Business As Usual-1: Same Old Approach, Just More or Better

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October, 2016



This is the first "Business-as-Usual" video looks at people who believe that all you need to do with intractable conflicts is to take the same approach, but do it more, or do it better. This is very common--to a hammer, all the world is a nail--but it seldom works.  That's because intractable conflicts generally aren't "ripe" for resolution and traditional approaches don't work.  Sometimes, they even make the situation worse.  Given that, fundamentally different strategies are needed to address these conflicts successfully.

Referenced Resource

Things to Think About

  • Think of an intractable conflict you know and care about.
  • What are the “business-as-usual” techniques that have been tried to solve it?
  • What happened?
  • Can you think of a way to “change the game”—to do something new and different (that might be better)?  
  • If you are inclined to discuss these ideas, go to our D3 Discussion page.

Full Transcript 

Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. And this is the first in the series of videos that we are calling "Business as Usual." This video looks at people who believe that all you need to do with intractable conflicts is to take the same approach that you take to other conflicts, but do it more or do it better.

You may remember in an earlier video I discussed the fact that we've had a longstanding conflict over whether or not "intractable" is a useful word or a misleading or problematic word. People who think that it's misleading or problematic tend to fall into two different categories.

The first is those who told us that there are no such things as intractable conflicts, there are just intractable people. Well, if you assume that the problem is intractable people, what that suggests is you need to get rid of them. That's what we did with Saddam Hussein. That's what we did with Qaddafi. We didn't do it with Yasser Arafat, but there were many people sitting around thinking, well, as soon as he dies, things in Israel and Palestine will be better. They weren't, obviously.

There's been a lot of talk about getting rid of-- not necessarily killing-- but getting Assad out of power in Syria. And there are certainly those who would like to see Putin out of power in Russia and think that things might go better there if he were out of power. I might note, if there is anybody from Russia who is watching this and getting alarmed, that there are plenty of people who think that we'd be better off with regime change in the United States as well!

So the notion is, if you think the problem is intractable people, what you should do is get rid of the people. But we saw in Iraq, we saw in Israel, Palestine, we saw in Libya that just getting rid of the, quote, "bad guys" isn't adequate to solving the problem.

The other common assertion is that conflicts are intractable because the mediators who have tried to mediate them weren't good at it. They engaged in what is sometimes called bad "statecraft." Well, if you look at how many people have tried to mediate the Israel/Palestine conflict over the years-- here I have pictures of recent people, but we could have gone back as far as Nixon and Kissinger, Carter, Clinton-- many, many people have tried many times to mediate that conflict and it remains intractable.

Was there bad statecraft along the way? Certainly. There were a lot of things that were done that were not helpful. But I would argue that it's not just bad statecraft that has made that conflict so difficult, there are many, many other factors that have made it very resistant to resolution.

Bill Zartman would assert that the problem is that that conflict has never become what he called "ripe" for resolution. The notion of ripeness is that all of the parties agree that negotiating a settlement is likely, or at least possibly, would leave them better off than continuing the conflict. If at least one of the sides or all the sides believes that they might be able to win the conflict, or if they believe that negotiation or resolution isn't as likely to meet their needs and interests as well as continuing the fight, they will continue the fight. That, of course, is the rational explanation.

There also is an emotional explanation that they've been involved in this for so long, they're so angry at the other side, they are so humiliated, so hurt, that there's no way they're going to sit down at a table and negotiate and give in to the other side. So one definition of intractability is simply conflicts that are not ripe for resolution.

There's a quote that's frequently cited, sometimes attributed to Einstein, sometimes Franklin, sometimes Mark Twain-- possibly the three people that we think are smartest in the United States, I don't know-- but the quote says, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." I would argue that's what we're doing with intractable conflicts. Most mediators, most peace builders go in and try the same thing as was done before, thinking that somehow they will be better at it, they will have the right parties at the table, they will have the right ingredients in the peace agreement, they will do something differently that brings about the magic result. It seldom happens.

We argue that when it comes to intractable conflicts, we need to start doing something fundamentally different. What that different thing is-- and there's not one thing, there's many things. And that's what we're going to be discussing over the course of this seminar.

Photo Credits:

Slide 2: Thumbs up.  by Dave Gandy  Permission cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 3:  Saddam Hussein. By Mary Harrsch. Permission: CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0.   Arafat and Gaddafi.  By Rex Features [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Putin:  by Kremlin ru.  Assad:  Permission: CC by 3.0.Assad: By Bashar_al-Assad.jpg: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr derivative work: César (Bashar_al-Assad.jpg) cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 4: Obama and Netanyahu: Permission: By Executive Office of the President [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Kerry and Abbas: By U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Clinton and Peres. By U.S. Department of State (Secretary Clinton With Israeli President Peres) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Bush, Power, Rice, and Rumsfeld: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 5: Grapes Attribution CC0 public domain, no attribution required

Slide 6:  Einstein by Informiguel Carreña. (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Franklin: by Joseph Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Twain: by Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.