Interpersonal communication is one of the fundamental underpinnings of society.

We can define communication, as Krauss and Morsella do, as the transfer of information.1 In this context communication channels can be understood simply as the modes or pathways through which two parties might communicate. As population grows and technology evolves accordingly, these channels of communication change as well.2 Many have observed that “the world is getting smaller,” referring not only to the ease of travel, but also to the ease of communication around the globe. Unfortunately, however, just because communication is easy to accomplish does not mean that it is done, or that the result is an increase in understanding.

Thus, we must distinguish between communication channels and the messages that use them. In intractable conflicts communication problems can arise from poorly communicated ideas which result in misunderstandings and/or from poor channels of communication. This building block is primarily concerned with the latter.

Communication in Conflict

Often, during an intractable conflict, there is very little communication between the involved parties and there is also little sharing of information, intents, and beliefs. The nature of intractable conflict by definition precludes the possibility that people are actively seeking conciliation.

Prior to a conflict reaching that point, however, the parties might find themselves in a period of increased tensions. There are two possible reactions to this situation.

• On the one hand, we might see actors increase communication in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of hostility. The July Crisis prior to World War I and the Cuban Missile Crisis are examples of this. In the July Crisis, structural barriers in the form of rigid alliances prevented the resolution of the underlying conflict.3 In the Cuban Missile Crisis, limited channels of communication hampered efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.4 In both cases one can see leaders using available technology to increase communication during the crisis.

• On the other hand, communication channels between actors may degrade during the crisis, increasing the likelihood of further escalation and possibly violence. If actors ignore available channels of communication, withhold information, or use increasingly divisive forms of communication, communication channels will tend to break down.5 This was the case with Japan and the United States prior to Pearl Harbor. The difficulty in this situation is that one party intended hostility regardless of the diplomatic efforts undertaken. Game theorists refer to this as Deadlock.6 As opposed to Prisoner’s Dilemma, where there is an equilibrium point that two parties can agree on, Deadlock occurs when at least one party cannot agree to any solution.7

In either case — when communication increases or when communication decreases during a crisis — once hostility becomes entrenched, channels of communication will degrade quickly. As stated earlier, in intractable conflicts communication may have ceased altogether.

Re-Establishing Communication

One of the first goals in ameliorating intractable conflicts is to reestablish channels of communication. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union established direct links so that future crises could be better managed.

The Cold War held the threat of human annihilation and thus almost required channels of communication between bitter enemies. Though other conflicts may not threaten human extinction, they may threaten that for a large population in any particular region. Thus the importance of re-opening communication is very high in other conflicts as well.

Third parties are often effective at reestablishing channels of communication — they may in fact become THE channel of communication between parties exploring conciliation. A third party can carry messages back and forth, and explore ideas for settlement that the two parties could not discuss face-to-face. Third parties have the added benefit of being able to manage the dialogue such that intent and meaning can be communicated without hostile interpretations.

Current Implications

Often my students--and others--question whether intractable conflicts really exist.  "There's only intractable people," one observed.  "Calling something intractable just means there's no point in trying to fix it" is another observation.  Neither of these are true--as is evidenced by this essay.  

I am struck in late September, 2017 by the reference in this 2003 article to attenuated communication between the United States and both North Korea and Iran.  Here it is, 14 years later, and this is still (dangerously) true.

Although there has been plenty of communication between North Korea and the U.S. in the last few months, all of it (that we know about, anyway) has been high-profile jabs and counter-jabs in the media or in major public speeches.  For instance, U.S. President Trump recently threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea in his first-ever speech to the U.N. and followed up by calling Kim Jung-Un of North Korea "Rocketman."  North Korea's foreign minister responded that President Trump "committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets' visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more." Both countries are engaged in a continuing escalation of rhetoric and threat, that appears to have no bounds. The question haunting all observers is whether this rhetoric is going to remain just that, or whether it is going to be translated into action.  If the latter, the implications might mean the death of millions or even tens of millions of people in both countries.  

There are a few hints of behind-the-scenes efforts to cool the rhetoric down and perhaps there are more calm voices exchanging ideas about defusing this conflict that are happening in secret in communication channels that are not made public.  We all hope so.  But as long as the two leaders continue their relationship and understanding-destroying rhetoric, the danger of missteps that result in catastrophe remains very high. Right now the communication between the two countries seems to be following the pattern described in this essay related to Japan and the U.S. before the bombing of Pearl Harber.  Hopefully calmer voices will prevail before catastrophe strikes.  Quieting both leaders' rhetoric while opening and growing effective channels of communication so that we better understand each side's interests and needs is essential if catastrophe is to be avoided.

By Julian Ouellet (with update on September 25, 2017 by Heidi Burgess)


1 Robert Krauss and Ezequiel Morsella, “Communication and Conflict,” in M. Deutsch and P. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 131-143.

2 Quincy Wright, A Study of War, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1967).

3 Stephen Van Evera, “Why Cooperation Failed in 1914,” World Politics 38, 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 80-117. Jack Levy, “Necessary Conditions in Case Studies: Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914,” in G. Goertz and H., eds., Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 113-145.

4 G. Allison, Essence of Decision:  Explaining the Cuban Missle Crisis, (Boston:  Little, Brown & Co., 1971).

5 Krauss and Morsella “Communication,” David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

6 Matthew Evangelista, “Cooperation Theory and Disarmament Theory in the 1950s,” World Politics Vol. 42, No. 4, (Summer 1990) pp 502-28.

7 Marc Levy, “Mediation of Prisoner’s Dilemma Conflicts and the Importance of the Cooperation Threshold: The Case of Namibia,” Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 29 No. 4 (Fall 1985), pp. 581-603.

Julian Ouellet is a graduate student of Political Science at the University of Colorado and a research assistant at the Conflict Research Consortium. Julian Ouellet is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.