Coronavirus, Beyond Intractability, and the Constructive Conflict Initiative

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April 6, 2020

As we have been stuck at home, hiding out from the virus, we have been trying to understand how the crisis is transforming our already precarious web of personal and socioeconomic relationships.  We have also been thinking about what Beyond Intractability, the Constructive Conflict Initiative, and more broadly, our field, might be able to do to help address the situation.



The Coronavirus is not just an epidemiological problem, it’s a serious conflict problem.


At this point it seems clear that US society will have to endure months of continuing tragedy and fear while, at the same time, suffering through a bitterly divisive election.  And, that is just the US. The most extraordinary thing about this crisis is the fact that it is afflicting the entire planet simultaneously. We are all going to have to rebuild our shattered economies in ways that, despite the continuing Coronavirus threat, are able to maintain the flow of essential goods and services, while also maintaining the livelihoods of the billions of people whose lives are being upended by the crisis.

On a more hopeful note, it is quite possible that this searing experience will produce a "never again" moment (such as the one we saw at the end of World War II) during which there will be widespread support for the implementation of major reforms based on the "lessons learned" from the crisis. Obviously, shaping those lessons is going to be of critical importance.

From our perspective, society would be much better off if it could learn three things. The first would be a recognition of the need to strengthen institutions which govern the global commons in ways that make use of the best-available information to wisely, equitably, and effectively limit threats such as those posed by pandemics and climate change.  Second would be a recognition of the need to reform economic systems in ways that effectively address the unmet needs of the many people who have been left behind by globalization. This needs to include both short-term, Coronavirus-related assistance and longer-term efforts to truly address the many legitimate criticisms raised by the world's populist movements.  Third, we need to delegitimize and, as much as possible, prevent scapegoat politics and, especially, high-tech propaganda designed to drive us apart in ways that advance the goals of the world's kleptocrats.

We fear, however, that too many people will reach the opposite conclusion—that global governance and "expertise" is nothing more than a tool used by the dominant classes to exploit everyone else.  We see a number of factors that could contribute to such a catastrophic conclusion. The most immediate concern is the possibility that Coronavirus response efforts might fail to adequately protect the public and avert widespread social and economic collapse with gigantic and obvious inequities.  Also worrying is the likelihood that any shortcomings in the response effort will be exploited by unscrupulous actors who have figured out how to profit by driving people apart and denigrating the very idea that we should work together to advance the common good.

While policy and business experts will hopefully generate many good ideas for reforming the globalized economy in ways that better govern the commons, limit inequality, and enhance resiliency, the tougher challenge is overcoming the many intractable conflict-related obstacles that make it so hard to actually build the broad consensus required to implement these ideas. The goal of BI and the Initiative is to help draw attention to this neglected aspect of the problem and the critically important contribution that the conflict and peacebuilding fields could make to helping address it. Our goal is to develop a systematic catalog of these obstacles and, especially, strategies for overcoming them.  In doing this, we are focusing our attention on a series of major challenges including the need to: 

  • Break down enemy images and rehumanize adversaries;
  • Reframe politics away from us-vs-them and toward we-are-all-in-this-together; 
  • Obtain and sensibly use trustworthy analyses of complex problems and potential solutions;
  • Foster mutual respect, tolerance, and coexistence as the key to living with moral differences; and
  • Expose and delegitimize targeted social-media-based political propaganda. 

We are also looking for ideas on how to implement the needed changes at the full scale and complexity of modern society (while also adapting to our new, social distance-based environment with its limits on direct, face-to-face conversations).

We know many of our colleagues are already working to address these issues, and we hope to hear about and help publicize those efforts. More information about these and the many other issues that must be addressed is found on Beyond Intractability and the Constructive Conflict Initiative websites.  This continually-growing collection of materials is focused on helping societies more constructively handle conflicts, with the goal of helping create a globalized democratic world that is truly worthy of the public's support.  In looking back at the challenges laid out in the original Initiative documents, it's clear that our ability to take advantage of the above "never again" opportunity will depend upon our ability to successfully address the Initiative challenges. The principal difference is that the Coronavirus crisis has dramatically pushed up the timeline.

In order to do what we can to accelerate the Initiative effort we are: 1) seeking essays or less formal thoughts from our readers about how our field might help society take full advantage of this "never again" moment;   2) renewing our search for people who either are or would like to undertake Initiative-related projects; 3) upgrading the BI system to do a better job of highlighting work people are doing to address Initiative challenges; 4) strengthening Beyond Intractability's collection of online learning materials designed to explain Coronavirus-related Initiative ideas to general audiences, and 5) publicizing the effort more widely.

Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated including, especially, information about both people who are doing Initiative-related work that we should be sure to highlight, and people who might be willing to help us develop the Initiative itself (which includes submitting essays as suggested above, which we will eagerly publish and publicize on the site). As always, we also appreciate contributions to help us keep this effort running.  Please consider contributing on our GoFundMe Page.

Thanks, stay safe, and good luck! The key to getting through this (in a time of social distancing) is figuring out how to strengthen the community that binds us together.

Best wishes in this difficult time,

Guy and Heidi Burgess


Image Credit: Coronavirus -- Source:; By: CDC; Permission: Public Domain.