Moving Beyond The Different Intractable Conflicts Politics Essay


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Longman (2003) gives varied definitions of the word conflict. More fittingly of these, it defines a conflict as a state of disagreement or argument between groups, people, countries et cetera. Besides, it indicates that the word may mean a situation in which one may have to choose between two or more opposite needs or influences.

Some authors like Strasser and Randolph (2004) have however opined that there cannot be a definitive definition of the word conflict. Their submissions are based on the fact that the act of conflict is so diverse; such diversification being founded upon the basis that it (conflict) is so diverse and hence, inherent in all conceivable forms of human activities.

The two authors have however defined a conflict as a form of struggle expressed between parties that are interdependent. They proceed to note that the struggle in question occurs, where one of the parties feels that the achievement of its particular goal or goals is being hindered by the other party, with whom they are in negotiation.

Conflict Analysis

Longman (2003) defines an analysis as referring to a careful examination of something in order to understand it better. Conflict analysis is thus to be understood as constituting the entire process of a careful examination of a form of struggle, between any interdependent parties.

Conflict Resolution

Resolution comes from the verb resolve which basically refers to a solution, i.e. when someone solves a problem, argument or a difficult situation, (Longman, 2003). Conversely therefore, the process of conflict resolution entails the finding of a solution to a conflict, i.e. the struggle expressed as existing between any interdependent parties.


This word comes from the verb to negotiate, which means to discuss something in order to reach an agreement, especially in business or politics (Longman, 2003). Longman (2003) thus defines negotiation as referring to the official discussions between the representatives of opposing groups, who are trying to reach an agreement, especially in business or politics.

Black's Law Dictionary (2004) on the other hand, defines negotiation as either a consensual bargaining process in which the parties attempt to reach an agreement on a disputed or a potentially disputed matter. The process, it notes, usually involves complete autonomy for the parties involved without the intervention of third parties. Besides, it notes that the process may also refer to any dealings conducted between two or more parties for the purpose of reaching an understanding.

On his part, William (1993) defines negotiation as the process of back-and-forth communication, aimed at reaching agreement with others when some of your interests are shared and some are opposed. He stretches the idea of negotiation to extend beyond just the formal sittings across tables for discussions, which touch on contentious issues. He asserts that the process involves even those informal activities that one engages in, whenever they try to get something they want from another person.

Lewicki, Barry & Saunders (2009) state that negotiations exist for two main reasons; which reasons he outlines as being; firstly, the creation of something new that neither party could have done on their own. This reason provides the bottom-line fact which informs the conduct of negotiations, i.e. the perpetuation of a give and take position by both parties for each of them to get a win-win, rather than a win-lose situation. The second reason that informs negotiations, they indicate, is the need to resolve a problem or dispute between the parties. This is the very fundamental reason as to why negotiations exist, i.e. for the solution of conflicting interests and or positions.

Intractable Conflict

An intractable problem per Longman (2003) is one that is very difficult to deal with or solve. Burgess & Burgess (2003) too allude to the impossibility of certain conflicts to be resolved, by noting that such conflicts are those which are hard to deal with. They add that the said class of conflicts are those which are protracted, are destructive, are deep-rooted, are resolution-resistant, are intransigent, are gridlocked, are identity-based, are needs based, are complex, are difficult, are malignant and are enduring.

In their view thus, intractable conflicts consist of all those conflicts, which elude resolution even when the best kinds of best techniques for conflict resolution are tendered to resolve them. Strasser and Randolph (2004) distinguish intractable conflicts from those conflicts which can arise and get settled within a short period of time. They indicate that the intractable conflicts are those which when occur, prove to be difficult, or often times, even impossible to solve.

On his part, Bercovitch (2003), while distinguishing the intractable conflicts from the other ordinary kinds of conflict, i.e. the conflicts where the parties involved can solve their differences through negotiations or any other amicable means, notes that conflicts are categorized as intractable, when they resist any attempts made to manage them. Hence, they go on towards higher levels of hostilities with a lot of intensity. He observes that this more often than not breeds violence. He then proceeds to define the term intractable as describing those long-standing conflicts in which peaceful strategies and approaches, generally helpful in solving other conflicts cannot be helpful.

Causes of Intractable Conflicts

There are three reasons generally acknowledged as being the causes of intractable conflicts (Burgess & Burgess, 2003). These, they outline as being an irreconcilable moral differences, high stakes distributional issues and finally, domination (pecking order) conflicts. Burgess & Burgess illustrate that moral differences, constitute differences over the intrinsic human perceptions on what is right or wrong; these, on their part are invariably equated by certain persons as being good and evil. When various strands and shades of opinion of people, are unable for reasons founded on religion, cultures and different worldviews cannot be reconciled, then intractable conflicts arise and are sustained.

The high stakes distributional issues, is explained as differences arising out of the question, of which party gets what is in situations, where the item being distributed is extremely valuable and cannot be generally done without (Burgess & Burgess, 2003). It is submitted that lots of intractable conflicts arise in situations, where the access rights to the items and or resources is highly skewed, hence inequitable. For instance, the Ogoni activists' differences with the Nigerian government emanate from what the Ogonis consider inequitable sharing of the Nigerian oil resources, which are extracted from the Ogoniland.

Finally, the domination (pecking order) conflicts, it is submitted to refer to those intractable conflicts which arise out of the power equation, i.e. who wields more power over the other. With respect to power, there is developed an intractable conflict between the weaker and stronger political classes. For instance, within the realm of Political Science, the proposition by Karl Marx that there exists a power struggle between the middle class and upper class, would provide a perfect example of what would constitute an intractable conflict, caused by the pecking order category. Within the contemporary arrangement of the world politics, this reason may be attributable towards the cause of the Rwandan Genocide, as the Hutu ethnic group have always been in a political competition with the Tutsis.

Are Intractable Conflicts Capable of Being Solved?

With this kind of an understanding which seems to suggest that intractable conflicts are inherently predisposed towards an impossibility to resolve, the question one may won't to ask is, whether, indeed, it is possible to solve such conflicts. However, authorities indicate that it is, in fact, possible to not only find but also put in place feasible solutions for intractable conflicts.

Primarily, it is to be recognized and appreciated that the course or dynamics of a conflict are not pre-ordained (Bercovitch, 2003). Consequently, Bercovitch adds that conflicts are not intractable inherently and neither that conflicts are co-operative inherently. He caps it all by describing intractable conflicts, as being those conflicts which sink into what he describes as self-perpetuating violent interactions, where each party has deep-seated interests in the continuation of the conflict in question.

Suffice it to say therefore that intractable conflicts can indeed be solved like any other kind of conflict. Bercovitch (2003) indeed seeks to dissuade any thinking which may seem to suggest the impossibility in finding solutions for intractable conflicts. He illustrates that such conflicts do have features which are in common with other conflicts. The flipside of such a position, he adds, is that there exists a possibility of such conflicts being not only manageable but also being able to be solved as well.

Negotiation as a Solution to Intractable Conflicts

One of the several methods that may be useful towards this end, is negotiation. This discussion seeks to illustrate how negotiation as an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) may be utilized, towards providing solutions for intractable conflicts that otherwise appear as not capable of being soluble.

Negotiation remains the mode of conflict resolution being used most widely (Docherty, 2004). The author projects a negotiation process as involving two or more groups of people, who communicate with each other with the ultimate aim being the need to promote shared understandings, overcoming the existent inter-personal (inter-group) differences, reaching compromises, as well as, reaching mutually beneficial trade-offs.

Docherty (2004) outlines three levels through which a negotiation process undergoes. These, she identifies as comprising of the following steps; firstly is the agenda setting. This stage involves the negotiating parties identifying and setting the programme which is to guide the negotiation process. The agenda setting stage, is to be followed by the framing of the problem; a stage which would involve the setting of delimitations to the issue being negotiated, with the final stage being the minimizing of the scope of the schism between the parties. This last stage may aptly be referred to as building the bridge; a bridge which would serve to link the two protagonists.

Docherty (2004) seems to suggest that successful negotiations require to be conducted within stable settings. The author uses the phrase stable settings to mean; encounters between negotiators, which are founded upon relationships and structures which have generally been taken as being peaceful besides deriving a reasonable level of legitimacy, among the parties.

There are a number of advantages which the author outlines as being attendant to negotiations conducted within stable settings. These, she identifies as including rules of behavior, which are mutually agreed upon by the negotiating parties, norms of fairness shared by the parties, a shared level of certainty by the negotiating parties of a common future and finally an established institutional mechanism, which provides an enforcement to the negotiated agreements. The overall import of the stable settings framework, is to reduce any unnecessary anticipation among the negotiators; a scenario which ultimately thaws the differences, hence, solving the intractable conflicts.

William (1993) suggests a form of negotiation he calls joint problem solving, as being useful towards solving intractable conflicts. He observes that one predicament which always bedevils negotiators is the conflict of whether to adopt a soft or hard position. The fear inherent in each position, he notes, is that if one is soft, then s/he would cede their ground hence losing out. On the other hand, he notes that those who adopt a hard stance in order to win end up straining the relationship, a scenario which may ultimately cause the relationship to break up.

Given this kind of a catch 22 situation, he fronts for a middle ground which offers a compromise to both sides. It is this middle ground position which he refers to as the joint problem solving approach of negotiation. He asserts that this method is neither soft nor hard, but rather, is soft on the people while being hard on the problem to be solved. He illustrates that the former protagonists, rather than attacking each other, resort to jointly attack their common problem. In a nut-shell, he notes that the approach changes face-to- face confrontation into a side-by-side problem solving.

The possibility to positively explore joint problem solving for a mutual benefit for the negotiators is to be informed by the fact that this approach of negotiation exploits the protagonists' interests in stead of their positions. He notes that the first point is for the negotiators to an intractable conflict, to identify their common interests then chart a common path that would take them towards the mutual achievement of their identified common interests.

Other joint problem solving strategy, William has also identified five barriers to co-operation as requiring to be overcome in order for negotiations towards intractable conflicts to be successful. He identifies the barriers as being; your reaction, their emotion, their position, their dissatisfaction and their power.

With respect to your reaction, he observes that given the intrinsic human nature of action-reaction, there is the likelihood that if one side of the protagonists takes a hard-line position, the other would inevitably do the same in order to even things out. Conversely, where a party gives in, the other party is likely to exploit this as a weakness. The requirement thus is that protagonists should develop a positive attitude devoid of action-reaction predispositions.

On the other hand is the issue of the other party's emotions which inform their reactions as well as the hard-line positions which they may adopt during the negotiations. In order for the conflict not to become an intractable one, it is incumbent upon you to understand and appreciate their positions so as to avoid inviting a similar reaction from your end. Closely tied to this is the issue of the other party's position. The flipside obligation cast upon you as protagonist is to avoid taking a reactionary position just because the other party did take a position.

In terms of the other party's dissatisfaction, you as a party to a negotiation process is advised to develop, and front for the advancement of a mutually agreed position in any conflict, notwithstanding the fact that certain times, the other party may just not be interested in the same outcome. Further, relating to the fact that the other group may see negotiation as a win-lose process; inculcate into it the understanding that the same is in stead, a win-win process. This would buoy the process and infuse into it a level of confidence which would defuse the feel of power. The other party may have intended to use to scuttle the process so as to escalate the intractable conflict.

In order that there is established road-map towards the annihilation of the bad blood that precipitated, the very occurrence of the intractable conflict in the first place is established. William suggests a five point roadmap for the negotiations that are aimed towards solving intractable conflicts. He outlines the points as consisting of interests, options, standards, alternatives and proposals.

In William's view, it is imperative that parties figure out their interests in order to inform the positions they take. This is in order to ensure, it is arrived at a mutually agreed settlement from a negotiations, so as to ward off intractable conflicts. He suggests that parties should understand each other's positions by being in each other's shoes, so as to make them appreciate the positions that each assumes. An understanding and appreciation of each other's position make protagonists to soften their hard-line stances. Hence, thawing bad blood which generally responsible for causing intractable conflicts.

Besides the above, he asserts that the reason that informs the proposition that each party understands the other side's interests, is out of the need, to identify the options which may be available towards satisfying each other's positions. He adds that one thing that negotiators must understand and appreciate is the fact that, negotiation being a win-win process, neither party can realize their positions, but each side can actually obtain their determined interests. This appreciation enhances the spirit of give and take, thereby facilitating a quicker resolution to a conflict that would have otherwise remained intractable.

In their view of solving intractable conflicts through negotiations, Lewicki, Bruce and Saunders (2009) strongly, advices that people with opposing interests and or positions enter into constructive negotiations. Indeed, they give a strong pointer to the effect that for negotiations to be able to serve its purpose, so as to do away with intractable conflicts, a negotiated settlement is not supposed to make one party feel like a loser. Further, such a process is not meant to make one party feel guilty of the outcome. Founded upon these considerations, they discourage any attempts of parties to a negotiation process, to use discontinuous modes of solving conflicts, such as, tossing a coin.

Aside from the aforementioned, Lewicki, Bruce and Saunders (2009) have pointed out one huge drawback in negotiations, which may greatly impede negotiations. Hence, prolonging an intractable conflict, rather than solve it, is the problem of ego. The devastation that can be dealt with by the presence of ego, which clouds a negotiation process, is out of the fact that ego makes the parties take very hard-line positions. Consequently, if anyone were to cede any ground, that would be taken as a weakness.

Ultimately, the same would create a feeling of a win-lose situation founded upon a strength/power, rather than a win-win situation that is founded upon the parties' equal strengths. Thus, in order that negotiators to an intractable conflict break ground, each side of the negotiation must not be egoistic. The presence of ego, or indeed a perception of it, would cause the hardening of positions by the parties. The hardening of positions would not hasten the finding of lasting solutions, towards intractable problems as is required.


This paper has considered the problem of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. It has particularly zeroed in on how negotiation, a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) can be used to resolve a class of conflicts, known as, intractable conflicts. The discussion progressed from an introductory level, where it provides definitions for a number of key words and phrases.

The paper then launches into a discussion of intractable conflicts. In the final analysis, it explores the reasons which inform the occurrence of intractable conflicts besides identifying the "don'ts", which every negotiator must of essence avoid. In order to successfully engage into a negotiation process, so as to wipe out the festering problem of intractable conflicts, conflicts which great many people wrongly believe cannot be resolved.

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