Conflict: Management, Resolution, or Transformation?

“Conflict is a theme that has occupied the thinking of men more than any other, save only God and love.” Anatol Rapoport

What is a conflict? Is conflict always undesirable? What is the range of human conflicts? What are the reasons for conflicts? And when conflicts arise, how should one optimally deal with them? These general issues have particular relevance for understanding and mitigating contemporary conflicts

The English word “conflict” derives from the Latin word “confligere,” or to “strike together.” For example, because it is physically impossible for two objects, such as billiard balls, to occupy the same place, if one is in motion toward the other and strikes it, then it collides or conflicts with it and displaces it. Conflict is inevitable and may or may not be destructive.

Within the human realm, a conflict may occur within a person, between two or more individuals or groups, or within or between large social organizations, most notably nation states. Hence there is a variety of kinds of conflicts, ranging from the intra-psychic to the international.

Conflicts within and between individuals may occur for a number of reasons. For Sigmund Freud, we are torn between our innate drives for love and self-preservation on the one hand, and aggression and destruction on the other hand. Such contemporary conflict theorists as Johan Galtung tend to eschew such overarching explanations and instead claim that human conflicts are largely due to a real or perceived incompatibility, or contradiction, between conflicting parties’ attitudes, behaviors, interests, needs, positions and/or values.

If conflicts are not addressed, or “managed” at an early stage in the dispute, they may escalate, and the conflict parties may employ whatever means they have available, including threats, legal reprisals, and direct or indirect violence, to “defeat” the other and “win” the conflict. This happens frequently between such parties as couples in the process of a nasty divorce, as well as between nations (India and Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan, for example); between existing states and nascent nation-states (including Israel and Palestine), and also between states and non-state actors (the United States and Al-Qaeda/ISIS).

Parties in conflict may resort to three basic types of behavior: persuasion, coercion, and reward. If arguments fail, the force of arms often intercedes. If and when the opponents tire of threats and/or violence, one or both parties may be induced by positive and/or negative sanctions to cease hostilities.

Conflicts have different outcomes. One side may “win” and the other “lose” (but not be

eliminated), as in divorce settlements involving contested assets or child custody, or in many international disputes. Both sides may withdraw temporarily from the conflict, but because one or both parties may not believe its interests/needs were satisfactorily addressed, they might resume the conflict later (as with Russia following the end of the Soviet Union).  Many international conflicts fit this profile, and historians argue that World War II resulted in part from the failure to address successfully long-simmering resentments by Germany against the “victors” of World War I. Israel’s ongoing conflicts with its Arab neighbors, and many insurrections and “terrorist” actions against governments, especially against occupying powers, also conform to this model.

A conflict may infrequently result in the real or perceived total elimination of the “enemy.” The Sri Lankan government, for example, claims to have “eliminated” the Tamil Tigers; the allies “destroyed” the Nazi regime; and the “Free World,” led by the United States, “won” the “Cold War” once the Soviet Union collapsed. But in the nuclear era, it is possible that a conflict involving the significant use of weapons of mass destruction would conclude with the elimination not only of the conflicting parties, but with the end of humanity and possibly of life on Earth. Accordingly, we must devise and implement efficacious and enduring modes of conflict analysis, prevention, management, resolution, and transformation.

There are two dominant, and sometimes “conflicting,” models of addressing conflicts. From a “realist”, “security-“oriented perspective, actions taken to address conflicts include such bellicose measures as wars, espionage and sanctions, often in tandem with diplomacy. The goal is to defend one’s perceived interests and to defeat or “neutralize” the “enemy,” preferably by “managing” a conflict so that it does not spiral out of control, and by “resolving” it through a mixture of such violent and nonviolent means as mediation, arbitration, cease-fires, and treaties. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a classic example of international conflict management. But since the underlying reasons for the conflict are not addressed or resolved, hostilities may resume at a later time.

A peace-oriented perspective, in contrast, stresses the prevention rather than the management of conflicts, and nonviolent conflict transformation as the preferred means of conflict resolution. Since violence rarely works to control violence, nonviolent strategies and tactics must be utilized if conflicting parties are to transform their attitudes and behavior from enmity to tolerance. Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence, Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights in the U.S., and the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 in the former Czechoslovakia are examples of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Conflict appears to be inherent in human relations and is therefore unlikely to be eliminated. Hence the mission of conflict transformers and peace-workers is not to end conflict, but rather, as Kenneth Boulding said, to “make the world safe for conflict.” This means to reduce the likelihood that political conflict erupts into violent combat and war.

We must work together not to end conflict, but to end war, before it ends us.

Charles Webel, Ph.D.

Fulbright Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Professor Webel is the author or editor of 13 books, including the standard work in the field, Peace and Conflict Studies (with David Barash).

An earlier version of this article appeared in the online UNYP Chronicle.

published: 14. 2. 2022