Continued from Part 1 and 2.

Spreading Disinformation

Disinformation arises because of the intentional efforts of one party to deceive another party, not because of a more benign failure of good faith efforts to understand and communicate with one another. Todays political advertisers and propagandists are adept at using sophisticated models of human perception and communication to foster politically advantageous, but unrealistic and misleading, images of a situation. This commonly leads people to misdirect their responses and actions in ways that undermine, rather than advance, their interests. Balanced efforts to understand and combat the wide range of disinformation strategies in current use are critically needed. However, like unilateral disarmament, the unilateral abandonment of tactical disinformation strategies can severely undermine a partys strategic position.

Disinformation arises because of the intentional efforts of one party to deceive another party, not because of a more benign failure of good faith efforts to understand and communicate with one another. Todays political advertisers and propagandists are adept at using sophisticated models of human perception and communication to foster politically advantageous, but unrealistic and misleading, images of a situation. This commonly leads people to misdirect their responses and actions in ways that undermine, rather than advance, their interests. Balanced efforts to understand and combat the wide range of disinformation strategies in current use are critically needed. However, like unilateral disarmament, the unilateral abandonment of tactical disinformation strategies can severely undermine a partys strategic position.

Flawed Fact-Finding, Interpretation, and Utilization

We live in a society dominated by complex technologies and institutions interacting in an even more complex social and natural environment. The only way in which we can possibly escape our many predicaments is by using our most sophisticated analyses to identify problems, generate possible solutions, determine the strengths and weaknesses associated with each possibility, and then refer the whole matter to an equitable political process for the making of collective value judgments and ultimately, decisions. All of this depends upon fact-finding efforts that are worthy of the publics trust, actually trusted, understood, and sensibly interpreted.

Escalation

Escalation –often driven by a positive feedback loop--is the most destructive conflict dynamic. It is also fueled by the other conflict dynamics already discussed: distortions in the flow of information, differential framing, and the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of factual or technical information). In its simplest form, perceived or actual provocations on the part of one party generate defensive and, often, offensive responses that are, in turn, seen as provocative. This leads to a continuing cycle of provocation and counter-provocation that intensifies a conflict from the substantive consideration of grievances and strategies for addressing those grievances to direct hostility and hatred only tangentially related to those grievances. Mechanisms that drive this spiral need to be understood, as do strategies for preventing and, if necessary, reversing it.

Violence

Escalation dynamics can, in extreme, but also common circumstances, escalate into violent conflicts ranging from interpersonal fights to military confrontations. Strategies for preventing, or at least minimizing violence rely on the cultivation of social norms that delegitimize violence and violent threats as a strategy for advancing ones interests. For cases where these norms fail, various types of collective security measures are required. These measures require society to collectively field police and military forces and charge those forces with the responsibility of physically preventing anyone from successfully using violence and threats of violence to advance their interests. The success of such efforts is obviously dependent on the willingness of these forces to the serve the public interest. There are, unfortunately, numerous cases in which such forces become corrupted and use their power to advance one partys narrow self-interest. There are other cases where no forces are willing to become involved in a peacekeeping capacity, finding it either too risky, expensive, or not in their self-interest or need to do so.

In all of these cases, the presence of violence and violent threats can make it extremely difficult and, often, impossible to wisely and equitably consider the substantive aspects of the core conflict. Instead, the focus turns to fear and the imperatives of self-defense, along with the accompanying desire for vengeance and ultimate victory. In such circumstances, bringing about an end to the violence (or at least limiting the level of violence) is the top priority. In fact, many consider the cessation of violence to be the definition of peace (though others think the peace also requires an end to injustice, oppression, and structural violence.)

Unrightable Wrongs

The divisions at the core of societys big conflicts tend to be long-standing, deeply rooted, and characterized by a belief that one must engage in all-out conflict or face unthinkable defeat. This hostility is, in part, justified by a seemingly endless series "unrightable wrongs" sometimes motivated by undeniable evil, and sometimes by inexcusable actions committed in the heat of a highly-escalated conflict. These wrongs reinforce negative stereotypes and seemingly prove that there is no realistic alternative to total confrontation. Occasionally, these wrongs are "outliers" – extreme actions and statements that are not typical of the larger conflict, but become the focus of attention. To get past this, constructive ways of addressing the genuine wrongs of the past are required, as are methods for dealing with wrongs attributable to destructive escalation dynamics and not inherent evil. South Africas Truth and Reconciliation process has demonstrated one approach to dealing with unrightable wrongs on the past. There are others. The key is finding the approach best tailored to the needs of specific conflicts and then finding the will, the people, and the money to implement such processes.

Poor Relationships

We live in an era that celebrates diversity and group identity. One unfortunate byproduct of this generally laudable trend is that it tends to undermine the sense of shared identity and a collective recognition of the fact that despite our differences, we are all members of the same, larger community – a community that inhabits and depends upon the same social, economic, and environmental "commons." There are numerous conflict situations in which effective strategies are needed for improving relationships and fostering a sense of collective purpose between conflicting groups, within communities, and even globally–we all do inhabit the same small planet and depend on each other for its preservation.

Lack of a Positive, Common Future Vision

Its hard to persuade people to abandon conflict-as-usual practices that they know to be costly and destructive (but that they also know how to play) in favor of some supposedly better alternative, unless they have a clear vision of what that alternative would be and why it would be better. In some long-lasting conflicts, a large number of disputants and other affected citizens have no memory of "peace;" no memory of working cooperatively with "the other side." Thus an important component of any comprehensive conflict strategy is a "visioning" process in which the community comes together to imagine, in considerable detail, how they might be able to move beyond current divisions and figure out how to live together in a spirit of mutual respect, security, compassion, coexistence, and constructive competition. In some cases, the future vision might be one of "divorce" – of a family, a business, or a nation. While such breakups do occur (frequently at the family level, rarely at the national level), they tend to be fraught with problems and are seldom the panacea that disputants hope or expect. So figuring out alternatives to "divorce" and how to make this work is usually of great benefit.

Poor Collaborative Skills / Destructive Competition

While competition can be healthy and constructive–encouraging all sides to strive to do their best--it can also be destructive of relationships and cause serious conflict escalation. While successful competitors often obtain outcomes that are (at least over the short term) apparently better than what they might have gotten through compromise or collaboration, there are risks of unbridled competition as well. First, there is always the risk that, instead of victory, one will suffer a defeat that is almost certainly worse than potential compromises. Based on their biased information and framing, disputants often over-estimate their chances of winning, and under-estimate the probabilities and costs of loss. In addition, unbridled competition can be very costly–the arms race, for instance, essentially bankrupt the U.S.S.R, leading to its dissolution. Unfettered competition also harms relationships, making eventual cooperation all the more difficult. Lastly, losers rarely accept the loss easily–they try to build their power until they can come back and challenge the victor to another power contest. This means victors must continue to "watch their backs" and maintain strength, less their victory be challenged and lost. The alternative approach–limited competition combined with (or replaced with) integrative negotiation and/or collaboration often has higher long-term benefits and usually much reduced costs.

Over-Reliance on Coercive Power or "Power Over"

There are three basic types of power that the parties can use, in varying combinations, to defend and advance their interests–coercive power, exchange power, and integrative power. Usually, when people use the term "power," they think only of coercion–forcing someone to do what you want by threatening them with punishment if they do not. If you have sufficient "clout," this will often work over the short term. But it tends to cause resentment and backlash–people resent being over-powered, and eventually they are likely to try to retaliate and get what they think they (and the other side) deserve.

However, conflict scholars agree that power can come from other sources and dynamics as well. It can come from working together with someone else to accomplish a mutual goal: that is sometimes referred to as "power with" or collaborative power. It can also come from making trades–doing something for someone else if they do something for you. Kenneth Boulding called that exchange power. These latter two types of power, typically, can accomplish more, help resolve conflicts, and do so at reduced cost than coercive power.

The Profiteer, Spoiler, and Machiavelli Problems

Not all third parties have benevolent motivations. There are many who stand to profit from even the most destructive confrontation. It is, unfortunately, in the interests of such individuals to do what they can to perpetuate and, if possible, intensify the conflict. Arms merchants are an obvious example. So are "spoilers"–individuals or groups who disapprove of a peace process or peace agreement, and try (often single-handedly) to derail it by re-igniting anger, fear, and violence. There is also a danger that leaders of advocacy organizations may fall victim to the profiteer problem. Leaders of advocacy organizations have a certain conflict of interest as they can only expect to keep their jobs when their grassroots constituents believe that they are in a fight worth fighting and worth spending real money to prosecute. If the fight is resolved, advocates may lose their jobs. Finding ways to discredit and marginalize spoilers may not stop their immediate destructive behavior, but it can stop it from spreading and doing widespread harm. Bringing potential spoilers into the process, so that they realize they can gain more from cooperating with the peace process than they will likely be able to do by spoiling it is sometimes also a viable option.

The success of efforts to promote more constructive approaches to intractable conflict-related problems also depends upon an ability to successfully deal with parties who are unwilling or unable to participate in such efforts in good faith. Strategies are needed for dealing with people unwilling to forsake "power over" solutions aimed at defeating and oppressing ones enemies in favor of some type of "power-with" alternative that is based on respectful coexistence and constructive competition. Especially difficult are those motivated by Machiavellian ethics who pretend to be reasonable and trustworthy (while plotting to double cross those who might actually trust them). Constructive approaches require an ability to successfully resist such cynical manipulation without becoming so distrustful that they refuse to consider any possible compromise or mutually beneficial agreement.

Poor Governance

As appealing as has consensus, collaboration, and compromise-based decision making might be, the plain fact is that many important policy decisions are not amenable to win-win solutions. In some cases, possible win-win trade-offs and mutually beneficial options may already have been agreed to leaving only win-lose routes through which one party might advance its position and seek redress for perceived injustices. In other cases, one or more of the parties may be committed to all-out victory and scornful of any form of compromise. These situations require a political process capable of making hard choices about who wins and who loses. While such choices can, of course, be made by ruthless tyrants, our goal is to support equitable efforts to make such decisions based on democratic principles. At the national level, governance challenges are considerable. At the international level, they are even more difficult.

Putting it all together: Complexity-Based Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding

If you are dealing with a relatively simple dispute with a limited number of parties and issues, you might be able to eliminate one or two destructive dynamics (misunderstandings and misinterpretation of facts, for example), and thereby come to a fairly straightforward resolution. In complex, intractable conflicts, however, simple solutions simply are not there. The core issues, typically, are ones that are very deep-rooted and not amenable to compromise. They are often obscured and intensified by numerous destructive dynamics which make the conflicts even more entrenched and destructive.

Our approach to such problems is first to map the conflicts in as much detail as possible, with a goal towards understanding (1) what the underlying, core issues are and (2) what destructive conflict dynamics are making the situation worse. Then, we suggest that teams of people and organizations address as many of the destructive conflict dynamics as possible, peeling away or at least reducing the effect of as many of these factors as possible. That, then provides a more constructive environment for engaging the core issues in a constructive manner.

This is not something that is done quickly, nor is it done by one hero riding in on a white horse. Rather, it is done by thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people who have the "moral imagination" as our colleague John Paul Lederach puts it, to believe that there must be a "better way" for engaging in these conflicts, and they pick out an area in which they can make a difference and start working on that. If enough people do that, at different levels of society, in different institutions, and with different people, the total impact of their work can be effective at transforming destructive conflicts into much more constructive situations.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999). www.beyondintractability.org