Structural Barriers to Agreement

Julian Ouellet

November 2005

It is common, in discussing intractable conflicts, to frame the conflict in terms of the actors involved and their preferences.[1] But there are many situations in which, even given matching preferences, there is no way to reach an agreement.[2] This is often because of structural impediments.

Structural impediments or barriers can be understood as aspects of the external environment that limit negotiating options, to the extent that there are no possible points of agreement.[3] Even agreements-in-principle can be disrupted by structural impediments, as the nature of the system in which the actors operate confounds their efforts to follow through with the provisions of the agreement. This essay will discuss some major structural barriers to reaching agreements. Before doing so, it is necessary to define structure, in this context.

Defining Structure

Kenneth Waltz[4], a political scientist, (Theory of International Politics by Kenneth N. Waltz) presented one of the first structural theories of international relations. Waltz argued that a structural theory of politics eschews actor preferences and institutional organization, in favor of explanations that focus solely on the rules of the game. Any discussion of the structural barriers to agreement must be seen in a similar light.

One way of defining structural impediments is by defining what are not structural impediments. Structural impediments are not:

  • Individual beliefs, preferences, or identities;
  • Differences between one group or institution and another.

Instead, structural impediments are:

  • Formal and informal rules that regulate an entire system of interaction;
  • The physical limitations of an environment.

Any interaction between two actors is thus defined, if not limited, by the social and physical constraints of the environment.

Social structures or systems, as Boulding calls them, create patterns of interaction.[5] Social systems encourage certain choices while discouraging others. Although this may be accomplished by a formal set of rules or a rule of law, there may also be informal rules, customs that regulate behavior. For example, in situations structured by fear and hate of an ethnic group, even if an individual wants to operate differently, he or she is discouraged from doing so. As another example, there are no laws in the United States that require a university education, but the pattern of incentives and disincentives in the workplace strongly encourages one. In this way, the combination of formal and informal rules defines not only what is acceptable, but also what is conceivable. In intractable conflicts, it is often the case that structural limitations are hardened to the point that abstract agreements-in-principle are unimaginable, given the general pattern of incentives and disincentives.

Some examples of structural impediments might be group identities, political and legal institutions, mountains and oceans, or production and trade patterns in a region. Structural impediments are domain-specific. Some structural limits may exist for one person in one conflict, but not for the same person in a different conflict. For example, a legal institution can be a structural barrier in a local environmental dispute because it limits the possible outcomes. The same corporation that may be involved in this local dispute will not be constrained by that legal system in the international realm. There is no overarching enforcement mechanism at the international level to constrain the corporation. Similarly, states, it is argued, exist in an environment of anarchy.

This essay will focus on a handful of examples in order to show how these barriers limit conflict resolution, and to discuss possibilities for overcoming the limits imposed by structural limitations. The number of parties involved can be important determinants of possible agreements; institutions, beliefs and information, and physical limitations are also important constraints on possible agreements and their implementation.

Types of Structural Barriers

Number of Parties

The number of parties can be understood in a couple of different contexts. The first structural barrier involving parties is the complexity of negotiations. Game theory and rational-choice theory assume that actors choose actions for a reason---actions are purposeful---and that the reason for any given action is to maximize utility. In game theory, scholars use this assumption to model how two actors in competition will choose to maximize a given set of preferences. As the number of actors increases beyond two, the models become increasingly complex. This is because the range of possible solutions decreases dramatically. As Kahler points out, negotiations involving large numbers of groups are not impossible, but they are difficult.[6]

In the case of intractable conflict, it is often important to include as many parties as possible lest some parties withdraw entirely from the negotiations and actively attempt to sabotage any possible resolution. The second problem with parties is this “spoiler” problem. Outside parties that have an interest in the outcome of a negotiation can upset the implementation of an agreement. Even in cases where parties involved in the negotiations agree to a settlement, outside parties can disrupt the implementation of the agreement. As the number of spoilers increases, the difficulty of implementation increases dramatically.

It is a double-edged sword. On one hand, as the number of parties involved in negotiations increases, there is less possible room for agreement. On the other hand, as the number of spoilers left out of the negotiations increases, it becomes more difficult to implement the agreement. Thus, there is no attractive trade-off in terms of the number of parties.

However, including all important parties in the negotiations, but dividing the negotiations among committee groups, might be a more attractive alternative. The benefit of a committee system is the ability to disentangle one issue from another. Intractable conflicts tend not to revolve around a single easily identifiable issue, but instead around many issues that are murky and linked in surprising ways. When the number of parties involved increases the complexity of negotiations, it is useful to decrease complexity and pressure in other ways. In particular, the use of committees allows each issue to be discussed on its own merits.

Beliefs and Information

In order to make similar decisions, opponents need similar sets of information, but in intractable conflicts there is an incentive to withhold information. One way of analyzing an intractable conflict is to use the strategic setting framework developed by Lake and Powell.[7] Lake and Powell distinguish four key features of a strategic setting: information, institutions, beliefs, and preferences. Information and institutions are part of the external environment that dictates what an actor can know and do in any given situation. Beliefs and preferences define the cognitive framework of the actor. By considering all these factors, an outside observer can analyze what is desired, what is possible, and specify the parts of the environment that limit any choice.

In this context, beliefs and information represent two key constraints on possible agreements. Fearon notes that in most situations there is a possible agreement that is mutually beneficial to the parties involved, but that withheld information can sabotage the possible agreement.[8] Information, in the form of capacities, objectives, and constraints, lets the parties involved know the possible agreement points of which any individual actor is capable. If information is concealed, proposed solutions must be made and rejected while only knowing one side of the equation. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an example of imperfect decision-making because of a dearth of information. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, individuals will tend to minimize losses instead of maximizing gains. As more information is communicated between the two parties, it becomes possible to maximize benefits instead of minimizing losses.

Returning to the definition of structure as a pattern of incentives and disincentives, it becomes understandable why information could be a structural barrier. An individual coming to a fork in the road, without a map, would have no way of knowing which path to take to get to his or her destination. However, as information is provided, the choice becomes easier. A rudimentary map may provide some information, a topographical map yet more, a topographical map with marked roads still more. As information increases, better agreements are possible and are easier to arrive at.

In intractable conflicts, there is often an implicit or explicit prohibition against the involved parties sharing information. Milner suggests that the best way to overcome information limitations is the use of interest groups. Any number of groups, from NGOs to intervening international organizations and states, can create communication channels between parties that would not communicate directly. These communication channels will increase the amount of shared information in any conflict. By creating a common informational environment, choices based on self-interest can lead to agreements. Rational actors seeking to improve their own situation find themselves in a better situation to cooperate, as more information is provided. As information increases, and with it the number of people who share the same information, the possibility for agreement increases substantially. This does not guarantee agreement, but instead helps to manage one structural barrier.

Beliefs, at a very basic level, provide a pattern of incentives and disincentives by ordering self-perception vis-à-vis the outside world and the outside world vis-à-vis the self. Beliefs about likely outcomes and about what is possible represent one sort of belief system. Group identities represent another sort of belief system. Group identities, for example, determine which actions are acceptable to many members of the group. Group identities encourage group censorship and self-censorship of individual actions, according to what is deemed acceptable. One can think of Catholicism in this regard. The Catholic religion prohibits certain actions, such as adultery, murder, and abortion, and strictly observant Catholics find such actions by other Catholics to be unacceptable. In addition, Catholic individuals may censor themselves according the same rules, though others, who are less strict, may not.

People outside the group will tend to stereotype the people of a group, which may affect interactions between people in different groups. In civil wars, group identities are often difficult to overcome. Elites must balance attempts at conciliation with rival groups with maintaining authenticity within their own group. Group identities thus create a two-level game that elites must play in order to reach an agreement. Group identities represent just one form of a belief system, but an important one that can provide a sometimes insurmountable barrier to agreements.

Belief systems are very difficult to change. In fact it is probably counterproductive to try to change a party’s belief systems early in an intractable conflict, when they may be very resistant to change. It is not impossible, but in the context of intractable conflicts, belief systems will change only very slowly, through repeated positive interactions in an environment of trust.

Political and Legal Institutions

Intractable conflicts at all levels are constrained by the rules, regulations, and political coalitions that define the institutional environment. This environment varies widely as one moves from conflicts within states, to conflicts between states, to conflicts in failed states. In conflicts between states and in failed states, the institutional environment is structured by power and anarchy. That is, agreements are limited by the lack of an overarching government that can provide effective sanctions against illegal actions. Thus, some argue, power rules and Might Makes Right.[9]

One challenge in this sort of anarchy is to overcome prevailing conceptions of Might Makes Right, in order to create reasonable solutions that foster agreement. Reasonable solutions are not necessarily fair agreements unstructured by power differentials, but are instead pragmatic agreements that recognize issues other than power. In failed states torn apart by civil war, the structure of the state is often at the core of the conflict. The structure of society is the most important determinant of the justice of the society. In states weakened by war, poverty, and resource scarcity, the justice of the institutions is a strong determinant of the stability of any peace agreement.

Conflicts that occur within states must be resolved according to law, and possible agreements must fall within the range of legally and politically acceptable options. On occasion, the laws themselves create a problem and must be changed. Campaign-finance reform is a good example of an intractable conflict in the United States. Incumbents and challengers alike would probably like to forego fund-raising in favor of focusing on and debating the issues, but the laws that determine elections encourage putting maximum effort towards fund-raising. Changing the rules, however, would tend to even the playing ground putting incumbents at a disadvantage. Because incumbents are the very same people who will vote on a law, they are unlikely to pass a law that will put them at a disadvantage relative to the status quo. In similar ways, the political and legal status quo is often a strong structural barrier to possible agreements within states. Individuals and groups that are in conflict with each other must mobilize not only like-minded individuals, but people who may not care about the conflict at all. Mobilizing the apathetic is the biggest barrier to changing institutions within stable states.

Institutional barriers to agreement are not as intransigent as belief systems, but they can be quite difficult to overcome. In relatively peaceful social settings, the institutional structure and its consequences for distribution of resources are likely to be relatively fixed, whereas in failed states the institutional structure is likely to be in a rather severe state and in flux. These two extremes, and the wide range of intermediate possibilities, present different challenges to reaching an agreement. In relatively stable situations, the debate is likely to revolve around particular rules or the distributional consequences of particular legal frameworks. Women’s ownership of property and ability to divorce, for example, were key issues to the first generation of feminists in the United States. Changing these rules was important to reaching an agreement over women’s moral, legal, and intellectual equality. It took 72 years for the most fundamental of these laws---the right to vote---to be changed.

Physical Limitations

The oldest and some of the most difficult structural barriers are simple physical limitations to an agreement. These are literal barriers to communication, such as mountains, rivers, jungles, deserts, oceans, and scarce resources, and they can limit the ability to communicate or to provide the material underpinnings of an effective agreement.

Some scholars cite resource scarcity as both a cause of intractable conflicts and an impediment to possible solutions.[10] Scarcity problems tend to intensify group identities, as competition over resources creates incentives for belonging to one group or another.[11] Kaplan has cited increasing competition over resources such as water as one of the key conflicts in developing countries. In civil wars, the presence of exportable primary goods, such as timber and diamonds in Ivory Coast and cocaine in Colombia, can exacerbate conflicts because the resources fund the conflict and become spoils to the victor.[12]

Physical barriers such as deserts and oceans limit possible agreements as well. In intractable conflicts, it is unlikely that two groups are separated by significant physical barriers; it is their very proximity that usually causes the conflict. But physical barriers place important constraints on third-party involvement. Even in situations where two parties to a conflict may desire intervention, they are not likely to be able to cover the cost. As the cost of overcoming barriers mounts, it is less likely that third parties will be available to provide the vital input necessary to resolve a conflict. In an environment where high levels of scarcity and low levels of development are pervasive, relations are likely to remain strained. One of the best and easiest ways to begin to resolve intractable conflicts is to attack the underlying material conditions that create the problem. Problems of scarcity in ecologically stressed environments can rarely be solved in the environment itself.


This essay began by describing structure in terms of patterns of incentives and disincentives that order social relations. In this context, we should understand that most intractable conflicts exist in environments that encourage conflict. People do not irrationally engage in conflict situations, when the pattern of incentives and disincentives discourages those actions.

The most important step in resolving intractable conflicts is identifying the particular social structures that foment conflict. Some of the important structural variables discussed here are the number of parties, shared information, belief systems, legal and political institutions, and physical limitations.

The nature of structural constraints, by definition, makes them difficult to change or to manage. The first step is to identify the particular constraints that create the environment. After that, easier steps include increasing the amount of shared information, and dividing the problem into smaller components that smaller groups can debate and on which they can seek agreement. On the whole, structural barriers to agreement can be difficult to address, but the reward for actually altering the environment can be long-term stability.


[1] E. Franklin Dukes. “Structural Forces in Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Democratic Society.” in Conflict Resolution: Dynamics, Process and Structure, Ho-Won Jeong, ed. Brookfield: Ashgate. 1999. pp 155-172. <>.

[2] Robert B. Wilson. “Strategic and Informational Barriers to Negotiation.” in Barriers to Conflict Resolution, Keneth Arrow, Robert Mnookin, Lee Ross, Amos Tversky, and Robert Wilson, eds. NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 1995. pp. 108-119. <>.

[3] Moore, Christopher W. "Assessing Options for Settlement." in The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, John Wiley & Sons, 2003. <>.

[4] Kenneth Waltz. Theory of International Politics, Waveland Press Inc., 2010. <>.

[5] Boulding, Kenneth. Three Faces of Power, SAGE, 1989. <>.

[6] Kahler

[7] Lake and Powell

[8] Fearon

[9] Mearsheimer, Morgenthau

[10] Homer-Dixon, Downs and Stedman

[11]  Kaplan, Robert D. "The Coming Anarchy." The Atlantic. 1 February, 1994. <>.

[12] Berdal and Malone, Downs and Stedman

Use the following to cite this article:
Ouellet, Julian. "Structural Barriers to Agreement" Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2005 <>.