Factors Shaping the Course of Intractable Conflict

Louis Kriesberg

October 2003

Understanding the many factors that determine the emergence, persistence, and transformation of intractable conflicts is essential in developing effective policies that limit and end them. Partisans on each side usually blame members of the other side for the destructive course of their conflict; it is the adversaries' character, ideology, or leadership that is responsible. Outside observers more often see fault on both sides and the way the adversaries relate to each other shapes a conflict's trajectory. Possible interveners may stress the role of outside actors who exacerbate a local fight. Academic analysts tend to emphasize long-term structural features of each side and the larger socio-political environment within which the adversaries contend with each other.

This essay pertains to internal, relational, and contextual factors. Among each set of factors, I discuss both structural ones and those embodied by parties who can take actions, who have "agency." In discussing each set of factors, I give attention to their effects on identities, grievances, goals, and conflict methods as they shape the trajectory of a conflict's intractability.

Internal factors

Structural factors set parameters within which individuals and groups may be able to affect the course of a conflict. These structural factors include, for example, the level of economic development, capacities for different ways of fighting, cultural patterns, and decision-making institutions. These factors influence self-conceptions and identities, how grievances are interpreted, what goals are formulated, and the methods used to attain them.

There are bodies of literature about characteristics of societies that make them prone to be engaged in wars, and by extension these characteristics would increase the probability of waging intractable conflicts. These literatures pertain, for example, to the form of government, the prominence of a military-industrial complex, the lack of socialization and education promoting peacefulness, and the prevalence of aggressive personalities[1].

The structure of the decision making process can affect intractability, with a broader and more diverse participation providing more options and reducing the likelihood of persisting in conduct that perpetuates or escalates a difficult conflict. Sometimes high officials, such as presidents, seek to engage persons with different views in order to learn from the disagreements and better understand different options.[2]

How internal rivals and opponents are dealt with has great implications for a conflict's intractability. In some cases, they are disregarded and sometimes even suppressed. If the course of action is wholly dominated by the extremists, the conflict is likely to remain intractable. For example, this has been a problem in transforming the conflict in Sri Lanka.[3]

Leaders are very important actors affecting the course of a conflict, but leaders are not only officials representing the collectivity as a whole. There are oppositional leaders and leaders at various levels of the collectivity and in different realms of activity. The leaders help define who is on which side of a fight and raise the sense of grievance. They also significantly contribute to formulating goals and beliefs about which methods their collectivity can effectively use to gain their goals. Hence, if a conflict has become bogged down with one set of leaders, a change of leadership opens new possibilities for transformation.

Other internal factors include social movement organizations, such as peace movements. In addition, many groups have vested interests in the conflict continuing at a highly antagonistic level, but there are also groups with vested interests in reducing the destructiveness of the conflict. For example, some people may be profiting from war or even sanctions, but others may see lost opportunities for profit as a result of the disruptions caused by the conflict's destructiveness. The shifting balance between such groups and their changing relations with the political leadership powerfully affect the course of a conflict.

Relational factors

The paths of large-scale conflicts are profoundly shaped by the structure of the relations between the opposing collectivities and by how various agents interpret those structures. The structural character of the relationships includes differences in population sizes, economic resources, coercive capabilities, and cultural patterns of conduct. They also include the nature and degree of integration between adversaries in economic, social, and cultural domains.

Anticipated changes in the relative size of various racial, ethnic, or religious groups within a society can have profound effects on the course of a conflict among the groups. Thus, many white South Africans anticipating a decline in numbers relative to non-whites thought they should reach an accommodation with blacks sooner rather than later. The nature of the effect, however, is not determined solely by the phenomenon of changing numbers, but also shaped by the interpretation of it. In the 1990s, some Israeli Jews, anticipating an increasing proportion of Arab Palestinians in the area of the former British mandated Palestine, strove for an independent Palestinian state along side an Israel close to the 1967 line, to keep Israel Jewish and democratic. Some other Israeli Jews thought Israel should avert the growing threat Palestinians would pose by increasing the territory fully controlled by Israel and maintain some control even in Palestinian territories.

Differences in economic resources, coercive power capabilities, organizational skills, and other resources affecting relative power have great impact on the terms of the accommodation that may be reached. However, the degree that values and beliefs are shared and the degree that economic and social life are integrated profoundly affect whether or not a stable accommodation is reached and the extent to which it is mutually acceptable. Cross cutting identities (religious or ethnic) and interests (class or occupational) also tend to limit the destructiveness of a conflict. Thus, in the United States, during the civil rights struggle, many blacks and whites were affected by their shared Christian identity.

In addition, persons on each side act in ways that affect the interpretations of the situation made by persons on the opposing side(s). Leaders often act intentionally to influence people in the other camp, trying to intimidate them or to convince them not to feel threatened. Their actions, however, are very often directed at their own constituency, rallying the constituents to support their leadership. Those actions also may have powerful effects on people in the other camp -- often resulting in misunderstandings and unintended interpretations.

A few persons from each camp may have direct communications and the opportunity to explore contentious matters in detail. Such exchanges may take place with or without a mediator, facilitator, or other intermediary, and they take a variety of forms. They vary in duration and continuity, and they may occur between officials of various ranks or between non-officials with varying standing within their own camps. They can provide vehicles for re-framing and de-escalating intractable conflicts.

Many other kinds of non-contentious interactions follow agreements for limited areas of cooperation, which tend to occur when an intractable conflict is in the process of transformation. These include confidence-building measures such as establishing procedures for informing each other about military exercises. They also include establishing organizations to coordinate activities regarding matters of common interest, for example relating to a river, such as the Danube or the Nile Rivers. Such engagements can advance and solidify a conflict's transformation and resolution.

Finally, one particular aspect of the relations between adversaries in an intractable conflict, which has deservedly attracted much attention, must be noted here. Conflicts persist, even with mutual losses, when leaders of each of the opposing sides believe that yielding to the other is worse for them and their side, then persisting with the prospect of the other side yielding. The conflict, therefore, is likely to de-escalate and reach some kind of end when the parties believe they are in an enduring stalemate that is hurting and that a better option for both sides is possible. This is discussed in Zartman's essays in this Knowledge Base.

External Factors and Actors

Conflicts are not independent of their context. Their trajectory is affected by a multitude of external factors, of varying scope and impact. A major external factor is the set of other conflicts that are superimposed or impinge upon any particular conflict. Thus, the Cold War had immense effect on many other conflicts, often exacerbating their intractability. During the Cold War, many regional conflicts were sustained by the military and other kinds of support each side received from Soviet Union and its allies or from the United States and its allies. Each side in a local fight could believe that it would not be defeated, given the support it was getting.

The war on terrorism begun after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and is likely to affect the intractability of local conflicts around the world. In some instances, it seems to have dampened particular local conflicts, contributing to their transformation by reducing reliance on methods of struggle that might be branded as terrorist. For example, the almost universal condemnation of the suicidal mass murders contributed to progress in ending the Northern Ireland conflict by helping push the IRA holdouts to start decommissioning its arms and comply with previously signed agreements. In another case, the government of Pakistan acted relatively strongly to control militant Islamic groups that conducted terrorist acts against India as part of the campaign to change India's policy regarding the status of Kashmir. This helped avert a new escalation of the intractable Pakistan-Indian conflict. The widespread rejection of terrorism after September 11, 2001, also contributed to the cease-fire in Sri Lanka and the beginning of direct negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.[4]

The war on terrorism, however, is also likely to intensify and prolong many other conflicts. One side in a conflict may escalate its efforts to suppress groups it can claim to be terrorists and therefore illegitimate. Thus, the Israeli government believed it could act forcefully, without external constraints, against Palestinian groups that had committed terrorist acts. In another case, the Indian government believed in the context of the war on terrorism it could be more insistent about the Pakistan government's handling of militant Islamic groups engaging in the fight against Indian authority in Kashmir.

This discussion also indicates that global norms can constrain how conflicts are waged and that affects the intractability of conflicts. The increasing strength of norms about genocide and human rights makes that evident. Such global norms spurred for the intervention, belated, as it may have been, in the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Many other external structural factors might be discussed, but I only mention a few of them. They include a multitude of social institutions constituting the global economic market affecting trade, investment, and migration. They include the technological capabilities underlying communication, travel, and production. They also include the non-social environment of global climate, water and mineral resources, pollution, and land quality.

How these structural factors impact upon the intractability of a conflict depends in good measure on the way they are perceived and used by various persons and organizations. For example, the superimposition of some conflicts on others and the additional ways conflicts are interlocked makes possible changes in the importance of each conflict. Conflict intervenors as well as disputants in a struggle often strive to assert that one conflict should be given higher priority than another. They thus try to reframe the conflict, to either escalate or de-escalate it.

External interveners can undertake many other actions that perpetuate a conflict's intractability or reduce and transform it. They may provide or withhold military or other materials that one of more sides in a conflict would use to wage their struggle. That kind of assistance may help to create a hurting stalemate. The interveners may also help generate new options that offer acceptable escapes from the destructive stalemate in which the opposing sides are stuck. This may include economic assistance for reconstruction, personal sanctuary for some leaders, or even resettlement of peoples.

Intervention may also be forceful, either to assist one side or to impose a cessation of violent struggle by the adversaries. These may be combined and even be the prelude to mediation, as was the case in regard to the conflict in Bosnia.[5]

Interveners may engage in a broad range of mediating activities. At the relatively muscular end of the range, the mediators may propose solutions and strive to construct a deal based on each side's concerns and then work to win the adversaries' acceptance of the proposed settlement. At the relatively facilitative and non-forceful end of the range, the mediators may pass on communications between the adversaries as they explore possible de- escalating moves; they may also simply provide a safe and neutral setting in which adversaries can meet and talk with each other.

The parties carrying out these diverse kinds of interventions include a wide variety of governmental and nongovernmental actors, with varying capabilities of conducting the activities identified above. Among the governmental actors are the states of the world, including the globally powerful United States. Many other governments singly or in ad hoc combinations also carry out various significant interventions. Governments have also formed a variety of international organizations (IGOs), which themselves are international actors. These IGOs include the United Nations and its specialized agencies and a multitude or regional as well as global organizations.

Increasingly, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play major intervention roles, often helping to moderate or transform intractable conflicts, but also sometimes exacerbating and perpetuating them. They include multinational corporations, churches, ethnic organizations linking people in several countries, humanitarian service organizations, and human rights and other activist organizations.

[1] Ross, 1993 #500

[2] Cuban Missile Crisis, also FDR, Wilensky

[3] The liberation Tigers destroyed more moderate Tamil organizations.

[4] Waldman, 2002 #1009

[5] [Holbrooke, 1998 #968].

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Factors Shaping the Course of Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/factors-shaping-intractable-conflict>.

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