The Challenge of Complex, Intractable Conflicts

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Intractable Conflict is THE #1 Problem We Face

Society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes as serious a threat to human welfare as climate change.

We believe that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, infectious disease, or any of today's other big social, political, economic, and environmental challenges. In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it so difficult for us to effectively meet these other challenges.

The roiling Middle East offers but one terrifying example of how bad things can get when societies collapse into wars of “all against all.”  Also deeply disturbing is the degree to which the United States, and many of the world’s other developed democracies, are fragmenting into hostile factions that seem increasingly unable to work together to define, let alone advance, “the common good.”

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Those working in conflict and peace-related fields have an obligation, we think, to promote greater public awareness of both the seriousness and the pervasiveness of what we call the “intractable conflict problem.” We also need to help people understand that there ARE realistic steps that can be taken – by “ordinary people," as well as conflict resolution experts and decision makers – over both the short- and long-term, to address these conflicts more constructively.

As is the case with climate change, there is an urgent need to intensify our efforts to deal with this problem. Yet the amount of effort currently being focused on improving the way in which we handle conflict (as opposed to playing the same old destructive conflict games) is infinitesimal when compared with the amount of attention being given to climate change or many other social, economic, and political problems which are at their core--conflict problems.

We must find ways to raise the profile of the intractable conflict problem and greatly increase the number of people with the motivation, knowledge, and resources needed to address it effectively. To do this, we have to be willing to tackle the tough problems that lie at the frontier of the peace and conflict field. We must go beyond “business-as-usual,” table-oriented resolution strategies that work well for simpler, smaller-scale conflicts, but are simply not up to the task when presented with society-wide, complex, and intractable conflicts.

The Moving Beyond Intractability project is our effort to help us do that.

A Complexity-Oriented Approach

The Moving Beyond Intractability seminars all take what we call a complexity-oriented approach to intractability and responses to it.  While our primary focus is on very large-scale conflicts (the kind that involve millions of people), much of what we have to say is also applicable to smaller scale conflicts. Our focus is also on those conflicts that earn the name "intractable" by stubbornly defying the best, currently available conflict-resolution strategies. In other words, this is a project that seeks to explore and, hopefully, advance the frontiers of the peace and conflict field, so that fewer conflicts become, or stay intractable.

We believe that the development of a much more sophisticated, complexity-oriented approach to conflict is the key to successfully transforming intractable conflicts. Over the course of the seminars we and, hopefully, seminar participants, will explore a great many ideas that will help bring us closer to this goal. 

Blueprint / Bird Flock Graphic

One example of the kinds of issues that we intend to discuss is the critical distinction between "complicated systems" and "complex adaptive systems"— a concept we first learned from Wendell Jones contribution to Beyond Intractability. In "complicated systems," the system elements are known, and the connections between the elements are understood and predictable. That means that the components of the system react to each other and to changing conditions in consistent, predictable ways.  System components do not have their own goals; they do not make independent decisions.  It makes sense to think of such systems in terms of mechanical metaphors--machines that work the same way every time (at least until something breaks).

In "complex systems," many independent actors, each with their own goals and decision making processes, seek to advance their own interests based on their image of the environment and their own rational and non-rational decision making strategies. The actors, the relationships between the actors, and the behavior of the actors are much less understood and predictable. Complex systems develop through evolution, they are not designed.  So, there are no central control points, no firm connections, no firm rules of behavior for the system as a whole.  As a result, an action in one part of the system will affect other parts of the system in indeterminate ways.

The big idea here is that large-scale intractable conflicts are complex, not complicated systems. This means that intractable conflicts are much harder to understand, predict, or influence in predictable ways. Many traditional conflict resolution strategies are premised on actors behaving in rational, predictable (interest-based) ways with the expectation that, if a solution can be found that will meet each sides’ interests, then a negotiated, win-win resolution can be agreed to. Often, the assumption is that, if things don't work out, the reason is that the process was flawed and that all one needs to do is redesign the process. If, for example, the problem is that the actors aren't thinking rationally, then the solution is to structure a process that will enable (or force) them to put anger and other emotions aside and get them to start thinking rationally.

One example is the conflict over guns in the U.S. Every time a mass shooting occurs, large number of people call for increased gun control, believing that the way to stop such tragedies is to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.  Gun control advocates argue that gun supporters just aren't being "rational," but rather acting on the basis of selfishness or fear.  An equally large number of people go out and buy (or fight to keep) their guns, believing equally strongly that the only way to stay safe is to be armed oneself.  They accuse the other side of being irrationally afraid of guns and naive in thinking that they can be controlled.  Both views see the situation as either simple or at best complicated, but not complex.  Neither approach, alone, is likely to stop mass shootings in this country.  To do this, we need to develop a much more complexity-oriented understanding of the nature of the problem, and a multi-dimensional response that addresses the many different elements that are driving the shooters and allowing these events to occur over and over again. 

Complex adaptive systems are much more like biological systems in that they evolve, change, and adapt. While we can intervene in biological systems with some success, we are often surprised because our interventions don’t work out in ways that are expected. So interventions in complex systems must be flexible and adaptable, and continuous monitoring of the system is important. This is true in human conflicts as well. We can try things, based on our imperfect understanding of the elements and dynamics of the system. But then we need to carefully watch to see the results of our efforts (particularly unintended results) and adapt appropriately.

We also need realistic goals and, unfortunately, resolution is often not realistic.  More, realistic, and still enormously beneficial, objectives tend to be more modest and focused on promoting more constructive conflict interactions while limiting those that are destructive.

In addition, most intractable conflicts we look at are very large scale.  Certainly family conflicts can be intractable, but the kinds of conflicts we are concerned with here--the ones that are threatening the well-being of whole communities, countries, or the globe involve thousands or, more often, millions of people.  This requires, at a minimum, the ability to navigate the enormously complex web of relationships that connect negotiators with their constituents and each other.  So efforts to move beyond intractability need to happen at a much larger scale--involving thousands or even millions of disputants, not just a few.  

This means that we need to supplement our ability to manage conversations around the table, with mass media-based efforts to manage and transform conflicts at a community or even societal-level scale.  We can't realistically expect conflict and peace professionals to be able to solve today's big problems for us---there simply are not enough of them.  We need to find better ways of helping grassroots citizens move up the conflict learning curve more rapidly in ways that increase their ability to constructively deal with their own conflict problems.  We hope Beyond Intractability and the MOOS Seminars will enable more people to discover more constructive approaches to difficult and intractable conflicts, enabling them to improve their own conflict interactions, or following a train-the-trainer model, take the ideas further to reach as many people as possible.

As a species distinguished by our tool-making ability and a dazzling array of technological accomplishments, we humans tend to approach our problems as a tool- making challenge.  That means we try to design a complicated system that can be relied upon to produce the desired result. Unfortunately, the complexity of intractable conflict processes limits the utility of this approach.  What's needed, and what the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, especially, and the MBI project more generally, intend to explore, are strategies for building a complexity-oriented approach to these problems.