Beyond Intractability
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De-escalation Stage
Louis Kriesberg

September 2003


All conflicts, even intractable ones, eventually wind down and are to some degree transformed, so that they become regarded as tractable. Collective identities do change, sometimes abruptly, when state borders change or when states break up or even dissolve, as did the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia at the end of the twentieth century. Even without border changes, the content of a collective identity can and does change in the course of large-scale conflict. For example, the meaning of being South African changed as the wrongness of apartheid became a matter of wide consensus among all peoples of South Africa. Adversaries may come to recognize shared identities, sometimes induced by threats from a common enemy.

Conflict de-escalation and transformation are often also associated with reduced grievances, at least for members of one side. This change occurs as relations between the adversaries change, in the course of the struggle. Thus, some rights that one party sought may be at least partially won, and that party's goals are then accordingly softened.

Carolyn Stephenson says that both escalation and de-escalation are need to resolve conflicts.

Goals also change as they come to be regarded as unattainable or as requiring unacceptable burdens. Goals may then be recast so that they may be achieved with reasonable means. They may even be recast so as to provide mutual benefits for the opposing sides. For example, Frederik Willem de Klerk, as president of South Africa, led in reformulating the goals of the National Party, Afrikaners, and whites of South Africa to create a new, post-apartheid state.

The methods that adversaries believe they can use effectively in a conflict do not become progressively more destructive as a conflict persists. As with goals, those methods, after a time, may become too costly or ineffective. Supporters may cease to be supportive, when norms are violated or costs become too burdensome. (This was certainly the case in the United States as the war in Vietnam wore on.) The methods may come to be seen as counterproductive for the goals sought, particularly if alternative methods, promising more constructive outcomes, seem feasible. (Much more information about de-escalation can be found in the primary essay on this topic.)

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "De-escalation Stage." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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