The Definition of Intractability

Pamela Aall

Director of the Education Program at the United States Institute of Peace

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 ???).

The second thing we did was to start writing a more or less a guidebook, or not a guidebook, it is a book that will provide in a way a roadmap to third party mediators in intractable conflicts. This all sounded pretty good to us when we started and little did we know how complex this was going to be. The first thing that we ran into was this idea that nobody agrees on what an intractable conflict is, so you know you spend a lot of time in definitional issues. Especially in this experts group that we brought together. People had different conceptions depending on where they came from and this experts group brought together several people who were in the Burgess' project; Bill Zartman, Lou Kriesberg is part of that, and other people like that. But it also brought in practitioners including; former ambassadors, former secretary of state, and actually one current ambassador but not U.S., the Swedish Ambassador to Washington. So you had a mix of perspectives in that room, not just in the mix of different expertise on geographical areas but very different points of view on what you would do next. The discussion was fascinating but it was clear from the beginning that we would just never quite agree on; (A) using the word intractable was even justified.

What we realized in looking at this issue or this you know complicated problem of definitions is that if you go to the dictionary and you look up the word intractable it actually provides a pretty good framework for what we wanted to look at. Intractable in the dictionary meaning does not mean unsolvable; it means stubborn, you know difficult to move. But there is nothing in, at least if you go to the common dictionary, of hopeless. So we decided we would go ahead because we couldn't think of another word, you could think of protracted, prolonged, you know long lasting, whatever you want to say but intractable people, we sort of settled on that as sort of better than nothing.

Q: Stubborn was to colloquial for everybody's taste.

A: Stubborn conflicts, well you know maybe a very short conflict could be very stubborn. So there was a time element too and we were not, we never came to any definite time limit. Some people say five years, some people ten, some people say twenty and I don't know how you all have coped with this in terms of the time element of it. But it was clear that they had to have gone on for some years and whatever number nobody really cared to take a stand on. And then for our purposes we as part of the definition, we said that and that these conflicts had proven resistance to efforts and resolution. Whether that was victory on the field or it was direct negotiation to be true to the parties or it was third party intervention. So very simple definition: gone on for a long time: resistant to resolution.

Q: Sounds like a virus.

A: It probably is a virus and we probably should have had "mutated into other things" but you see there too we suddenly got into a kind of definitional disagreement about if a conflict goes on for a long time but the leadership changes, is it the same conflict? We just didn't solve any of these things but it was a very interesting discussion, which will be reflected in some ways in this book.