By Louis Kriesberg
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "De-escalating Conflicts," Chapter 7 in Constructive Conflicts, by Louis Kriesberg, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998), pp. 181-222
All conflict eventually de-escalate, and de-escalation always precedes resolution. Kriesberg examines the processes and conditions that produce de-escalation. He also describes policies for fostering de-escalation
De-escalation processes occur within the parties, in the character of their interactions, and in external parties or the broader community. In individuals, the social-psychological theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that "if people can be brought to make conciliatory moves toward an adversary, they will tend to justify their actions and value what they have done."(p. 182) Older conflict goals come to be seen as dissonant with current actions, and may be devalued in favor of more conciliatory aims. Psychological processes of entrapment often foster conflict escalation. Parties may also become entrapped in de-escalation processes. People can avoid being caught up escalating entrapment processes by being aware of the dynamic, and by setting strong limits at the outset of the conflict. Sympathy and empathy also contribute to de-escalation. Processes within a group or organization can also contribute to de-escalation. The unequally distributed costs of conflict can prompt the formation of constituencies for de-escalation. Extremist factions can also alienate members, leading them to favor moderation and de-escalation. Competition for leadership can consolidate and intensify de-escalation pressures.
Interaction processes occurring between the parties also contribute to de-escalation. Such processes include reciprocity, issue containment, and party bonding. Parties avoid escalation by not overreacting to each other, but instead by reacting equivalently. Under-reacting can sometimes promote de-escalation. Through interaction, parties may develop shared norms that constrain conflict behavior. Parties can prevent escalation be staying focused on their specific goals. Kriesberg notes that such focus was key in keeping the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights protesters from becoming violent (in response to police violence), and contributed significantly to the success of their movement. When adversaries interact over time, they may develop social bonds that encourage de-escalation.
Other parties in the broader social context can also contribute to de-escalation. They may model de-escalation processes, or simply show that de-escalation is indeed possible. They may set and enforce limits on conflict escalation, prohibiting violence, for instance. Third parties may serve as conflict intermediaries, mediators, and conflict resolution facilitators.
Conditions Contributing to De-escalation
Changes in the underlying conditions affect the emergence and escalation of conflicts, and also affect the de-escalation of conflicts. Generally, de-escalation is a gradual, cumulative process. Relevant changes may be internal to the parties, may occur in the parties' relationship, or may occur in the broader social context. Parties may lose confidence in the rightness of their cause or their basic ideology. They may become dissatisfied with militant strategies, after experiencing their failure. Such changes hastened the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Crises within a party may divert resources attention away from the conflict. Changes in the composition of a group may also change their attitude toward pursuing the conflict.
De-escalation often occurs after the parties' relationship reaches a stalemate. De-escalation is particularly likely when remaining in the stalemate is costly for both sides, and when a better alternative is available. One important component of a better alternative is that in it the parties do not threaten each other's significant interests. In South Africa, for instance, anti-apartheid forces called for majority rule, but still acknowledged the equal rights of whites as natives of South Africa.
De-escalating changes in the broader social context include shifts in the importance of a particular conflict, relative to other problem or conflicts. Economic changes may also exert de-escalation pressure. Kriesberg observes that "economic expansion, which is a goal shared by all the adversaries, encourages cooperation and facilitates finding win-win outcomes."(p. 198)
Policies Favoring De-escalation
Changing conditions create opportunities for de-escalation, but do not guarantee that it will occur. Policies to promote de-escalation must take advantage of favorable conditions, and must be carefully tailored to the prevailing conditions, the stage of the conflict, and the nature of de-escalation that is desired.
It is usually easiest to prevent escalation in the early stages of a conflict. Unfortunately, early stage conflicts are usually low profile, and people have little motivation to invest time or resources in escalation prevention. In the short term, involved parties can limit themselves to relatively nonprovocative conflict tactics, keep issues narrowly focused, and respond proportionally to the other side. Intermediary parties may limit the antagonists conflict resources, and may provide mediation, consultation, facilitation, or research services to the involved parties. Long-term policies should promote crosscutting social ties, shared identities, improved conditions for disadvantaged groups, and institutionalized procedures for conflict resolution.
Short-term de-escalation policies for sharply escalating conflicts include finding ways to lessen the parties' sense of urgency--to "buy them time" for more careful consideration of their actions. This approach is often used to handle hostage situations. In the long term, policies should aim at preventing crises are. Developing crosscutting groups helps avoid sparking crises, and gives parties alternative channels for resolution when conflicts do arise. Confidence building measures help avoid misunderstandings and reassure each side of the other's intentions.
In cases of protracted or seemingly intractable conflict, general de-escalation take long time and starts from small steps. Parties to the conflict may begin by seeking to counter feeling fearful and threatened. Leaders may publicly commit to pursuing peaceful negotiations. Conciliatory gestures, such as an apology, can enhance a party's credibility with the other side. Leaders and officials must cultivate a constituency for de-escalation, and must manage the militant factions within their respective groups. When the parties are frozen in hostile relations, intermediaries may play a role by facilitating communication, opening negotiations, mediating, or opening back channels for negotiation.
Long term de-escalation policies for protracted conflicts may employ a graduated reciprocation in tension reduction (GRIT) strategy, or the tit-for-tat (TFT) strategy. Both seek to build cooperative relations between adversarial parties. Strengthening shared identities also de-escalates conflict over time. Nongovernmental policies may also facilitate de-escalation. In South Africa, economic policies that stressed free markets and efficiency undermined emphasis on maintaining white purity. Blacks who adopted this economic philosophy were increasing incorporated into the business establishment. Outside parties can further de-escalation by maintaining pressure on the adversaries and by offering assistance and development aid. Intermediaries may foster better understanding between the parties, sponsor problem-solving workshops and dialog groups, and help the parties identify mutual interests.
No person, group, or set of conditions can guarantee that a conflict will proceed constructively. In order to manage conflict effectively, parties must develop policies that are responsive to the stage and nature of the conflict, the conflict context, the parties' relationship, and the direction of change in external conditions. Minimizing violence and using nonviolent tactics is generally an effective policy for making conflicts constructive. Conflict de-escalation policies must rest on a vision of the desired new relationship with the other side. Kriesberg says, "a basic finding of this analysis is that transforming transitions come about when a new way of thinking about their conflict becomes dominant in each of the primary adversaries."(p. 217) They realize that they cannot go on as they have been, and that negotiation and cooperation promise a better future.