Constructive Escalation

Louis Kriesberg

September 2003

When at least two persons or groups manifest the belief that they have incompatible goals, they are in conflict. Frequently, one or both sides will try to coerce the other to accede to its wishes. The conflict then may escalate destructively. If neither side can impose its will, the conflict becomes intractable.

The focus in this module is on methods of conflict escalation that do not tend to result in intractable conflicts. First, alternative escalation tactics are discussed; then, factors and processes affecting the use of different tactics are examined, and finally, the consequences of different escalation tactics are assessed.

Basic Inducements

Many non-coercive as well as coercive methods can be used for one side to get its adversary to change sufficiently so that the conflict is either resolved or acceptably managed. As with other social interactions, three basic kinds of inducements are combined in various ways to escalate conflicts strategically.[1] These inducements are coercion, reward, and persuasion.


Coercion, or negative sanctions, is frequently used as an inducement in conflict. Coercion refers to actions, including symbolic ones that injure or threaten injury to the adversary. The actions are intended to intimidate and deter the adversary from acting coercively themselves, and/or to force the opponent to yield to one's demands. The cessation of coercion is conditional on the opponent's compliance with these demands.


"Rewards," or positive sanctions, are also used to win compliance.[2] An extensive body of theory and research indicates that rewards are more effective than punishments in interpersonal contexts: for example, child rearing and education. That evidence carries over to the waging of violent and deadly conflicts. In this context also, offering a reward for compliance can be more effective in achieving one's goals than is punishing noncompliance.


Persuasive inducements are efforts to influence an opponent by communicating arguments, information, or appeals that alter their perception of the conflict. If effective, the tactic of persuasion involves the recipient becoming convinced of the other's goal and voluntarily accepting it.

Strategy Combinations

Though analytically distinct, these three tactics are not isolated in practice. They are variously combined in different strategies and tactics, which are employed simultaneously or in various sequences, constituting campaigns in an extended conflict. (For example, those waging the civil rights struggle in the Southern United States during the 1950s and '60s used many different tactics and strategies combined in a series of campaigns over several years.)

Some tactics are highly coercive, involving high degrees of violence, but with a small amount of reward or persuasion added in. Violent coercion includes acts of terrorism, sabotage, assassination, military attacks, and police suppression. Coercion can also be nonviolent: withholding purchases or services, as in boycotts or strikes.[3] Often, nonviolent tactics incorporate significant persuasive inducements, as occurs in acts of civil disobedience, which calls attention to rules that are deemed unjust. Finally, some tactics promise future benefits while threats are limited. For instance, confidence-building measures and cooperative projects can be undertaken which, if completed, provide benefits to both sides.

Different groups within each side may employ different tactics and direct them at distinct groups on the other side. For example, tactics may be undertaken by or in the name of officials representing one of the adversaries and target the other side as a whole, its leaders, or its citizens. Dissenting members of one side may undertake other tactics directed at different segments of the other side's population. Often, leaders of one side will use combinations of inducements to win over the other's rank-and-file or particular leaders in an effort to isolate other leaders.

Shapers of Tactics and Strategies

Olympio Barbanti talks about people's view of conflict in developing countries.

Four factors affect the escalation tactics and strategies that are devised and used in a conflict:

  1. the disputants' goals in the conflict,
  2. their internal characteristics,
  3. the relations between them, and
  4. their social environment.

Understanding these helps in choosing the appropriate tactics.

Partisans often point to their goals in a conflict as the reasons for selecting the methods they adopt. They generally seek a close fit between means and ends, sometimes arguing that the means should embody the ends sought and that, therefore, the means become the ends. Thus, if a nonviolent, cooperative, and egalitarian relationship with another community or ethnic group is desired, they may reason that using nonviolent methods would be more likely to succeed than violent attacks. Goals that deny what is vital to the other side are likely to require extremely coercive means and resistance as long as possible -- a formula for an intractable conflict. Recognizing the consequences of resorting to harsh methods may result in an appropriate modification of goals.

An adversary's internal characteristics -- its members' cultural traditions, past experiences, and quality of leadership -- also effect the methods chosen, sometimes leading a side to select methods that are ineffective or even counterproductive. For example, lacking the capability to exercise a particular tactic obviously precludes its adoption. This is relevant when employing particular kinds of military actions, forming disciplined non-violent resistance, or initiating problem-solving negotiation.

Significantly, perceptions of the opposing side's members also affect the choosing of tactics in a conflict. Members may seem open to persuasion, vulnerable to threats, easily bought off, or capable of ruthless retaliation. They may seem unified in support of their leaders and the positions they have taken or they may appear to be splintered in their support. By manipulating the other side's perception of such variables, one can influence which tactics they will use.

Finally, the social context of a conflict also affects escalation tactics. For example, tactics used in one arena become models for their use in other arenas. In addition, the prevailing norms of proper behavior may constrain conduct, since violating them weakens support for the perpetrators. Thus, the widespread condemnation of terrorism limits its effectiveness and even its greater adoption.

Conflict Methods and Intractability

Particular methods contribute to conflict intractability in various ways. They can do so by arousing fear and mistrust in one's opponents and even those supporting the tactics, by polarizing opponents' beliefs and experiences, and by creating vested interests. For example, one side, hoping to win both sympathy and allies, may use provocative tactics to induce severe overreactions from the other side. This is a common strategy in bringing about a revolutionary situation [4], but it is also a dangerous course of action. The severe reaction is likely to prevent success and result in a protracted and destructive struggle. Precise, limited responses are more likely to be effective in avoiding an intractable conflict.

By contrast, there are tactics that can raise a conflict's intensity, yet still prevent or limit intractability. One approach is to reassure an adversary that a mutually satisfactory accommodation to a struggle is possible, difficult as that may be in the midst of an intense conflict. Reassurance can be given by proclaiming that, after the fighting has ended, persons and property will be respected. Significantly, violence too can be constrained during a conflict, as illustrated by the leadership of the African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Even when resorting to armed struggle, after years of nonviolent protest, the leaders forswore committing terrorism in order to make future negotiations more likely.

As noted earlier, nonviolent action can be a constructive escalation strategy, which applies pressure on the adversary to change, but at the same time keeps open the possibility of dialogue by respecting them and avoiding violence that might generate an intractable conflict. Such actions have often been effective, as was the case in the Philippines and in several Eastern European states.[5] However, large-scale demonstrations, boycotts, and other mass nonviolent actions do not necessarily prevent protracted destructive conflict. Efforts at violent suppression of nonviolent campaigns often ignite or re-ignite severe intractable conflicts, as occurred in Northern Ireland following the bloody suppression of the civil rights struggle there in 1968.

Persuasive elements are important to coercive actions in that they help contain conflicts and limit destructive tendencies. Nonviolent actions are often effective in this regard because the actions are overt, often accompanied by statements and slogans that recognize adversaries' common humanity, proclaiming shared values of fairness, justice, and human rights. Even violence, if limited and accompanied by other inducements, need not result in an intractable conflict. For example, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) initiated an armed uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994. The Mexican government immediately tried to suppress it militarily.[6] However, on January 12, Mexican President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, persuaded by international and national sympathy for the rebels, declared a unilateral ceasefire and peace talks began on February 21. Though these, and subsequent talks have failed, the conflict remains largely within the constraints of the political system.

Several developments in the social and political context and of the EZLN strategy contributed to this surprising development. Various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had rapidly increased in Mexico. They constructed a worldwide electronic network that spread news of the events in Chiapas within and beyond Mexico, facilitating the mobilization of Zapatista supporters who came to Chiapas. Furthermore, Subcomandante Marcos persuasively articulated the Zapatista message, writing in a style that delighted and enlightened Mexico City intellectuals.

Negotiations proceeded, but with many setbacks. Thus, the 1996 Accord of San Andres included an agreement to constitutionally recognize the indigenous peoples' rights to self-determination and autonomy; but afterwards, the government rejected it. Then, after 71 years, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was defeated in elections. The new president of Mexico, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), upon assuming office in December 2000, asked the Mexican Congress to act on the Accord. In April 2001, Congress passed an Indigenous Rights Law, but it incorporated only a portion of the Accord; consequently, the Zapatistas and their supporters opposed the Law. The conflict continues politically, but mostly without violence.


The analysis presented in this module suggests several considerations that should guide the choice of tactics and strategies in escalating a conflict effectively while avoiding intractability:

  1. Each party in the conflict should initially select "methods of struggle" that make legitimate claims on the other party through institutionalized methods of judicial proceedings or the larger political or diplomatic systems. The adversary should be responsive to the claims made through such channels; that need not mean yielding to the claims, but it does mean entering a process of focused interaction.
  2. The tactics used should reflect consideration of the differences within the opposing side and not drive all groups in the adversary camp together in resistance.
  3. The tactics and strategies should be embedded in a broad strategy to win over many members of the other side for an accommodation that is mutually acceptable.
  4. The methods should convey recognition of the humanity of the other side and the possibility of reaching an accommodation that satisfies vital concerns of large numbers of each side's members.
  5. If coercive methods are employed, they should be carefully calibrated and consistent with shared normative standards.
  6. Finally, no particular strategy or tactic can constructively escalate a conflict for everyone in every circumstance. Each conflict is unique and must be thought about from a fresh perspective, even as past experiences are surveyed and alternatives, along with their likely consequences, are considered.

[1] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd Ed. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). New edition (4th ) <>.

[2] David A. Baldwin, "The Power of Positive Sanctions," World Politics 24 (1971): 19-38.  <>

[3] Powers, Roger S. and William B. Vogele with associate editors Christopher Kruegler and Ronald M. McCarthy. 1997. "Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-Up to Women's Suffrage." New York & London: Garland Publishing Co. and Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent. <>.

[4] Debray, Regis. 1967. Revolution in the Revolution? New York: Grove Press.

[5] Schock, Kurt. 1999. "People Power and Political Opportunities: Social Movement Mobilization and Outcomes in the Philippines and Burma." Social Problems 46 (3):355-375.  <>.

[6] Ronfeldt, David, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, and Melissa Fuller. 1998. The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Arroyo Center. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Constructive Escalation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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