Constructive Conflict Initiative* -- Summary

A joint call for a dramatic expansion of efforts to improve society's ability to constructively address the full scale and complexity of the challenges posed by destructive conflicts

May 2019 Draft -- v1.2

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Prepared by
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project, Conflict Information Consortium
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We believe that the destructive-conflict-as-usual way in which the U.S.* and so many other societies now commonly address complex, large-scale, intractable conflict represents the single greatest threat to humanity and the planet. Conflict problems are undermining democracy, increasing injustice and inequality, strengthening authoritarians and plutocrats, and, in general, making it nearly impossible for societies to wisely and equitably respond to a wide range of social problems. What's more, there is an increasing risk of state failure, large-scale violence, and, potentially, catastrophic war.

The challenge those of us with conflict expertise face is, in many ways, similar to the challenge faced by climate scientists 40 years ago.  At that time, only a few scientists recognized the enormity of the threat posed by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Fortunately, they were wise enough to embark on what has become a decades-long global movement to limit destructive interactions between human society and the atmosphere.   While these efforts have, obviously, yet to be successful, they have demonstrated that it is possible to mobilize a formidable global response to a common problem. They have also demonstrated that a wide range of conflict-related problems can prevent effective action, even when a problem is well understood and there are realistic steps that can be taken to address it.

At this point, we believe that it is incumbent upon those with a background in the many peace and conflict-related fields to start the process of promoting a large-scale effort to address the many difficult challenges posed by destructive conflict. In order to try to initiate such a process, we have drafted what we are calling a Constructive Conflict Initiative ** which we are circulating along with this Summary (for those who want the "short version").  Our initial goal is to simply obtain suggestions for improving and promoting the Initiative.  We are also looking for individuals and organizations who either are currently, or would be willing to become, actively involved in the kind of effort that we are advocating.  Over the next few months, we hope to generate a wide-ranging discussion of the many complex issues raised by the Initiative, along with specific ideas for next-steps projects that would advance the goals implicit in the Initiative.  Where appropriate (and with the authors' permission), we plan to publicly post the comments we receive as part of an effort to broaden the discussion. 

Many people are already working on this, of course, and we hope to hear from them and learn about their efforts.  But given the enormously complex and difficult nature of these challenges, and the fact that they pervade all societies, it's clear to us that we need an initiative which is comparable in scope to the climate-change movement.  Such a large and multifaceted effort will have to include basic and applied research, education and training, policy analysis, moral leadership, grassroots political action, and, of course, adequate funding. 

As a step toward pursuing this critically important goal, the Constructive Conflict Initiative proposes bringing together a broadly-based group of practitioners, educators, and scholars from the full range of conflict-related disciplines to develop a plan for advancing two objectives:

  • The Promotion of Public Awareness of the Critical Nature of the Intractable Conflict Threat — We need to foster a much more widespread understanding of how society's destructive approach to conflict is taking us ever closer to some combination of three dystopian futures: 
    • Anocracy – with the near total inability of societies to find and implement wise and equitable solutions to common problems, 
    • Autocracy – with the "divide and conquer" domination of societies by authoritarians and plutocrats; and
    • War – the escalation of polarized conflict to the point of large-scale destruction and violence.
  • The Promotion of a New 21st-Century Democracy — To combat these dystopian trends, we need society-wide efforts to cultivate and pursue a 21st-century vision for governance that will build on the best of past democratic ideals, while simultaneously finding ways to prevent the terrible mistakes, injustices, and inadequacies that have also characterized democracy's history. To be successful, this new vision for democracy must build on the most sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics that we can muster. This vision must be able to address more than a dozen extraordinarily difficult conflict challenges, including:
    • Scale – We need to figure out how to adapt traditional small-group processes for promoting more constructive conflict interactions to a mass-media environment where they can help many millions of people engage in conflict more constructively.
    • Social and Psychological Complexity – We need processes that can help millions of people make conflict decisions, often using nonrational processes, in ways that will enable them to play a more constructive role in conflict resolution and decision making. 
    • "Divide and Conquer" Authoritarians and Plutocrats – We need to be able to defend more constructive conflict processes from determined and sophisticated attacks by those who seek to foment conflict as part of the strategy for dominating others.
    • The "Destructive-Conflict-As-Usual" Industrial Complex – We need to overcome opposition from those who profit from destructive-conflict-as-usual practices.

Given the daunting nature of these and related communication, fact-finding, collaboration, and governance challenges, it is clear that a massive effort is needed – one that goes far beyond the slow and incremental advances that the conflict and peacebuilding fields have been able to make in recent years. Securing the support needed to do this will require a credible strategy for meeting the tough challenges that continue to give skeptics reason to question whether alternative dispute resolution and peacebuilding is really better than zero-sum power politics.

At this point, we do not know where this initiative will lead – that will emerge from our conversations over the next several months. Our only long-term commitment is to keep raising the issues and looking for better ways of addressing them. Our current proposal is to start by simply putting our minds together, breaking the problem into manageable pieces, and figuring out how to address each piece. This initial planning effort would, of course, need to consider mutually supportive strategies for obtaining funding, recruiting and training participants, assuring quality, and navigating the inevitable political minefields that such an effort would encounter. 

Such an effort would also need to develop a strategy for creating and maintaining a systematic inventory of what we now know, who is already undertaking related efforts, and what we need to find out that would serve as a basis for RFPs.  This is an effort to initiate a deliberate long-term planning process with the immediate goal of encouraging many more people to start thinking about intractable conflict as an urgent problem in need of urgent attention–just as climate change is seen by much (though unfortunately not all) of the world. 

Please tell us what you think!

Initiative Homepage | View Full Constructive Conflict Initiative | Private Comment / Support Form / Public Discussion Forum

* This initiative is being initially proposed by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, co-directors of the US-based project, Beyond Intractability.  While Beyond Intractability has long looked at the way in which intractable conflicts play out internationally, our primary area of expertise has always been the United States. Recognizing that the U.S. has a long and arrogant history of telling other societies how to do things, we want to be very careful not to speak for others.  For this reason, the documents that we have prepared thus far focus more on how the conflict problem manifests itself in the United States. We simply don't feel that we should speak for other societies. Still, we recognize that the conflict problems we are talking about are truly global and the long-term success of the effort we are proposing will depend on building of partnerships with people willing to address similar problems in their own societies.

**We are indebted to Louis Kriesberg who in 1998 taught us the phrase "Constructive Conflicts" as the most succinct statement of what should be the goal of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields--promoting the constructive aspects of conflict while, at the same time, working to limit its many destructive aspects.  Lou recently published the fifth edition of his excellent book on the subject, Constructive Conflicts, with co-author,  Bruce Dayton.

It should be noted that we have another initiative called the "Constructive Confrontation Initiative" which is designed to show people how the skills typically used by third parties (for instance mediators) can also be usefully applied from an advocacy (i.e. confrontation) perspective.  This initiative is different from that one.  The Constructive Conflict Initiative has a much broader scope. We apologize for the potential confusion, but each title does say, we think, what the initiatives are about better than alternative titles.