The Intractable Conflict Challenge

We have long argued that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict is a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, inequality, infectious disease, or any of today's other big problems.  In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it impossible for us to effectively meet these other challenges.  

The Immediate Crisis

In the US and many other countries, the intractable conflict problem has now reached an acute stage where much that people care deeply about is in immediate and serious jeopardy.   While people from different perspectives focus on different aspects of the threat, it is clear that, unless we change course, we are headed for one or more dystopian futures–authoritarian fascism, failed states, widespread persecution of vulnerable populations, extreme concentration of wealth, economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and/or war. 

While these threats are widely recognized, the central role that destructive conflict dynamics play in making these problems so intractable is not.  If we don't start making much more serious efforts to address the conflict problem, both the conflicts and the things people are fighting about are only going to get worse.

Right now many countries have winner-takes-as-much-as-they-can-get systems in which contending factions increasingly dehumanize the "other," often to the point where the winners no longer view the losers' concerns as worthy of consideration.  Winners promise big changes (often focused on reversing the actions of their opponents).  Losers commit themselves to all-out resistance and redoubled efforts to win next time around.  In this "us vs. them" way of looking at the world, the bonds of mutual interdependence upon which everyone depends rapidly vanish. 

Unfortunately, despite their considerable accomplishments, "business-as-usual" conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts are not yet up to the challenge of deep-rooted conflicts like this.  Compromise is increasingly viewed as little more than a naïve gateway to capitulation or betrayal.  The honest search for mutually beneficial solutions to complex problems is replaced by disinformation campaigns focused on building support by telling people what they want to hear. 

While the situation is not hopeless, it is clear that we are all in a lot of trouble.  If we are going to successfully defend our vital interests, and the larger society on which we depend, we are going to have to do more than fight harder, we are going to have to fight smarter.   This means two things.  

  • First, we need to help people understand the dangers of destructive conflict dynamics, and show them that there are alternative approaches to defending their interests which work better than name-calling, threatening, lying, and forcing--approaches that are being taken now that are just making our divides even deeper. Put another way, we need to increase the utilization of existing conflict resolution knowledge.
  • Second, we need to work to develop more robust approaches to conflict transformation that can work effectively at the complexity and scale of current society-wide conflicts.  While the standard conflict-resolution strategies are helpful to some extent, they aren't nearly enough. New approaches are needed that will be effective at scale, credible (people have to believe they will work if they are to try them), and possible (they can't be too hard or expensive to do).

Developing, promulgating, and implementing such new approaches will require all of the creative potential we can muster and will take the effort of many people--not just a few conflict resolution experts. 

It's not enough to better apply existing conflict knowledge – we need new ideas for meeting today's tough challenges.

The MOOS project is a modest, but we hope significant, effort to pursue both these goals--to get people using available strategies more often and more effectively, and to start a large scale conversation about better ways to address the problem.

The Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online Seminars (MOOS)

 The MOOS combines the reach of massive open online courses (MOOCs) with a seminar's introspection and ability to grapple with frontier-of-the-field issues.  We hope that it will enable large numbers of activists, conflict resolution practitioners, students, reporters, scholars, and everyday citizens to participate in a sustained exploration of the many facets of the intractable conflict problem.  To do this we have crafted a program structured around two principal seminars plus a number of shorter "brown bag" seminars and blogs.

The Conflict Frontiers Seminar is designed for those who want to take a look at four big questions at the frontier of the conflict field:

  • What are the conflict strategies that really work on intractable conflicts at the societal level, and how we can increase the utilization of those approaches?
  • What strategies that are being used don't work, why, and how might they be improved?
  • How might we deepen our understanding of conflict dynamics to the point where we can devise workable solutions to currently unsolved problems?
  • How might we build support, within the larger society, for dramatically expanded efforts to address the intractable conflict problem?

Among the many topics to be addressed are strategics for:

  • Scaling-up "table-oriented" processes to deal with the scale and complexity of society-wide conflict,
  • Promoting more constructive conflict communication in a propaganda-filled mass communication environment,
  • Better dealing with the complex, emotional, and often nonrational nature of the way in which people think about conflict and make decisions, and 
  • Better incorporating trustworthy and trusted fact-based analysis into complex societal decision-making processes.

In order to avoid spending too much effort "reinventing the wheel," the MOOS also includes a Conflict Fundamentals Seminar providing succinct and easy-to-understand summaries of big ideas from the peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and related fields.  This quick review of "prerequisite" knowledge provides a foundation for the Frontiers Seminar.  We hope by making this material available in bite-sized pieces on the MOOS, we can do our part to tackle the knowledge utilization challenge described above. 

An Additional Resources Blog supports the seminars with links to outside materials (news articles, editorials, reports, journal articles, infographics, and videos) that supplement, reinforce, and, sometimes, challenge the main ideas being presented in the MOOS seminars.

We will also have a Colleague Activities Blog that publicizes similar work being done by our colleagues, and over time, we expect to add several, smaller "Brown-Bag Seminars" which will be subsets of the primary seminars focused on narrower topics.  (For example, we are planning a brown bags on the growing political divide in the United States, strategies for dealing with the scale and complexity of society-wide conflict, and the conflict between "fighters" and "compromisers."

MOOS Structure

MOOS seminars and blogs are built around a series of short "posts" which can be accessed on the project website or through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These jargon free and easy-to-understand materials can generally be read or listened to in about 10 minutes.  By being short enough to integrate into everyone's daily news and social networking time,  the MOOS is designed to work around time constraints that often prevent busy people from participating in online courses or workgroups.   Since the seminars are ungraded and not-for-credit, users only need to watch or read those posts that interest them. Plans call for one post each weekday for the Frontiers and Fundamentals Seminars with roughly two Additional Resources posted each day.

The Frontiers Seminar is built around a series of short videos, presented with transcripts and associated documentation as well as discussion questions to contemplate and  discuss. The Fundamentals Seminar is built on the foundation of Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base essays, which are often updated with new introductions and/or conclusions that show how these ideas apply to today's serious conflict.

In addition to reading, we are inviting Frontiers Seminar participants to join us in an online discussion of the complex and difficult issues that will be raised.  In order to defend this part of the MOOS from the destructive trolls that now plague the Internet, we require all discussants to register and follow a set of common-sense ground rules.  Rather than having a disjointed and unmoderated set of discussions on the social network, our goal is to consolidate the serious substantive discussion on the MOOS site.


Given the urgency of the global conflict situation, we have gone ahead and developed this initial version of the MOOS without taking the time to secure major funding for the project.  This means that we are running on an extremely tight budget.  Continuation operation and development of the MOOS program past the spring of 2017 semester will require additional funds.  So, please contribute what you can.

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).