Characteristics Of Intractable Conflicts


Jacob Bercovitch

October 2003


Additional insights into the characteristics of intractable conflict are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

International conflicts cannot be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. They have many different features. Some conflicts are waged constructively, where the parties involved can bridge over their differences through negotiations or other amicable means. Other conflicts follow a more destructive path. Such conflicts may take place between individuals, groups, or nations, simply resist any attempt at management, and go on and on toward higher levels of hostility, intensity and usually violence. Peaceful strategies or approaches that might be applicable in some conflicts appear to be quite unhelpful in such conflicts. We refer to such conflicts as intractable conflicts. When we use the term "intractable" to describe conflicts, we have in mind long-standing conflicts such as the one in Northern Ireland, the conflict between Israel and its neighbors (including the Palestinians), or the conflict between India and Pakistan.

There are many intractable conflicts in international relations. Some take place within states (and often spill over to the external environment), some take place between states. Either way, there is no doubt that they are amongst the most dangerous conflicts in the world today. They threaten not only their immediate environment, but entire regions and large parts of the world too. These conflicts have dominated the international arena and have spawned much of the violence and terrorism that we witness today. Clearly, we have to understand these conflicts, and more importantly, learn how best to manage them, before they cause further damage to a fragile international system. This is the purpose of this website.

On Intractable Conflicts

First and foremost, we must recognize that there is nothing pre-ordained about the course or dynamics of a conflict. Conflicts are not inherently intractable or inherently co-operative. Some conflicts erupt and are settled peacefully within a short time; others simply defy any attempt at termination. Generally speaking, we can say that conflicts over deep-rooted issues (e.g. identity and human needs) tend to generate more strife and violence and become protracted. Intractable conflicts are not just longer-lasting conflicts, they are also more likely to be violent and destructive, and of course more difficult to deal with or manage. We use the term intractable conflicts to describe conflicts that sink into self-perpetuating violent interactions in which each party develops a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict. Deep feelings of fear and hostility coupled with destructive behavior make these conflicts very difficult to deal with, let alone resolve. We do not, however, mean to imply that such conflicts can never be managed. Intractable conflicts have features in common with other conflicts. As such, we must accept the possibility that intractable conflicts can be managed and resolved.[1]

An intractable conflict is thus, first and foremost, a process (not just a single violent episode) of competitive relationships that extend over a period of time, and involves hostile perceptions and occasional military actions. The term itself acts as an integrating concept connoting processes where states become enmeshed in a web of negative interactions and hostile orientations. This pattern is repeated, indeed worsened, every so often, with the parties involved unable to curb, or manage, the escalation of their relationships. Given the characteristics of intractable conflicts, the lack of contact between the parties, the hostility and repeated violence, it seems plausible to suggest that one path out of this dilemma would be to accept some form of third-party mediation. Third parties can play a very useful role in the context of intractable conflicts.

Characteristics of Intractable Conflicts

Intractable conflicts are clearly different from other conflicts. The major characteristics of intractable conflicts can be summarized as follows:

  1. In terms of actors, intractable conflicts involve states or other actors with a long sense of historical grievance, and a strong desire to redress or avenge these.
  2. In terms of duration, intractable conflicts take place over a long period of time.
  3. In terms of issues, intractable conflicts involve intangible issues such as identity, sovereignty, or values and beliefs.
  4. In terms of relationships intractable conflicts involve polarized perceptions of hostility and enmity, and behavior that is violent and destructive.
  5. In terms of geopolitics, intractable conflicts usually take place where buffer states exist between major power blocks or civilizations.
  6. In terms of management, intractable conflicts resist many conflict management efforts and have a history of failed peacemaking efforts.

Where these are the accepted norms of interaction, a sustained effort at resolution must come from outside, for a variety of suitable third parties.

Whichever way we look at them, intractable conflicts pose the greatest danger to the international system. Some recent studies point out that much of the violence in international relations can be accounted for by the behavior of a few states locked in intractable conflicts. Therefore, finding ways to manage or transform these conflicts into something more constructive is of great importance.[2]

[1] Peter T. Coleman, "Intractable Conflict" in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, Eric C. Marcus, eds. (John Wiley & Sons, 2011). <>.

[2] For further information on intractability characteristics, see: Putnam, Linda and Julia M. Wondolleck, "Intractability: Definitions, Dimensions, and Distinctions" in Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts, Roy Lewicki, Barbara Gray and Michael Elliot, eds. (Island Press, 2003). <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Bercovitch, Jacob. "Characteristics Of Intractable Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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