It may come as a surprise, particularly since we often dwell on the costs of conflict, that conflict also has benefits. Yet, clearly there are significant benefits to conflict or it would not be the prominent characteristic of human relationships that it is. Conflict is often driven by a sense of grievance, be it scarcity, inequality, cultural or moral differences, or the distribution of power. Thereby, engaging in the conflict provides one means of addressing these concerns--either affirming a position of advantage or overcoming perceived shortcomings. Conflict, says Guy Burgess, "is the engine of social learning." Without conflict, attitudes, behavior, and relationships stay the same, regardless of whether they are fair. Conflict reveals problems and encourages those problems to be dealt with. Whether they are dealt with constructively or destructively depends on how the conflict is handled.
To say that there are benefits to conflict is certainly not to say that motivations or consequences are always benign or just. Spoilers benefit from sustaining conflict, but most outside observers would probably argue that their actions are malign. Conflict profiteers also gain from conflict by gaining money or power, but those gains are often at the expense of the wider society and are often viewed as illegitimate. Legitimate benefits of societal conflict tend to accrue to much wider groupings. While certainly not exhaustive, some of the most significant benefits of conflict are social, psychological, and material.
The Collective Benefits of Conflict
Social interaction often begins through some form of conflict. Coser explains that children often first interact when they fight over a toy; this later evolves into cooperative play. Adults too, he observes, often might first interact in the context of the dispute. Once the dispute is resolved, trust can be gained, and the parties can interact smoothly after that.
Conflict is particularly prevalent, Coser observes, in intimate relationships. It is extremely unlikely that two people living and working together in close proximity over a long period of time, would not disagree on anything. So absence of conflict probably suggests that one person is being suppressed or is subordinating his or her view or wishes to the other. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it is very dangerous to the relationship, as anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be very intense--and likely quite unexpected by the other side.
Yet constructively handled conflict can lead to long-term peace and cooperation. Husbands and wives in strong relationships will not always agree, but they will have a constructive process for resolving their differences. Similar processes appear to be at work in healthy parent-child relationships. For example, studies have suggested that relationships between children and adults often begin conflictually and then develop in more positive directions.
Conflict often has significant benefits for group cohesion. It can help to construct group boundaries by helping individuals recognize their common interest. War, for example, has been described as the creator of the modern nation-state, at least in Europe. Conflict, thus, can provide stability and serve as a unifying force. In helping individuals to realize their common interest, conflict can go a long way in constructing identities, an issue to be taken up below. Facing a common opponent can create new bonds and associations amongst those that previously were unrelated. Identifying a common threat may allow individuals to not only realize a common interest but also to reaffirm a shared identity that may have a longer history. Groups may actually seek enemies to maintain internal cohesion. (For example, it has been argued that the U.S. had to find an enemy to replace the U.S.S.R. once the Cold War ended. Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been argued, were the unlucky choices.)
Group cohesion may be strengthened as much, if not more, by an internal threat. In some cases, conflict can provide a safety-valve to allow a group to clear the air in a less destructive way than might otherwise occur. The potential also clearly exists for this to descend into scapegoating, which may or may not be beneficial for cohesion. Infighting has costs of its own that are often dysfunctional. Expressing anger to the in-group is usually costly. At the same time, in some instances, it might be preferable to social breakdown. Whether in the international system or in families, conflict can give rise to new norms and rules to govern conduct which can have long-term benefits. Likewise, in domestic contexts, conflict can lead to establishing new statutes meant to deal with the sources of conflict. In addition, in any of these contexts, institutions are often created to enforce new rules.
As the prior examples suggest, group cohesion can be important for fighting oppression. This is a defensive mechanism that applies as much to a national group as it does to an interest group that finds its core interests at risk. Conflict allows groups and individuals to protect their interests. Conflict can also bring about needed social change and empower previously lower-powered groups. After all, if no one ever contested anything, many gross injustices would continue indefinitely.
The Psychological Benefits of Conflict
As introduced above, conflict can initiate a process through which individuals realize they have common interests and common enemies. As a result, individuals may come to see a strong stake in their side emerging triumphant. One's identity is important for maintaining self-esteem. Therefore, the more of one's identity that is tied up in the group, the more likely individuals are to fight for that identity. The threat produced by conflict often results in stronger self-identities, which can be positive or negative depending on the nature of that identity.
The Material Benefits of Conflict
Conflict often has concrete material rewards. In interpersonal conflicts, it may mean getting the job, the raise, the car, or the bigger bedroom. In international conflicts, rewards take the form of land, treasure, and the like. At all levels, conflict enables disputants the opportunity to enhancing one's power. For example, as a result of the first Gulf War, the U.S. gained strategic advantage in the Middle East, influence over the two most important oil states, namely Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and established military bases in the region. Just over a decade later, the U.S. gained a similar strategic presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As alluded to above, in discussing the benefits to group cohesion, interstate conflict often provides domestic benefit in terms of 'rallying around the flag.' India is so reluctant to part with Kashmir in part because of perceptions amongst political elites that it would lead to the unraveling of the entire multi-ethnic state. Similarly, in the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic was able to gain political support by playing on historical sense of grievance. The conflict allowed Serbian nationalists to manipulate the political system to prevent true democracy.
What is more, economic sanctions designed to bring conflict to an end can actually benefit the targets. International sanctions against Iran over the state’s nuclear power program have, as intended, taken a toll on the Iranian economy, but the burden has largely fallen on the shoulders of ordinary Iranians. Meanwhile, some argue that Iran's political elites (who, because they hold the power to reverse the country's nuclear policy, are the real targets of sanctions), have actually managed to gain from sanctions. A May 2013 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) suggested that the Iranian economy might benefit from oil and financial sanctions over the long-term by “being compelled to diversify its economy and reduce dependence on oil revenues.” In particular, many Iranian companies have profited from the depreciation of Iranian currency by exporting non-oil goods at relatively competitive prices. However, the recipients of these material benefits have generally been state-owned companies and urban elites with political ties. Selden and Weiss make the larger point that "export sanctions tend to create groups within the offending country with a material incentive to see that sanctions remain, and these groups try to influence the target country's Government to maintain the policies that prompted the sanctions."
Another way in which this happens is that arms embargoes encourage the development of domestic arms industries, as was the case of sanctions against South Africa. The development of the South African arms industry after the 1977 embargo did more than directly arm the South African government. South Africa became a major exporter of sophisticated arms. In the 1980s, it had grown to be the sixth largest weapons exporter in the world and employed nearly 140,000 people and the country remains a major weapons supplier today.
A number of examples also point to the tremendous economic benefits that are often realized from conflict. The two-pronged U.S. military campaign against Iraq and Afghanistan led to an unprecedented privatization of warfare, or ‘military outsourcing.’ In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army spent, on average, under $200 million a year to employ private defense contractors. By 2010, that figure grew to an annual $5 billion. In 2012, there were more private military contractors working in Afghanistan than U.S. troops , and the same was true in Iraq in 2008.
While private military contractors are, according to U.S. law, legitimate parties to war, they can create obstacles to resolving conflict. A 2010 RAND survey of U.S. Department of State personnel on the ground in Iraq found that half of respondents had to manage the consequences of armed security contractors’ instigating direct actions or offensive measures against local Iraqis. While extremely aggressive abuses of power, like the 2007 incident where armed Blackwater USA contractors killed 17 Iraqis, are relatively rare, the report points out these small number of incidents likely determine “the extent that Iraqis have a negative view of armed contractors, which can be detrimental to larger U.S. goals in Iraq.”
Civil wars also provide significant opportunities for "conflict entrepreneurs" to profit from the conflict thereby making them reluctant to see it end. Spoilers benefit from continued conflict by engaging in smuggling to evade embargoes. Often, patronage links for family and friends create further obstacles to ending the conflict. For example, many in the Serbian political elite became wealthy through stealing from the central bank and controlling smuggling to evade sanctions.
Conflict also frequently provides significant benefits to those that are ostensibly bystanders to the conflict. Often, those on the sidelines see their relative power increase as a result of combatants weakening each other. For example, Saudi participation in the Gulf War enhanced its position as a regional leader. Many conflicts also provide the opportunity for outside parties to sell goods to fuel the conflict. For example, Western arms suppliers have been prime beneficiaries of conflict in East Timor.
Conflict is almost certainly to remain a fundamental challenge for human societies. The fact that it can produce benefits for individuals, groups, and nations leaves one to conclude this is likely to continue. Many would probably concur that a number of the benefits outlined above are clearly positive outcomes (and not necessarily speaking only selfishly). Fighting injustice and forging identities are but two important roles of conflict. The challenge is to realize the benefits of conflict in such a way so as to minimize the many costs also associated with conflict.