Monday, April 19, 2010

Constructive conflict v war

My students read my lugubrious litanies of conflict causes, casus belli, and they often conclude, well, we will never stop having wars.

Yes we will.

But we will never stop having conflict.

We will either learn to handle our increasingly difficult resource conflict with nonviolent methods or we will cease to inhabit this Earth. It is war that is unsustainable. If we cannot stop having wars, we are therefore unsustainable and this wondrous evolutionary experiment of humanity is finished.

Can we honestly face that choice and fail to learn how to manage our conflicts without violence?

There is a great deal of hope that we in fact can learn to transform our inevitable conflicts into constructive events and processes. A great deal of peace research has been done and more is underway to reveal to us how we can have that level of human agency. We may never negotiate with an earthquake, but we can learn to negotiate our way out of violence and into conflict that is waged without the tremendous ecological and economic costs that produce so much misery.

Basic conflict analysis, principled negotiation, strategic nonviolence and intercultural conflict competencies can take us the first 90 yards toward the goal line. Unique conflict iterative management and creativity will bring us the rest of the way over the line into the means-and-endzone.

Social conflict analysis is complex and required. It may take 100 professional conflict analysts, for example, to deconstruct the contextual elements of a gnarly destructive conflict, another 100 professional conflict analysts to work out a strong and positive set of steps to produce a constructive conflict management plan, and perhaps 200 professional conflict managers to put that plan into action. While these are obviously round estimate numbers, I believe they are quite generous and I believe all the rest of the players in the constructive conflict are people who would have been involved in any event. Constrast these estimated numbers with the hundreds of thousands of warriors and the rampant ecological destruction involved in war.

Principled negotiation is a basic method of managing conflict that eschews both the aggressive, violent, hard, positional strategies that have brought us war as well as the soft, yielding, appeasing tactics that bring us surrender. It is described in the simple Getting to Yes popular little book by some of the members of the Harvard Negotiating Project and remains quite valuable. It recommends a method that begins by separating the people from the problem, focusing on interests rather than positions, then brainstorming possible solutions, and adhering to fair standards. It continues to reset the conflict toward progress in the face of destructive responses, much like a self-correcting gyroscope to address the inevitable imbalances of a flying machine.

Strategic nonviolence is how civil society can take back the conflict management process from a dysfunctional government. It requires massive grassroots involvement and is how you remove power from any malfunctioning ruler, no matter how violent. You shut him down by organizing mass opposition, including defections from his armed forces and police. This has been accomplished in many cases and research is not only documenting that it has happened, but is beginning to explain the conflict dynamics and mechanics so that our constructive approach is becoming more technically proficient.

Finally, intercultural conflict management research and application is key to resolving conflicts with people who don't understand each other but who can learn that very different cultures can each work to the benefit of their respective peoples and to devise systems of interconnection that retain those benefits. It's a bit like building a series of conflict adapters that can allow a metric system of plumbing to interface with an American inches system. It's awkward but the adapters work. We can use them to make negotiation possible where it looks impossible now.

Part of our challenge is to begin to look for new leadership, for those who can approach a problem from the standpoint of the principled negotiator rather than the simple champion role. We need people who can face unreasonable opponents and discuss the conflict in blunt but openly collaborative terms. Further, those leaders need to understand the difference between compromising on what each side needs to do and compromising on principle.

If, for example, we elect a leader who, refreshingly, can appoint a true diversity of federal judges and not just mostly white men, and who can do excellent outreach to various Muslim constituencies, but who also fails to protect the average person from massive predation by war profiteers, bankers and Wall Street greedheads, that leader is failing to engage in principled negotiation because that leader is compromising basic principles. Clearly, we need to convince the leader to learn or we need to find another leader.

All peoples except the 'conflict industry'--the elite few who profit from bloody conflict--
will benefit from this approach and as complex as this approach is on the surface, it is much simpler in the long run than the simple decision to go to war, which introduces a blindingly complex welter of short and long term problems. Humanity will end war or war will end humanity. That simple fact is challenging us to work to change our norms and perspectives. The race is on the human race is at stake.

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