Conflict Resolution Gaps

William Zartman

Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, and Director of Conflict Management at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What should realists take away from peace and conflict theory development, research and practice, and what should peace and conflict activists and academics take away from realist theory?

A: Well, there are 2 bridges that I think are worth talking about. One is between realists, or people who read the realists analysis, and the peace activists, or peaceniks, or whatever you want to call them. I think the realists need to clean up their theory and explain a little more how cooperation is possible, and how and why parties would want to manage or regulate their conflicts? Realists love wallowing conflict and that's what their business is about. They get puffed up in their understanding of international relations as they claim it and they think that everything is conflict when it isn't. Most of relations between any parties is non-conflict. Here we are you and I and we haven't conflicted yet. A realist would find this a boring situation. Yet this is a day-to-day situation not only among people, but among states. I did a book, of which I'm very proud, and I can say that because I edited it and not wrote it - it is called Preventative Negotiations.

We looked at how did negotiations prevent conflict from erupting in some 12 different issue areas, because not every border is a conflict. How did negotiations handle borders so that most borders do not become conflicts? Not every situation of a defense army is a conflict. How do negotiations handle that so not every army and defense budget becomes a conflict and so on over these 12 different areas? That's extremely important for us to know because conflicts as we see them these days are expensive. It's much cheaper to manage your conflict, and often much more successful. Not all conflicts can be managed. I don't think there's anything to be negotiated between the United States and Saddam Hussein. It wasn't our fault. We tried, although there are things we could have done much earlier that were different. I think we could've changed that conflict, but that's another subject.

On the peacenik side, just sell their trade so short by decrying interests, by decrying power, and they walk off the real plank in this world. They're not talking about a real world or at least a day-to-day world, no more then realists are if they're talking about people who want to solve conflicts. If you want to solve a conflict, it's relatively easy to if both sides want to solve it. I'm interested in parties who are interested in pursuing their conflicts because they think they are in there for the right reasons, and finding out how I can contribute to deterring them from a violent pursuit of that conflict and still realize their goals. How they can make use of the power they have, because every party has some kind of power. So I think the peaceniks make themselves irrelevant, just as do the realists. The realists are noisier about it and so people pay more attention to them. Peaceniks make themselves irrelevant by refusing to recognize these issues of power and interests. This is not, however, you pointed to another gap that needs to be bridged. You said between realists on the one hand and academics on the other. There is another gap that is important, and that is between the practitioners and the analysts or the academics. This makes me cry. This is the saddest gap of all, because still after all these years, the general feeling among many practitioners is that you can't teach conflict management.

You can't teach negotiations, but you have got to learn it on the job. They've got the secret to it, it comes in the feel of their fingers, and the analysts are just messing around in their business. That of course turns the analysts off. They in turn, quite often talk in disciplinary jargon, a word I don't like, but which is applicable in some cases. They analyze conflict and conflict management and negotiation research and so on in terms that are absolutely inapplicable, and that turn off the practitioners. Many game theorists, not all of them, are particularly adept in expressing their analysis in a way that is unpalatable to practitioners. Many game theorists are uninterested in the practical application of it, and then they wonder why people don't listen to them.

There is this non-dialog between the deaf of the 2 sides, when in fact all the analysts study is at least the empirical data, or at least the logic of which the practitioners do. Practitioners give us all the data we have -- even experimental data is done by pseudo-practitioners -- and the analysts talk about real life examples and try to distill from that generalizations that are valuable for practitioners. There should be much more cooperation between the two and listening to each other and an attempt to talk to each other, and lots of places do. I mean, the Peace Institute does very well and some of the Crock Centers do, and a number of other programs. This is what we try to do, the ??? in our program, said that there's a lot of work done to try to bridge the gap. Alex George wrote a book for the Peace Institute, called Bridging the Gap. Despite those efforts that gap exists, and I think it's a crying shame.

Q: Are ripeness and formula concepts that are used with the practitioners?

A: Oh yes, and the term ripeness comes from practitioners, but the practitioners didn't know what they were talking about in a very literal sense. They sensed what they were talking about, but weren't able to define what they were able to talk about. I think in defining ripeness, we have helped them specify a thing that they felt. It was a part of the fingertips business. Kissinger said something like, "I like to deal with crises when they are hot." He referred to stalemates as a situation for dealing with them. He was a particularly unusual person in that he was both an analysis and a practitioner, and that he could articulate things and a formula as well. As I said, I didn't invent the word, I just helped to define it. It is just the same thing as pre-negotiation. What the analysts can do is give content to these terms that the pracitioner uses.

Q: Well, thank you very much Professor Zartman for taking the time. Is there anything else that you think we should add that would be useful to people?

A: Maybe one other thing, and there is another gap to be bridged, between Track I and Track II. I think it's a good example of the sort of self-generating, or reciprocate generating, arrogance when Track I and Track II people came in. I don't know how it started, but Track II people came in saying that Track I people are arrogant and naturally their useless. Of course the Track I people bridled at that sort of description and so they became arrogant and useless as the Track II people said they were. The Track II people continued their arrogance and on and on we went. We've gotten much more to a kind of truce now, I think, in this and a sense of cooperation of the two sides by showing how Track I and Track II efforts have come from management. Each has a certain role. Each has a certain limitation. Each can do things that the other can't do. They can't always cooperate in all situations, but they can frequently cooperate and reinforce each other. There still is a little sense of turf that's usual in any business, but I think it's important for each to cooperate with the other and respect. There's a lot of bridging to do in this business. There is a lot of peacemaking among ourselves.