Ron Fisher

Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution, School of International Service, American University

Topics: track I - track II cooperation, trust building, rebuilding relationships, complexity, peace processes

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: The first question that I ask everybody is, will you please give me an overview of your work?

A: Well that's a tough question. I have been at it... I published the first article on conflict resolution in the journal in 1972. From that there has been a string of scholarly publications which generally focus on what I call interactive conflict resolution, dialogue, problem solving, unofficial small group kinds of work that we hope that supports official processes, but supports peace building in general. That's the one side of it. The other side of it is as a practitioner, it would be in two domains.

One would be in conflict resolution training. I first started offering training workshops mostly on interpersonal conflict in organizational settings in the mid- 1970s and have continued to do that ever since. More into the late 80s and early 90s I was kind of part of the first wave of conflict resolution practitioners who went international. I had always been interested in the international community. My PhD was actually completed with a minor in international relations. That was the period during which we took a lot of the concepts and the skills we worked with in domestic conflict resolution training and took the wider field; for me especially focusing on ethno political conflict at the international level. That's probably about it. The two areas: scholar and practitioner.

The other thing I guess that I have done is a lot of work in graduate programs. In fact the last five years has been focusing on looking at graduate programs looking at conflict resolution, helping them design them, helping them to develop them and now here at American basically as a faculty member continuing that implementation.

Q: I wanted to ask you some questions about the contingency model that you developed a few years back. I wonder if maybe first we should start out with a brief description, it doesn't have to be detailed, but just to sort of give a little context. And then I am going to ask you some specific questions about applicability and such.

A: Well, interestingly enough in relation to this project it was intractable ethno political conflict, which was my primary concern, and has been the primary concern of a lot of people in the field. Our sense was that the traditional methods of conflict management were not only ineffective but in some ways may be making things worse.

For example, there are two sides in an intractable conflict that negotiate with a lot of frustration and failure. What they have done to each other in the negotiations becomes another issue in the intractable conflict. I have worked a lot on Cyprus and it is a very good example of that. The intention was to see if there was some way that through a combination of different third party interventions, some tend to come more from the official domain and some from unofficial, we might better be able to effectively address intractable violent conflict. The idea was that we might be able to deescalate it with some methods to a point where it is more amiable to other methods. Through this coordinated sequencing of interventions that should be more effective then we were being. So that was the essence of the intention anyway.

Q: And within that model, if I understand it correctly, there are situations where it is more appropriate to have more softer sides of interventions, like consultation or conciliation, where you are looking to find some common interest, and to get some mutual understanding. And then sort of follow into hard line negotiating, mediation, more traditional bargaining type of stuff. My question when I read that is, and listening to your previous answer, what does that actually look like on the ground? Maybe you can contextualize that for me with an example. Also the word "coordination" is tricky because who coordinates how and when and how does the sequencing come and how do you identify the right parts?

A: Well those are very good questions for a lot of reasons, getting at the heart of what we mean by contingency and what goes into it. I think the best way to answer that fairly briefly is that one area of the contingency model really focuses on pre-negotiation work and that is where the softer, unofficial stuff has demonstrated its utility in helping to shift the parties toward serious negotiation. Hopefully being more successful when they get there because what has transferred from the unofficial side. Now that actually happens in two ways.

A lot of people are critical of working at the elite level because they say that it is only part of the picture. It is a central part of the picture; it is integral. Some transfer from a lot of unofficial conflict resolution and peace building work also needs to make its way to radiate in to the public domain, opinion, media, education, you know the whole bit. I don't want to deny that you need both of those levels and all of the ones in between for success but just to give you one example looking at the work of Hal Sanders and Randa Slim and their other American and Russian colleagues on the civil war in Tajikistan, starting the inter Tajik dialogue before the negotiations were even there before the parties would even talk to each other so they are working unofficially outside of the country bringing together unofficial representatives of the government and the opposition parties and factions, and paving the way toward negotiation.

Q: ...these are fairly influential people?

A: These are quite high-level people, in fact as the situation progressed and the negotiation started some of the people in the informal dialogue actually became negotiators. Some were already advisors to the president and to the leader of the opposition and so on. So that you know you are going to get transfer in a number of ways. Again, Hal and his colleagues have documented that work adequately enough to demonstrate the power of contingency, thinking at least in a pre-negotiation way.

Q: I feel like the terms dialogue and negotiation get confused. The purpose of this dialogue was to not come to any formal agreement or to start negotiating tactics or strategies that would lead to the end of the conflict?

A: It wasn't at all for those purposes, although it was dialogue in the deeper sense of conflict analysis. It starts to raise options that would be useful for the official track and the over all peace process. Dialogue and problem solving workshops are not to be confused with negotiating sessions where official people sit down and hammer out the nuts and bolts of "what is our agreement" and "what are the domains that it has to be done." As Hal points out, and everyone knows, only official policy makers, decision makers, representatives can and will do that.

What they were able to do is first of all build some understanding between the two sides, and to start to build a bit of working trust that they could actually work together. Have each of them realize that there was a legitimate and reasonable negotiating partner on the other side. Out of that they produced a memorandum on negotiation, which identified what they thought were the major issues. One big one was being the return of refugees. That time gave a lot of direction to the official negotiating process. So it is setting the stage, but it is not walking on the stage and doing the deal. That's not our business, it never has been. It shouldn't be, then we are confusing things. We are getting into roles where we don't have the mandate or the responsibility to do it.

Q: What about the questioning of sequencing and coordination? That's a great example in a sort of linear sense where first their was the pre-negotiation dialogues, the negotiation dialogues, and then the actual Track I work. What about something like Sri Lanka or maybe even Cyprus where over such a long period so many different things have been tried, where do you start again?

A: Well, again that's a good question. The contingency model as it is laid out is a simple linear sequence just to get the logic and the rational there. It is much too simplistic because there is recycling, there can be recycling I am sure with in it, but also some people make the good point in these very complex intractable conflicts that rather than sequentially you should have simultaneous. A lot of things can happen at the same time, and be useful and cross-fertilize and so on.

I wouldn't argue with that part of the reason for the contingency model was wanting to find a conceptual place where there was an opportunity for the softer unofficial methods of conflict resolution to be involved and respected. You have to understand that part of the development of this whole field has been a small people political battle with those of us working in the unofficial domain looking to get some credibility and visibility from those in the official domain; or their supporters, if you will. Part of it has been convincing realists in international relations, as well as policy makers and government that we have something valuable to offer in a complementary way. I think it's a good model in its own conceptual right but it also had a political motivation.

Q: Can we talk about Cyprus? Maybe you can contextualize all of this stuff with the very specific actions that you have had in Cyprus. If you could maybe draw for me the sort of 20 year picture of your involvement with the conflict in Cyprus, and its attempt at resolution.

A: I wish I could give you a clear, compelling picture of success as I think we can with Tajikistan for example. I usually say that I have been has been as successful in my work in Cyprus as everyone else who has worked in Cyprus, which means that we haven't gotten to a peace agreement or a renewed relationship and so on.

It has been frustrating because I faced many of the resistances and limitations, particularly around difficulty in acquiring funding that a lot of people have in the conflict resolution field; partly because of political events, and partly because of changing priorities among funding organizations and so on. I actually started the work out of a semi-official institute in Canada that was government funded, and fairly well funded. After the initial series of seminars and then some conflict analysis workshops, one of which was with quite high-level influentials from the two sides, the institute was axed in a budget-cutting move by the Canadian government. I was able to do a couple more workshops in a research fund but some of the budget for the institute went into the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In the early going that fund wouldn't look at work unofficially that was too close to the political action, so I had to go and work in the educational field. I brought a number of people into that, including Louis Diamond from IMTD. It was about that point that fund was axed as well, that IMTD, in concert, first of all with NTL Institute of Applied Behavioral Science and then Roger Fisher's Conflict Management Group started a training program that went on for several years, and I was involved in that as a trainer on a number of the projects, especially the track that trained trainers in conflict resolution. Essentially what we were able to do when other players came in the later stages to that, Ben Broom for example, doing training in interactive management techniques, we were able to create a constituency for peace. They were there before we were ablethem nurture them but give them a lot of concepts and skills that they could use both in their communities, but across the line to build a peace constituency in Cyprus.

Following that, as I mentioned before we started the interview, was the intractability project, which was used for analysis and then the study group. It had some direct transfer over to the official talks resulting in the so called, "Annan Plan," the latest plan for peace, which unfortunately one side rejected. The side that rejected it, North Cyprus, experienced the most significant outcry of public opinion for peace in the history of the island. There were a number of demonstrations where between 50,000 and 75,000 Turkish Cypriots, out of a total population of less than 200,000, were in the streets agitating and advocating for this peace plan to be used as the basis for a deal. The current president who has been the negotiator for thirty some years took it upon himself to ignore that statement of public opinion and said, "decisions aren't made in the street." You can understand that sentiment, but at the same time he now seems to be more and more isolated. There are elections in December that will probably bring opposition parties to power who will in fact sign that deal. I hope that happens.

All of that is to say I remember in my first trip to Cyprus in early 1990 and one of the people I met with of several was one of the main organizers of those demonstrations. We supported the peace community by giving them what they wanted. What they wanted was conflict resolution training, they now are doing it in Cyprus. They have been doing it in their own community across the line with a lot of frustration, because in 1997 the regime in North Cyprus shut down the Green Line and basically stopped all inter-communal work. At that time I had money available from Foreign Affairs Canada to restart my workshop series and my conflict analysis series. Of course when one side says there is no more of that, they backed off and wouldn't support it.

It has been a continuing series of frustrations for me and everybody else, but over 10-15 years a lot of work has been done which (keeping our fingers crossed) might support the peace deal. Then there will be people on both sides who are well equipped to rebuild the relationship. So I guess in that sense it has been a success story, but it hasn't culminated in a renewed relationship between the two former enemies.

Q: It sounds like the reality of that situation is sufficiently messy to hypothesize a little bit about how the contingency model now would look like in an ideal situation assuming funding, lets just live in an imaginary world for a second, and assume there is sufficient funding to take on various projects. Where, then, would you would the contingency model suggest that we start dealing with the issues now as they stand in Cyprus?

A: It would probably suggest that even with formal negotiations starting on the basis of the plan there are still relationship issues, and difficulties being encountered bringing about a full sustainable peace. So one direction work needs to go now is in reconciliation. There has been very little reconciliation in Cyprus even with recently tens of thousands of people going back and forth across the Green Line, which was opened up; which is a wonderful thing. Those are kind of like harmonious visits for a day.

That's not quite the same as the two communities reintegrating and living together. There are still a lot of fears out of the past from the atrocities, lack of trust, and so on. There is a lot of relationship work to be done, complimentary to para-negotiation rather then pre-negotiation. We need to use a para-negotiation fashion to support the rebuilding of the relationship between the two peoples. Also they have been separate since 1974-75 so it is also a matter for a lot of younger people who have these myths, and in some cases stereotypes of the other sides. The relationship needs to be re-humanized. That can be done in small group dialogues and reconciliation work.

It also has to be done at the public level through the media, through events, and through public apologies. They are very well aware of that need of all kinds of things to be carried forward. The contingency would continue to say there are complimentary activities that support the negotiation process. You have to understand that is a simple initial model that really is geared to deescalating the conflict so that negotiations can eventually be successful. It doesn't really deal with rebuilding peace and the whole fabric of society, it wasn't intended to. Even though that obviously has to done.

Q: In the beginning of your answer sounded like reconciliation is almost the end piece of the contingency model so that there are the softer aspects of conflict resolution both before the Track I negotiations and afterwards. You are saying now that reconciliation is really not accounted for in the contingency model that comes later it may not always be necessary but something that is contained in that.

A: No. Not essential when you talk about improving the relationship. In the contingency model you are talking about reconciliation as part of that, but at the higher level of escalation and stalemate, I don't think the contingency model did justice to starting the reconciliation at that point, to be able to move back to a relationship where the two parties can, communities basically, deal with their problem and live together.

Q: I understand there is a new book coming out on intractable conflict that you are entered in with some other people.

A: That's right in fact the new book is called "Paving the Way: Contributions of Interactive Conflict Resolution to Peace Making," and in addition to the Tajikistan case there are seven other chapters by leading figures in the field. Some of the contributors are practitioners, scholar/practitioners, some are researchers who have looked at the work and written up the case.

It basically is to document the power of unofficial soft work in moving out of intractability because all of these are intractable conflicts that it deals with. The chapters in the book are in a sense limited to the pre-negotiation to negotiation part of the contingency model. Not all of the cases are full successes, yet some are just hanging on the edge but the contributions are apparent. If and when it happens then you will be able to say well it seems it was because of that. The other thing that is added to the book is that I am using a research method called comparative case analysis to look at common elements in the conflicts and in the interventions that seem to be related to successful transfer. This is the first empirical demonstration other than a case a here and a case there that unofficial conflict resolution work seems to have some power to influence all different outcomes.

Q: Can you talk about some of those commonalities now, or would you rather wait till that all comes around?

A: Well I haven't done the analysis. I can tell you what I think just out of experience some are obvious and maybe some are not so obvious. The proof will be in the analysis. I may find that there are no commonalities. That is what science is about.

Q: Well one of the questions that I ask just about everybody is about techniques and methods that are more useful than others, sort of a search of best practices. Do you have any thoughts on that?

A: I just finished reading some parts of the final report of the Reflecting Peace Practices Project which I think is really great work, but it does try and cover such a broad range of activities in peace building. Conflict resolution is only a slice of that, and it is not always clear how big a slice it is or how it is a slice. Partly in relation to that work and it makes these comments, similar comments, but to the field as a whole is that there has been so much profusion and diffusion of conflict resolution, peace building, development, and human rights activities going on. It is really hard to get your mind around what is happening out there. What is effective work? What isn't? How is conflict resolution being adapted and applied as we in the field understand it?

I am really quite concerned that there is a danger of losing the integrity and the focus of conflict resolution work in all of this activity, in much of what sounds good and is designed to do good work, get funding, interest donors, to help clients and so on. We may be losing what is really important around intractable conflict, which is to help parties with moving out of the conflict. You see a capacity building, good governance, peace building, all kinds of things going on as projects. There is a little slice of conflict resolution and you are saying well that is good work that could be done in any society any time. What is actually really relevant to de-escalating the conflict, to healing the wounds, to reconciliation, to getting peace on track? What is the focus here? What is the integrity of what we have to offer? I am a little bit concerned with that.

I think what we need to do is redouble our efforts to identify what conflict resolution practice involves whether it is dialogue, analysis, training, or problem solving where it seems to fit with some of these other domains. It is interesting to look at what we as practitioners in the field can and should do, and what we can and shouldn't do. I make the comment and I think it is accurate. A lot of what is called peace building is really community development in somebody else's country. It is now going international but we will call it peace building because it is in an area where conflict was, but it may or may not really help in resolving that conflict in that country, which is what needs to happen for it to get back on the track to development. There is a lot of confusion out there and people are becoming aware of this and some people are starting to trying to address a conceptual way, its really a complex morass, because there is so much going on in what are already very complex situations. It kind of boggles the mind. It is a big issue.

Q: So what is your view of what conflict resolution does bring?

A: I think it brings some of those elements I just mentioned. I think it brings dialogue, which is in other fields as well. I don't want to get proprietary here and take over things. Also it certainly brings conflict analysis and problem solving. It was at the beginning of the field, especially when it shifted internationally, if you want to deal with a conflict situation you don't just bash into negotiation, you need some diagnosis. We have developed a whole array of concepts and tools in the field that can be used by parties and hopefully mutually with some facilitation to analyze the mess that they are in. That is step one, so that you can then think what kind of competency building or problem solving processes can help move us out of that so then we have training in conflict resolution, capacity building. It is an integral part of democracy, as is consensus building.

We know about these processes, we have principles for effectiveness in these different areas. We know about third party stuff. We know about mediation, what I call consultation. We have a sense of that as a theory of practice, a body of knowledge that helps us be more effective rather than somebody who says I think I should fly to Sri Lanka and try to help people out. There is a fair amount of what I call social technology, based first of all on theories of understanding conflict, but also theories of practice and how you operate that's what the field has to offer. It would be a shame to see it diffused, spread all over, and retranslated. In a sense it would lose it's theory, practice, and integrity.

Q: In the intractable case studies that you are looking at now in this book and others as well, you mentioned Tajikistan, but is there another case that you find inspirational in your work or in the work of others that you have studied?

A: Everyone finds what happens in South Africa inspirational. There is a small slice of that which involved a series of quite unofficial meetings between high level ANC folks coming unofficially, and people on the other side who were very well connected to the national government, like people in the Afrikaans Brotherhood. These were initiated and facilitated by, believe it or not, a mining company and a business firm with interests who had people in its human relations department with some expertise to bring folks together and provide a forum to initiate some discussions that helped pave the way toward negotiations by building understanding and trust. Obviously many people in South Africa, especially what was previously the Center for Inter group Relations, did a lot of work, I don't know the case well, but I know a lot of people did a lot. This is just one slice but it seems to be an essential slice of how South Africa got on the road to peace when it did. That is fairly inspirational. We need more.

Q: How do you go from transformation of a group like that, or at least building empathy within a group like that, to societal transformation or creating societal empathy. How do scale-up from something that may contain 20 people to a nation of several million?

A: We don't really have the answer to that question and we don't necessarily have the scope of expertise to answer that. That's where you need a lot of people with a lot of professionalism, other experiences, qualifications, people in mass communication, public opinion, and social movements. You name it. You see a lot of my work has been focused, and it may not be as much en vogue as it used to be. It has been focused on what role conflict resolution can play at the center of things with elites and influentials who are critical at the initial stages and critical throughout the process, but who are insufficient on their own. We know that and we acknowledge that.

Then you need to think of ways that the kind of work we do can be done on other levels, grassroots level, intermediate levels, different sectors, like the work we did in Cyprus where we worked in business where we worked in health. We worked in every sector imaginable having people involved, and still do to diffuse the work in to society at large. To some degree what you need eventually to do is to change a culture of violence to a culture of peace. That is big time social change and I don't think that the field has really addressed how tough that is or how hard it is or hard it is or all the connections. We are not the only people, obviously, who can and need to be involved in that.

We need to think about the transfer process not just to the official decision-making, but also to public opinion, different constituencies, interest groups, and so on through the media. That is one reason why journalists are often invited to so called problem solving workshops. They will write about and talk about it. They influence other people, so you want opinion leaders in many sectors, in many ways to become involved in helping to build a culture of peace. They are just about always out there waiting, hoping, looking, and trying to do their thing. All outside parties can do in the field is work to support that process. It is a very big question.

Q: I just got this image in my head while you were talking of conciliation and consultation processes functioning almost as lubrication to the very cogs at the Track I level to move and work together in a sense.

A: I think in a very focused way that is right on. That is what it is about. Consultation particularly or problem solving workshops or interactive conflict resolution, however wide a term you want to use. The latter is widest that I actually came up with in response to the people in the field asking for it at the time. In a focused way that is about as big as your expectations should be, that's challenging enough. For me to think about changing societies is quite frankly a quantum leap. I hope my work makes a small contribution to that, but to think about doing that boggles my mind and almost paralyzes my will. Of course you are working in constant with thousands of other people, but at the same time people in peace building need to be very sober about how tough it is to move toward a culture of peace in intractable conflicts.

Q: It sounds like it might behoove conflict resolution practitioners to limit ones expectations with how far they can go with the work they are doing.

A: I think we need to be more modest and humble than the average but I think to acquire funding and support people make potential claims that they can help accomplish this and this and this and they are in that direction but if you take hardnosed social scientist and look at that they would laugh, quite frankly. The field has to be careful about what it promises.

Q: What advice would you give to someone coming into this field?

A: The first advice I would give somebody starting out is to get a good solid base in the conceptual foundation and the practice of the field. Advance that with some skill sets that you can actually offer. At the same time to think beyond where we are now toward the policy domain, and start thinking about how the field of conflict resolution, its principles, its practices, its assumptions that we believe to be true can slowly influence policy makers at both domestic and also international levels. For them to move in the direction of trying to bring about a culture of peace in the sense that people look to cooperative non-violent methods with dealing with their differences. They can build institutions to do that.

Even the use of violence as a last resort is eliminated, except in situations where some aggressor chooses to use force. This choice would be way outside what the vast majority of people in the world would condone or see as acceptable, that may be seen as an intermediate stage. If human beings don't learn to respect their differences, and live in cooperative ways, then this human experiment I don't think is going to survive, quite frankly.

Q: Other advice?

A: The other thing I would say is to try and understand the confusion and the complexity that the context of peace building and other terms now provide to the field of conflict resolution. Try to chart way in that where you have a good sense of what you can do, but you also have a good sense of what you cannot do but what you obviously have to do in concert with a lot of other people and a lot of other activities and that's not easy because that clear picture is not available. I really think that is the current challenge and then within that to maintain again the theory, practice, and integrity of the field rather than allowing it to basically be co-opted, compromised, or massaged in ways that take it away from its true base.

Q: Does an intervener have a responsibility to know what else is going on out there in order to act in coordination with other interveners?

A: Yes, very much so. Earlier your comment about whose responsibility is coordination was really an important question that more and more people are raising right now. Obviously it is not easy, it requires a lot of networking and interfacing and so on but in a sense that is part of a code of conduct. There has been some pretty good attempts at codes of conduct that include your usual ethical practice, but also go beyond that to think of your obligations to the parties and the wider context and other people who are active in that context and so on. It is a really big challenge, but I think young people coming in to the field or older people coming new to the field need to really think about this as a professional challenge of immense magnitude not to be taken lightly at all. Even if you come from an existing professional base, which many people do, as a lawyer, psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, whatever. You then build upon that when you move into the field of conflict resolution or you will ultimately fail or do something that is not good.