Bringing warring parties to the negotiating table is the aim of any peace process. But what happens when those negotiations falter and conflict resolution fails? Is everything lost or are there prospects for meaningful change in even the most intractable of conflicts?
In this insightful book, leading scholar-practitioner in conflict resolution Oliver Ramsbotham explores the phenomenon of radical disagreement as the main impediment to negotiation, problem solving and dialogue between conflict parties. Taking as his focus the long-running and seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and Palestine, he shows how what is needed in these circumstances is not less radical disagreement, but more. Only by understanding what is blocking the way and by promoting collective strategic engagement within, across and between the groups involved, can deadlock be transformed.
Rich in detail and accessibly written, this book introduces a new and as yet relatively unexplored frontier in conflict studies. Its wider application to other phases, levels and war zones holds out rich promise for extending conflict engagement in some of the world s deadliest and most difficult hot spots.
Oliver Ramsbotham is Emeritus Professor of Conflict Resolution at the University of Bradford and President of the Conflict Research Society. He is co-author of the bestselling and hugely popular survey of the field Contemporary Conflict Resolution, now in its fourth edition.
LEARNING FROM FAILURE
Bringing warring parties to the negotiating table is the aim of any peace process. But what happens when those negotiations falter and conflict resolution fails? Is everything lost, or are there prospects for meaningful change in even the most intractable of conflicts?
This book sums up work I have done over several decades on the communicative aspect of intractable conflicts - beginning with Choices in 1987. Intractable conflicts are those in which attempts at peaceful containment, settlement and transformation have so far gained no purchase. In 'frozen' conflicts there is a semblance of peaceful management, but this is superficial and is likely to break down again. I say 'so far' because it is always possible that such attempts will succeed in future, as conflict resolution wants, and as has happened in many other cases. But 'so far' can go on for years, if not decades, during which time unimaginable destruction and damage to human lives and life hopes may be inflicted. The victims are overwhelmingly the most vulnerable. What, if anything, can be done in these circumstances? The focus is on how best to handle what I call linguistic intractability and its chief verbal manifestation radical disagreement.
In order to get to grips with this challenge we first need to know both what conflict resolution is trying to achieve and what aspects of prevailing patterns of large-scale conflict block the way. This is the job of chapters 1 and 2. The main argument begins in chapter 3.
It will be helpful to remember in what follows that the aim of conflict resolution is to overcome violence, not conflict. Conflict cannot be overcome, because it is inherent in social and political change. And conflict should not be overcome, because without it injustice and unjust systems cannot be challenged. Mahondas Gandhi and Martin Luther King were opposed to violence. But they were not opposed to conflict. They wanted to eliminate the British occupation of India and racial discrimination in the United States. Nelson Mandela wanted to overthrow apartheid in South Africa. To do this, levels of conflict had to be raised, not lowered. Here is King in his famous address from the Washington memorial on 23 August 1963:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.1
What does this imply about peace processes in deep-rooted and intractable conflicts? First, that in peace talks between undefeated conflict parties the aim is often not to end the conflict, but to transmute it into non-violent forms of continuing struggle and change. Otherwise the conflict parties will not enter the peace process. For example, this is what happened in Northern Ireland in 1998. Here a 'post-war settlement' is a 'continuation of the conflict by other means' (which is why, for reasons explained below, I call it Clausewitz in reverse). Requiring an 'end of conflict' in such cases is unrealistic and self-defeating. It also follows that a further aim is to separate what I call extremists of ends, who are uncompromising about strategic goals, from extremists of means, who are uncompromising about the use of violence. This is a central distinction in dealing with terrorism, as made clear in chapter 9.
It may seem surprising in the light of this that conflict resolution regularly discounts the radical disagreement that lies at the heart of linguistic intractability as an 'all-too-familiar' dead end and a terminus to dialogue that needs from the outset to be transformed, not learnt from. In intractable conflicts this is premature. Radical disagreement turns out to be perhaps the least familiar aspect of intense political conflict. And conflict resolution fails when the conditions that it presupposes do not yet exist, the assumptions on which it rests (often drawn from the social and political sciences) do not yet apply, and conflict parties are not yet ready to behave in the way it wants. It may then find that it has no other recourse when it is confronted by the 'war of words' (the radical disagreement) that pervades intractable asymmetric conflict and blocks conflict resolution at all levels.
What is the alternative? The central argument in chapter 4 is that, when conflict resolution fails, we should turn in the opposite direction - to conflict engagement. Instead of ignoring radical disagreement, we should first try to understand what obstructs the way and then adapt practice accordingly. This means starting where conflict parties are, not where third parties want them to be. It means beginning not between conflict parties but within them. Internal disagreements are often more ferocious than external disagreements. And internal divisions can be the main blockage to external accommodation. Above all, it means promoting collective strategic thinking by the main identity groups: Where are they? Where do they want to be? How do they get there? Why are conflict parties prepared to do this when they are not prepared for conflict resolution? Because they want to overcome internal divisions - not in order to 'understand the other', but in order to win. So how can this nevertheless be a 'placeholder' for a possible future initiation or revival of conflict resolution? A number of reasons are given in chapter 4 and illustrated in the case study. This is the core of the book. Emphasizing strategic discourse within parties to a conflict is often the real key to progress when other avenues are blocked - including the regularly overlooked strategic question of how to influence the internal dynamics of the other side. Chapter 4 also offers a template for how to conduct collective strategic thinking of this kind based on the work of the strategy groups described in Part II. Practitioners may want to try this out for themselves.
Taking as its focus the long-running and seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and Palestine, the argument in the case study in Part II is that what is needed in these circumstances is not less radical disagreement, but more. Only by understanding what is blocking the way and by promoting collective strategic engagement within, across and between the groups involved - including third parties - can deadlock be transformed. Chapters 5 and 6 go beyond the tendency among behavioural scientists to treat 'intractable' conflicts as primarily the result of correctible subjective misunderstandings. They demonstrate how the differing narratives of the parties to the conflict come out of their 'lived experience' and are thus in a basic sense as real as the 'objective' conflicts over land and power - and inseparable from them. That is what blocks conflict resolution. In terms of strategic thinking, the case study shows how at the heart of asymmetric conflict lie the radically different requirements of possessors and challengers. The question of the dialectics of power is central here. For example, why should Israelis give up anything if the status quo continues to be better than any strategic alternative? And how can Palestinians transform the status quo when the process of bilateral negotiation brokered by the United States is itself part of what perpetuates it? It is only the promotion of strategic engagement that illuminates these critical dynamics.
Chapter 7 shows the importance of including all the main cross-cutting identity groups in the strategic engagement process in complex transnational conflicts. In this case, it is the neglected constituency of Israeli Palestinians (20 per cent of the population of Israel) that needs for the first time to be fully represented as a 'core group' in strategic negotiations.
Using the example of the attempt, between July 2013 and April 2014, by US Secretary of State John Kerry to end the conflict, chapter 8 shows that third parties are not neutral, impartial or disinterested in intractable political conflicts of this kind. It also demonstrates how a conflict resolution approach to negotiation such as principled negotiation needs to be supplemented in times of maximum attrition by a prior strategic negotiation approach, which links strategic thinking within conflict parties to the wider (regional, international) strategic context where prevailing patterns of transnational conflict are now increasingly determined.
Part III looks at wider applications in terms of other phases, other levels and other conflicts. This introduces a new and as yet relatively unexplored frontier in conflict studies. It holds out rich promise for extending conflict engagement in some of the world's deadliest and most difficult hot spots. A central argument here is for linking conflict resolution to strategic studies. Turning from strategic engagement to 'heuristic engagement' (from the Greek word for 'discover'), chapter 10 explores agonistic dialogue (the dialogue of struggle or...