The Constructive Conflict* Imperative

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Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project, Conflict Information Consortium
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September 1, 2019

It is long past time for us to recognize that the destructive way in which the U.S. and so many other societies now handle highly complex, large-scale, intractable conflicts represents the single greatest threat to humanity and the planet.   


This post is part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


If current practices continue, we dramatically increase the risk of some combination of three dystopian futures:

  • Anocracy where failed systems of governance prevent us from wisely, equitably, and effectively solving any of our big social, economic, environmental, or health problems;
  • Autocracy where authoritarians and wealthy kleptocrats are able to gain control of society by exploiting social tensions using divide-and-conquer tactics; and
  • War where tensions between deeply-divided social groups and between competing authoritarians and plutocrats escalate to the point of large-scale and, potentially, catastrophic violence.

Our collective inability to handle intractable conflicts is also preventing democracies from delivering on the ideal of a system of governance that is truly "of the people, by the people, and for the people." For democracies to succeed, they must be able to harness conflict as the principal mechanism through which unwise and unjust policies are challenged (and unwise and unjust challenges are rejected). 

We believe that the effort to address the intractable conflict problem is roughly where the effort to address climate change was in the early 1980s. Then relatively small numbers of people with expertise on climate were just starting to realize the danger of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  They also realized that they, somehow, had to make all societies aware of the problem and the need for a global-scale effort to address it.

What is needed now is a process that parallels (and learns from) the evolution of the climate-change movement.  As that movement has done, we need to promote a very large and multifaceted approach to the problem -- one that includes a systematic inventory of what we now know, additional basic and applied research, education and training, sophisticated policy analysis, moral leadership, and grassroots political action -- all with adequate funding.

Ultimately, our success in resisting dystopian trends will depend upon our ability to identify and take successful steps to correct the many weaknesses in today's democracies that are preventing them from effectively defending the common good from the forces of chaos and greed.  This will, in turn, require a sophisticated and dramatically-expanded look at the many tough challenges facing political systems and options for overcoming those challenges.  Right now, we spend staggering amounts of money fighting the same old destructive conflict games, and, by comparison, almost nothing trying to change the system that leaves us with such terrible choices.  We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do better.

This essay is part of a broader effort entitled the "Constructive Conflict Initiative*" which aims to promote a dramatic expansion of efforts to address the intractable conflict problem. Our hope is that a wide-ranging discussion of the many complex issues raised by the Initiative will emerge from this process, along with specific ideas for next-steps projects that would advance the goals implicit in the Initiative.  At this point, we do not know where the Initiative will lead – that will emerge from our conversations.

While there are many ongoing, and quite laudable, efforts to address difficult conflicts, we believe that today's dismal trends demonstrate that these efforts still fall far short of what is required.  Decision makers and private citizens commonly fail to take advantage of the many proven insights of conflict resolution-related fields and, instead, rely on destructive conflict-as-usual practices. This is, in part, due to inadequate conflict education and training and a scarcity of skilled conflict intermediaries (and the funds to pay them).  But that isn't the only problem. The current generation of conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies have yet to demonstrate the ability to deal effectively with the staggering scale, social and psychological complexity, and inherent intractability of today's big society-wide conflicts. The strategies are even less successful in countering divide-and-conquer actors who directly attack more constructive conflict-handling processes (such as collaboration and compromise). 

Our collective future depends upon figuring out how to overcome these challenges.  More specifically, we need to develop and rigorously test strategies for meeting the challenges listed below.  As more effective strategies are developed we, obviously, also need to promote the widespread implementation of those strategies, while simultaneously discouraging the use of more destructive, prevailing approaches. To be effective, these changes must come from the full range of conflict perspectives and ways of knowing. Society's many communities (decision makers, conflict professionals, and "regular citizens" on both the left and the right) need to come to understand for themselves how a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics can enable them to better protect and advance their interests.

While our focus is on the dangers associated with intractable conflict at the society-wide level, it is important to remember that the dynamics that lead to destructive intractability at that level also cause immense pain and suffering at the individual, organizational, and community levels.  Thus, any comprehensive effort to address intractable conflict must also address small-scale manifestations of the problem. In part, this is because the small-scale interactions are key to understanding large-scale social and psychological complexity.  Tip O'Neill (former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) was right in observing that, to a significant degree, "all politics is local."  The added bonus, of course, is an improved ability to deal with the everyday disputes that are such an important part of everyone's life.

The Multifaceted Conflict Challenge

As will quickly become evident from the daunting nature of the challenges listed below, preserving democracy in our 21st-century globalized environment (like combating climate change) is going to be an extraordinarily difficult undertaking.  And, this is also something that we are going to have to do in the face of determined opposition from authoritarian leaders (and “wannabes”) who are proving increasingly adept at controlling their populations by using sophisticated propaganda and information technologies to advance their divide-and-conquer strategies. Most people still oppose such leaders, however, and are likely willing to join an effort to better their own lives if they can see how to do that.

Thus, the key to saving democracy is figuring out a viable path for enabling democracy to live up to its ideals. This will, in turn, require an inevitably lengthy effort to find increasingly effective strategies for meeting the following tough challenges:

  • Scale: Perhaps the biggest challenge is to figure out how to "scale up" the conflict and peacebuilding field's small-group, table-oriented processes to the society-wide level, where they can help many millions of people deal with the challenges posed below and, more generally, engage in conflict in more constructive ways.  This will, in turn, require adapting small group interaction strategies to the various mass-communication environments.
  • Psychological Complexity: Compelling rational arguments that particular conflict strategies will allow the parties to minimize their costs while maximizing benefits may seem to be enough to decisively persuade people to change their behavior.  However, a wide range of cognitive biases often lead people to embrace behaviors that would, from a purely rational perspective, be seen as counterproductive. Yet these more subjective thought processes often pick up on important nuances that more quantitative and rational approaches miss (although they obviously can also lead us astray).  Since so much of decision making is non-rational, conflict handling strategies need to be adapted to work with the full complexity of human thought--not just rational analysis.
  • Social Complexity: The difficulties associated with the enormous scale of society-wide conflict are further compounded by the social complexities associated with the staggering number of conflict interactions. Group beliefs about both facts and values arise from the cumulative effects of countless interactions between largely independent individuals.  In today's political environments, people are decreasingly likely to blindly follow traditional authority figures, and are more likely to follow trending ideas in popular culture and on their social media feeds.  That said, some charismatic leaders still do command huge followings. This means we need conflict transformation approaches that work with gigantic numbers of everyday citizens and not just a few elite negotiators.
  • "Divide-and-conquer" Authoritarians and Plutocrats: To be successful, democratic institutions must be able to prevail in the face of sustained and sophisticated attacks by cynical, Machiavellian actors trying to advance their authoritarian and plutocratic goals using divide-and-conquer tactics. These actors, who are almost always extremely well-funded, typically take advantage of democratic norms and institutions to sugarcoat their decidedly non-democratic objectives. Of special concern is the fact that these actors are, as today's still-unfolding scandals demonstrate, doing an exceptional job of developing strategies that work effectively in the very complex and large-scale social media environment discussed above.
  • The "Destructive-Conflict-As-Usual" Industrial Complex: Former U.S. President Eisenhower's warning about the danger posed by the "military industrial complex" is but one example of cases in which those who profit from destructive approaches to conflict work to influence society's conflict behavior in ways that enhance their bottom line. Arms merchants who work to intensify conflict as a way of selling more weapons are the most obvious and extreme example. There is, unfortunately, a parallel political dynamic in which, for example, media companies base their business models around intensifying political divisions and then selling coverage of those divisions. Interest groups also tend to go beyond legitimate advocacy and unfairly demonize political opponents as a fundraising strategy. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it's hard to get people to understand their destructive conflict role if their job depends on not understanding it.
  • Absence of a Shared Democratic Vision: We also need (and do not currently have) a shared vision for a 21st-century democracy that most everyone would like to live in and, therefore, be willing to work for.  Such a vision would need to build on the best of our democratic ideals, while also acknowledging and moving beyond the reality that democracy has, far too often, been used to sugarcoat the domination of the many by the few.  In short, our goal must be to make democracy great (not great again). Such a vision needs at least three major components.

First, we need to cultivate a set of overarching and very widely-supported moral beliefs that enable today's highly diverse (and, in many ways, competing) communities to work together to advance the common good, while simultaneously permitting these communities to live life as they choose in a spirit of tolerance, coexistence, mutual respect, individual freedom, and constructive competition.

Next, we also need to limit and, where necessary, rollback the "zero-sum" aspects of economies that focus efforts to "get ahead" on strategies for taking things from others (a process that obviously favors the most powerful).  In its place, we need to encourage a more "positive-sum" economy that focuses "get ahead" efforts on working together to expand and more equitably distribute the goods and services society produces.

In addition, we need to promote the more widespread recognition of the common stake that we all share in protecting, for ourselves and for future generations: the fundamental environmental, social, and economic resources upon which we all depend. This must, of course, be accompanied by the promotion of institutions that defend the commons from those who threaten it with the excessive pursuit of individual self-interest.

  • Reconciliation: Having a positive future vision that enjoys broad support among the many communities that characterize today's highly diverse societies is an important step toward reconciling deeply-divided societies. Still, for societies characterized by long histories of terrible, unrightable wrongs, such a vision is unlikely to be sufficient. It is unrealistic to expect the victims of these wrongs (and their descendants) to simply move on as if nothing had happened.  There may, therefore, be a need for reconciliation efforts that foster a common history that acknowledges the truth of what happened. In extreme cases, perpetrators must acknowledge their responsibility and a societally-acceptable decision must be made about how perpetrators will be treated—who will be tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity, and who might apply for and be granted amnesty (and under what conditions).  Further, all sides must endorse procedures that assure that the wrongs will not be repeated. To the extent possible, those who still suffer should be granted compensation and other assistance to facilitate healing and a future successful life. Perpetrators who are not tried and convicted should be granted forgiveness, based on their sincere remorse and efforts to make amends.  In cases of less extreme wrongs, milder versions of the above reconciliation procedures may still be helpful. 
  • Fact-Finding: Citizen images about the problems that their society faces and the viability of options for addressing those problems arise through the complex interaction of technical analyses (often by experts perceived as having clear conflicts of interest), cognitive biases, and the web of social interactions which determine who is and isn't seen as trustworthy. The error-prone nature of this process gives rise to a continuing challenge – how do we cultivate societal fact-finding processes that more closely conform to the characteristics of the "real" world -- and are believed by most citizens?  After all, we shouldn't expect problem-solving efforts based on unrealistic images to actually work.​Escalation and Polarization: Escalation and polarization dynamics that now commonly divide whole societies into competing, "us versus them" factions. These factions often so dehumanize one another that taboos against hate and violence collapse and the only goal becomes the utter defeat of the enemy (regardless of cost). These processes are routinely amplified by "divide-and- conquer" actors who use the intensity of the resulting conflict to suppress criticism of their nondemocratic actions. It is critically important that we find effective ways of reversing escalation and polarization to the point where we can restore respectful dialogue and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Miscommunication, Deception, and Misunderstanding: It is now common for competing social groups to have wildly inaccurate and usually unjustifiable negative images of one another. In part, these images arise from escalation dynamics and the need for contending parties to mobilize supporters by painting their adversaries in the most inflammatory way possible.  Divide-and-conquer propaganda also, obviously, plays an important role. These hostile images are further reinforced by the fact that we all tend to live in "bubbles" that largely eliminate the kind of direct, interpersonal experience that can correct serious misperceptions.
  • Collaboration: While many aspects of today's big conflicts can, in theory, be resolved through some type of mutually-beneficial agreement, the task of actually reaching those agreements is increasingly challenging because of the complexities of today's issues, the large number of competing interests, wide cultural differences, deep-seated distrust, and a general reluctance to make the required compromises. (The illusion of total victory is pretty hard to give up, particularly when one is repeatedly told that compromise is weakness or even a sin.)  The challenge, therefore, is to develop multi-party negotiating strategies capable of navigating these difficulties, getting people to the negotiating table, negotiating effectively and in good faith, concluding enforceable agreements, and then persuading skeptical constituents that such agreements are truly advantageous.
  • Ineffective Institutions for Adjudication and Legislation: There are, of course, conflict issues that fall outside of the win-win "zone of possible agreement." This may occur because of the refusal of one or more parties to compromise, disagreements about the underlying facts or the rights of the parties, or the inherent win-lose character of the issues (common for moral issues). For such cases, the success of democratic institutions depends upon the availability of widely-trusted mechanisms for wisely and equitably making hard choices about who wins and who loses. Such mechanisms include systems of adjudication for determining who is "right" in particular circumstances and legislative systems for weighing values and revising the nature of those rights, as appropriate. Steps must be taken to prevent these institutions from becoming co-oped. We must also modify their operations so that they can become effective, rather than being mired in stalemate or corrupted.
  • Collective Action: Many issues including, especially, the management of the commons, require conflict-handling institutions that go beyond relatively routine disputes between parties and look at issues in a society-wide way. In some cases, this requires bringing people together through a government program to do things that advance the common good such as efforts to address common threats like climate change or pandemics or efforts to increase the productivity of the society through public education and infrastructure development projects. In other cases, it involves regulatory actions which promote the efficient and equitable functioning of markets by "leveling the playing field" and preventing various types of exploitive behavior. The ability of 21st-century democracies to perform these functions will require extensive reforms to roll back the kind of corruption that is now often endemic in such systems. 

Making significant progress toward meeting the above challenges will be an enormous undertaking requiring large numbers of specialized efforts, each focused on addressing one or more of these challenges in specific conflict situations and geographic locations.  What's needed now is a next-steps action plan to get us closer to this goal.

Needed Next Steps

It is important that the daunting nature of the above challenges not lead us into a false sense of hopelessness and an acceptance of a dystopian future. While fully "solving" any of these problems is likely to take a long time and a lot of effort, efforts to limit the problems in ways which dramatically improve the trajectory of human society over the short term are most certainly feasible. What's more, the level of improvement is likely to be proportional to the level of effort, the degree of creativity, and the persistence that we bring to the effort.

As is the case with all great challenges, it is important to start by pursuing a series of realistic near-term objectives. As these initial objectives are achieved, we can clarify and embark on a more ambitious set of efforts in a continuing learning cycle that is likely to involve major changes in the way we think about the intractable conflict problem and its possible solutions.

Perhaps the most important near-term objective is to start expanding the level of funding available for this kind of work.  There is simply not much that people will be able to do by simply re-purposing existing resources.  As a starting point, we need a small group of individuals and organizations to commit a significant amount of money and issue requests for proposals that would make it clear to those with promising ideas that it would be worth their time to develop those ideas.  Existing funding programs already working in this general area are especially well positioned to push conflict-related fields into this more ambitious line of work. All that would be needed initially would be modest restructuring and expansion of existing programs. Over the longer term, success will depend upon the ability of people to earn increased support by doing good projects that make significant contributions. We must also be realistic about how much progress the inevitably modest initial projects should be expected to make. We don't want to put people in a position where they feel that they have to over promise.

Nobody is going to try to solve a problem about which they are unaware. We, therefore, need a broadly-based campaign to help people in all sectors of society understand that their biggest enemy is not each other, but rather the destructive ways in which their society handles conflict. This, obviously, must be accompanied by credible explanations of how the development and use of more constructive alternatives would enable them to better defend their interests.

It is obviously hard to get to where we want to go, if we don't know where we are starting from. So, we must start with a kind of meta-inventory of how current intractable conflicts are being addressed; what seems to be working well, and what does not.  When things are not working well, it is important to determine if better conflict engagement processes and strategies are available, but are not being used (and why not).  We would then need to explore ways of overcoming these obstacles.  Alternatively, where current processes and strategies are simply not "up to the task," we would need to come up with practical strategies for encouraging people to develop, and ultimately implement, better ideas. 

All of this will have to be done in a way that is seen as credible by people from as wide a range of political perspectives as possible and including, especially, those who do not stand to gain financially from the effort. This must be seen as a public service initiative, not just another fundraising strategy for peacebuilders. We must resist the very real danger of creating a peacebuilding industrial complex that wastes lots of resources without ever really addressing the problem.

Another challenge is that the general public is largely unaware of the seriousness of the threats associated with destructive conflict and the availability of more effective ways of dealing with conflict that limits such dangers.  This suggests the need for much better conflict and civic education and training at all levels from kindergarten through college and professional schools. Rather than being an elective or a major that only a few students take, basic conflict skills should be a required course (or be integrated into other courses) for all students at all levels. These ideas should also be taught to adults in social organizations, such as churches, community groups, and advocacy groups and they should be integrated into all types of popular media--TV, radio, and social media so we can reach people who are no longer in the academic system. Doing this will, of course, require development of a broadly-supported curriculum that is not seen as tilted in ways that advantage some groups over others.  It will also have to honestly acknowledge the limitations of current knowledge and resist the urge to pretend that the peace and conflict field currently has all of the answers.

Right now only a tiny proportion of the society is actively working to address these problems.  Obviously, we need to persuade many, many more people and more organizations to become involved. We are not suggesting that most people make conflict their new profession.  Rather, we are suggesting that people integrate better conflict knowledge and skills into what they are already doing.  But we have to provide them the training they need to do this, so they are not just "reinventing the wheel."  Again, adequate funding is essential.

Over the longer term, an ambitious effort like the one that we are proposing would need to be carefully organized and administered. How this would be done in a way that would be acceptable to all participants is an issue that would need both creativity and collaboration.  While an overly-structured, highly bureaucratic organization seems unlikely to succeed, mechanisms do need to be developed to assure quality, avoid wasteful duplication of effort, maintain focus on critical issues, limit debilitating internal conflicts, and prevent co-optation of the effort by those with a narrow, selfish agenda. Obviously, such quality control and governance measures should be a critical precondition for major funding.  Over the shorter term, however, we are likely to need something much less formal, with much less overhead and more focused on getting people involved, building the network, exchanging ideas, encouraging individual initiative and funding and undertaking local, prototype projects than can be learned from and expanded over time.

Fostering a massive effort to address the extraordinarily difficult challenges posed above might seem to be an impossible task. The same was undoubtedly said about climate change 40 years ago. While we clearly haven't solved that problem, a formidable effort that has been assembled and considerable progress has been made (take solar and wind power, for example).This demonstrates that large-scale efforts like this can make major progress (though ultimate success on both of these initiatives will require major advances in our ability to deal with conflict).

It is clear that we need to start building a major effort to address the destructive conflict problem – one that builds on and learns from the experiences of the climate change movement. This is a case where Kenneth Boulding's First Law applies, "if it exists (or has been done), it must be possible."  It will, however, only be possible if we start working together to make it happen.

* Constructive Conflicts
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.