to meet their basic needs for safety, respect, well being and freedom. Providers share resources, offer respect, protect and liberate. Provider initiatives include job training; midnight basketball leagues for at-risk youth; Grameen banks which offer small loans to the very poor; shared decision-making between parents and children, or between mangers and workers; and international cooperative security pacts. Teachers show people alternatives to violence, and help people learn the skills needed to defuse tension and manage conflict. One initiatives to de-legitimate violence brings war veterans to talk to teen-agers. Tolerance and coexistence are increasingly taught in schools, and television shows like Sesame Street model friendship across groups. Through their schools and through peer education, student are learning violence prevention and problem-solving skills. Bridge-builders foster relationships, communication and cross-cutting ties between groups, either by reaching out personally or by bringing others together. Bridge-building initiatives include dialogue groups and joint projects, ranging from economic ventures to political lobbying to charitable activities.

Mediators, arbitrators, equalizers, and healers work to resolve conflicts. In general, disputants have four ways of trying to resolve disputes. They can try to talk to reconcile their interests. They can appeal for an imposed decision based on their rights. They can engage in a power contest. Or they can try to improve and strengthen their relationship. Mediators help people reconcile their interests by bringing them into negotiations, by facilitating communication, and by helping them search for a solution. Arbitrators decide a dispute for the opponents. They may be formal judges or simply respected peers. Arbitrators shape their decisions based on the merits of the case, with a strong concern for justice. Arbitrators also encourage the parties to try negotiating to reach their own shared decision. Equalizers help balance the power between opposed parties, so that they can negotiate a fair and mutual solution. They may intervene to bring the stronger party into negotiations, to establish democratic procedures, or to support nonviolent action. Healers repair injured relationships. They seek to break down psychological walls of hostility and recrimination, and build relations of trust. Healers listen to the aggrieved parties and acknowledge their feelings. Healers encourage people to apologize, and to forgive.

Through the roles of witness, referee, and peacekeeper the third side seeks to contain escalated conflicts. Ury explains that "unresolved conflict escalates because no one is paying attention to the conflict or, even if someone is, because no one sets limits on the fighting, or, lastly, because no one intervenes to provide protection."(p. 170) Witnesses look for early warning signs of violent conflict, speak out against violence when it occurs, and summon help. Witness-based initiatives include programs to identify potential gang members, neighborhood crime watch programs and citizen patrols, and community policing. Referees establish rules for fair fights, limit offensive weapons and strengthen defenses. Businesses agree to principles for fair competition. Voter demand that political candidates refrain from excessively negative campaigning. Internationally, states construct arms control and disarmament treaties. Domestically many enact gun control. Switzerland has developed an exclusively defense-oriented military. Individuals may learn non-offensive martial arts, such as Aikido, or simply how to respond to insults with humor. "When the rules are broken and the limits on fighting exceeded, the community needs to employ the minimally forceful measures necessary to stop harmful conflict in its tracks."(p. 184) This is the job of peacekeepers. Peacekeepers interpose themselves between combatants, restrain or imprison aggressors, and defend victims and the weaker side.

What You Can Do

In conclusion, Ury suggests twelve things that each individual can do to begin to move toward a "co-culture" of coexistence, cooperation, negotiation and peace. First, we can reject pessimistic beliefs about the inevitability of war. Second, we can each learn some problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. We can then use and share those skills in our daily interactions. Try to mediate your own disputes. Decide which peacebuilding role best suits you and incorporate it into your existing activities. A journalist might make an effort to witness; a teacher could include conflict resolution in his lessons. Volunteer with a peacebuilding program. Be alert for situations that need third side intervention; when you see the need for someone to fill a third side role, fill it, or find someone else to fill it.

Form alliances and work with other third-siders. Recruit your group or organization into playing a stronger third side role. Support third side activities in the broader community and world. Help develop and build new third side initiatives and institutions. Finally, recognize that you are creating a profound social movement toward peaceful human coexistence. Ever the optimist, Ury ends by saying, "because the task of creating a genuine co-culture may take a generation or more, there is no better time for us to begin than now."(p. 207)