Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess
Traditionally, the term "international conflict" referred to conflicts between different nation-states and conflicts between people and organizations in different nation-states. Increasingly, however, it also applies to inter-group conflicts within one country when one group is fighting for independence or increased social, political, or economic power (e.g., Sudan/South Sudan, Iraq (now that the US has largely left), and Syria.
A distinction is made between private-sector international conflicts, which are conflicts between individuals and/or businesses which just happen to come from two different countries, and conflicts between different national governments. Private conflicts are similar in nature to private domestic interpersonal or business conflicts except that they are further complicated by distance, culture, sometimes language, and an ambiguity regarding whose laws will be applied. Sometimes these issues become very difficult to handle, but increasingly, international business contracts call for dispute resolution through arbitration with one of many international arbitration organizations. This avoids jurisdictional disputes, and moderates some of the other complications as well.
Public international conflicts tend to be much more difficult to resolve. While this term was originally limited to conflicts between sovereign nation-states, in the last two decades, an increasing number of so-called "international" conflicts have actually been inter-group or communal conflicts within one country. (Examples are Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Chechnya in addition to the ones listed above, and many others.) In most of these cases, the issue in dispute has been the sovereignty of a particular ethnic group or region, and/or the equality of those ethnic groups in the political, social, and economic structures of their own societies. Until recently, the concept of sovereignty suggested that other nations should not become embroiled in such "internal" disputes. However, the human costs and changing values have made international intervention in these "domestic" conflicts increasingly common.
An example of a private sector international conflict would be a conflict between a U.S. computer company, and a Japanese company which was supplying motherboards for the U.S. company. If the Japanese company had a contract requiring them to ship 10,000 motherboards a month, but they only shipped 6,000, this would cause a private international conflict. It would not be a conflict that involved the U.S. government, but it would be one that would likely be handled in an international tribunal of some sort. Another example would be a set of would-be parents who traveled from the U.S. to China, believing that they would be able to adopt a Chinese infant when they arrived. However, when they got to China, they were told that "their" infant was no longer available, and they would have to go home. This conflict might be harder to handle, unless there was some sort of written agreement about what would be done in the case of disagreements. Without that, the American couple would be on very shaky ground, being in China and being subjected to Chinese laws in the case.
Examples of public international conflicts are in the news daily. The conflict between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan is an international conflict, as is the conflict between India and Pakistan. But more and more conflicts within countries are considered "international," too, if international intervention is being contemplated or has actually occurred (as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, or Iraq).
Conflict Resolution Approaches:
As indicated above, private conflicts are usually resolved in the same way as they are domestically, once the jurisdictional issues are worked out, unless they are taken to an international body of some kind (such as an International Court of Arbitration), of which there are many.
Public conflicts can also be resolved by an international body, such as the U.N., but that does not occur very often. More often, the countries engage in diplomacy, negotiating a settlement to their differences, or they continue their conflict at varying degrees of intensity and violence. Sometimes mediators are brought in, who may be from the U.N., statesmen from third party nations (for example U.S. President Jimmy Carter mediating the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel) or former statesmen such U.S. Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland or Jimmy Carter who continues to operate independently as an international mediator, but with considerable experience and respect. At times intermediaries are private citizens, often members of one of the "peace churches," the Quakers or the Mennonites for example. In addition to mediating, the U.N. or other international bodies fairly routinely will send in "peacekeepers" armed or sometimes unarmed military and/or civilian forces who simply position themselves between the warring factions in an effort to stop the violence (though they do nothing to solve the underlying conflict).
While peacekeeping (halting the violence) is generally easier to accomplish than peacemaking (the negotiation of a peace agreement), it is not an end state. Rather it leaves the conflict in suspension until peacemaking--and later peacebuilding-- can succeed. It has been charged that in some cases this suspension of hostilities detracts from the peacemaking process, as it becomes apparently unnecessary. The warring nations or factions become dependent on the provision of outside peacekeepers forever, which is seldom, if ever, a viable situation. (This charge has been leveled at the Cyprus situation, for instance.)