A joint call for a dramatic expansion of efforts to improve society's ability to constructively address the full scale and complexity of the challenges posed by destructive conflicts
May 2019 Draft -- v1.2
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project, Conflict Information Consortium
We are in the process of soliciting comments on, and participation in, a new* Constructive Conflict Initiative** which has the goal of promoting a dramatic expansion of efforts to limit the destructiveness of the many highly-destructive conflicts that are tearing apart the U.S. and so many other societies.
We think that the biggest (and most neglected) reason why societies worldwide are proving so unable to address their most pressing problems is because they can't constructively handle the intractable conflicts that inevitably surround those problems. The result is a widespread inability to wisely and equitably respond to pressing issues such as climate change, immigration, or inequality; the rising risk of authoritarianism; and a danger that our deeply-divisive politics could escalate into large-scale and potentially catastrophic violence.
Much as our climate change colleagues have been doing for decades, we believe that those of us with expertise in (or just concern about) the damage being caused by destructive conflict dynamics have an obligation to promote efforts to persuade society to take the intractable conflict problem more seriously.
We would really like to know what you think about this effort. If you agree with it in principle, we would also like to know 1) how you think it might be strengthened, 2) who else is doing related work and should be invited to participate, 3) what next steps would be most effective, and 4) whether you would be interested in getting involved in some way.
Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
While the severity of today's social problems is widely recognized, the vast majority of the effort to address these problems, at least in the United States,*** has been focused on the pursuit of a decisive victory over the "other" side. While there are certainly cases where partisan victory would be a step in the right direction (by defeating aspiring authoritarians, for example), we need to recognize that our problems go much deeper than individual leaders. We believe that today's political turmoil is a symptom of a much larger and more serious problem — the inability of 21st-century democracies to constructively handle the many facets of complex, large-scale, intractable conflict.
Against this backdrop, current efforts to bring the proven insights of the conflict, peacebuilding, and related fields to bear on the problem do not seem close to reversing the dismal trends faced by so many societies. Also lacking are the investments needed to advance these fields. While the conflict resolution field has become expert in working in small groups, it has much to learn about meeting the difficult challenges posed by the scale and staggering social and psychological complexity of today's globally-interconnected societies. We also need much more effective ways of countering the widespread use of extremely effective, divide-and-conquer tactics by aspiring authoritarians and plutocrats. Finally, we need better ways of persuading those who profit from the "destructive-conflict-as-usual" industrial complex to support more constructive approaches to problem solving.
As will quickly be evident if you read either the Summary or the full Initiative Statement, we see the intractable conflict challenge as extremely daunting – one that demands a long-term effort comparable in scope to ongoing efforts to address climate change. As we have been arguing for decades, "intractable" does not mean impossible. It just means "very difficult." Intractable conflicts can be surmounted if we honestly assess the nature of each challenge (not overlooking the complexity) and then devise and implement realistic measures for addressing each aspect of the problem. We also need to understand there are no quick or simple fixes. Given the overwhelmingly destructive way in which we now handle so many conflicts, reversing course will take time and the efforts of a great many people. Our immediate goal is much more modest. We simply want to get a lot more people to recognize the seriousness of the intractable conflict problem and start thinking about, taking, and supporting efforts to address it.
We fully acknowledge that others are already working in similar directions and we do not in any way want to complete with them. This Initiative is simply an effort to encourage many more people to work in these areas and to do so in a mutually-supportive way. Our hope is that this will contribute to, and help foster, a series of initiatives that will start the process of mobilizing the kind of sophisticated and large-scale effort that will be required to start bending the arc of history in a more positive direction.
We want to emphasize that we do not see this as a Beyond Intractability effort. We envision, for ourselves, only a modest role in getting this started. After that, it will be up to the people we hope to recruit to take the next steps. Our primary focus (in our semi-retirement years) is going to remain on maintaining and continuing to develop Beyond Intractability with its extensive and growing series of online learning materials describing what we see as the nature of the intractable conflict problem and the most promising strategies for addressing it.
Please tell us what you think about the Initiative using the initiative's web form questionnaire, or simply by writing us an email. Also please tell us about related projects that you, or others that you know of, are doing. As a next step, we hope to generate a wide-ranging discussion of the many complex issues raised by the Initiative along with specific ideas for next-steps projects that would advance the goals implicit in the Initiative. Where appropriate (and with the author's permission), we plan to publicly post the comments we receive as part of an effort to broaden the discussion.
At this point, we do not know where this initiative will lead – that will emerge from our conversations over the next several months. Our only long-term commitment is to keep raising the issues and looking for better ways of addressing them.
We would also appreciate any financial support you might be able to offer this initiative (or Beyond Intractability). You can contribute financially to the project by credit card, check, or wire transfer on our Donations page.
Thanks for taking the time to look at this. We hope that you will get involved. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do whatever we can to mobilize a much larger effort to address the conflict problems that are at the core of so many of society's disturbing trends. If we act, we can make significant progress on these challenges. But if we don't act, they certainly are not going to solve themselves!
* We have another initiative called the "Constructive Confrontation Initiative" which is designed to show people how the skills typically used by third parties (for instance mediators) can also be usefully applied from an advocacy (i.e. confrontation) perspective. This initiative is different from that one. The Constructive Conflict Initiative has a much broader scope. We apologize for the potential confusion, but each title does say, we think, what the initiatives are about better than alternative titles.
**We are indebted to Louis Kriesberg who in 1998 taught us the phrase "Constructive Conflicts" as the most succinct statement of what should be the goal of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields--promoting the constructive aspects of conflict while, at the same time, working to limit its many destructive aspects. Lou recently published the fifth edition of his excellent book on the subject, Constructive Conflicts, with co-author, Bruce Dayton.
*** This initiative is being initially proposed by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, co-directors of the US-based project, Beyond Intractability. While Beyond Intractability has long looked at the way in which intractable conflicts play out internationally, our primary area of expertise has always been the United States. Recognizing that the U.S. has a long and arrogant history of telling other societies how to do things, we want to be very careful not to speak for others. For this reason, the documents that we have prepared thus far focus more on how the conflict problem manifests itself in the United States. We simply don't feel that we should speak for other societies. Still, we recognize that the conflict problems we are talking about are truly global and the long-term success of the effort we are proposing will depend on building of partnerships with people willing to address similar problems in their own societies.