On Conflict Resolution: The Nature of Contemporary Conflict

Belfast, N. Ireland

This is the first of a series of six posts I have done on understanding conflict resolution. This was an assignment for my class “Conflict Analysis and Models of Intervention.” Engagement is most appreciated.

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Conflict resolution is a strange beast. The term is one most of us think we understand. Whenever I tell people I study “conflict resolution,” they almost always simply nod in understanding without asking for any type of clarification. It seems we assume a universal definition of conflict resolution exists and thus there is little need to pursue a conversation on defining our particular usages. In actuality, however, we all tend to bring our own nuances to its definition and application. Might it be prudent to explore a deeper understanding of conflict resolution then, teasing a part its many layers? Before we proceed, it seems wise to address first the nature of contemporary conflict, however rudimentary such an attempt will be.

The Cold War Changed Things

Leading up to the Cold War period, international conflicts predominantly existed as interstate contests, that is, between sovereign nation-states. Throughout the Cold War era, however, conflicts morphed away from dissension between centralized powers and took form in intrastate struggles, that is, conflicts within countries. These are often referred to as ethnic conflicts.

Conflict resolution (CR) takes shape as a field of study and structured profession in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with the threat of nuclear holocaust imminent at the height of the Cold War. Understandably, some folks – like Kenneth Boulding and Johan Galtung – deemed it prudent to invest in the study of resolving conflict before we all annihilated each other. Yet, contemporary CR approaches differ greatly from those during its “foundational period,”[1] for as the nature of conflict changed, so too did approaches to resolving it. Moving away from the Power vs. Power conflicts of the post-Westphalia era and into the dynamics of internal conflicts in the post-Cold War era, CR nuanced its approach to deal more with the identity issues of communal conflict and less with the power dynamics of centralized government entities.[2]

Peacebuilding practitioner John Paul Lederach observes that the Cold War was actually only cold in Europe and North America. Essentially, the Cold War resulted in conflict suppression in the global North and conflict intensification in the global South.[3] Many of the nations in the so-called ‘developing world’ became hot microcosms of the Cold War, suitable grounds for the U.S. and Soviet Union to test out their military and weapons capabilities. As the old African proverb goes:

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”[4]

In Contemporary Conflict Resolution, professor Oliver Ramsbotham, et al, write that post-Cold War conflicts share little in common with earlier European wars but rather more resemble “medieval wars in their lack of differentiation between state and society, soldier and civilian, internal and external transactions across frontiers, war and organized crime.”[5]

‘Protracted Social Conflict’ Theory

Perhaps the most influential theorist in understanding the nature of post-Cold War conflicts is Edward Azar. Born in Lebanon in 1938, Azar put forward the notion of protracted social conflict (PSC), which he defined as “the prolonged and often violent struggle by communal groups for such basic needs as security, recognition and acceptance, fair access to political institutions an economic participation.”[6] In Azar’s reckoning, contemporary conflicts revolve around communal identity, and thus emerge within rather than outside of states. Azar identified the major impetuses in the creation of contemporary violent conflict to be:

  • communal content (identity issues),
  • deprivation of human needs (e.g. security, development, and political access),
  • failure of structural governance to provide for those needs,
  • and international connections and dependency.[7]

A significant factor in the continued development of identity conflicts, and one I personally tend to put much stock in, is the residue of the colonial legacies. In this postcolonial era, nations that suffered under colonial occupation are trying to stitch their societies back together, societies often artificially divided by colonial powers seeking ways to solidify their grasp on the indigenous peoples. As the European powers imposed foreign identities on its conquered people (as, some argue, is the case with the colonial creation of the Hutu and Tutsi distinctions in Rwanda), the native peoples were left to sort out their identity divisions in the wake of postcolonial living. Lederach paraphrases Aküm Longchari’s articulation of the importance of narrative reconstruction when he writes:

“From the perspective of indigenous people…original violence might best be understood as the disruption – and far too often, outright destruction – of a people’s story.”[8]

Their history before colonial invasion cannot be restored to its organic existence, and thus postcolonial societies must “restory” their lives and identities, a process that frequently results in furthering the deep divisions between communities.

Reactions and Supplements to PSC Theory

Yet, not everyone embraces Azar’s PSC theory unequivocally. Many have revived Huntington’s ‘clash of civilization’ thesis in the wake of 9/11; some, like Homer-Dixon, look at conflicts over resource scarcity; while others suggest that ‘third world’ conflicts relate more to ‘distortions of late capitalism’ and imperial Western evangelism than to the shortcomings of local governance.[9] Western “clean-up” only exacerbates the problem, the argument goes, as the interveners have co-opted development so that conflict resolution and social reconstruction become tools to recreate conflicted societies “in the image of the interveners in order to pacify the unruly periphery and maintain the status quo.” Allow me to paraphrase a peace practitioner, who – speaking from his experience in Africa – expressed:

“Conflict is very convenient for you in the West. You rape and pillage my continent, creating all kinds of conflict, and then you send in your peacebuilders to repair it all. And you get paid both times.”

Others still, like Collier, hold that greed rather than grievance, as Azar claimed, is a more accurate indicator of major armed conflict in the world today. Essentially, this argument claims that economic incentives and the desire for power and control lie at the root of armed conflict far more often than do people’s unmet needs.[10]

What do you think of all this? Is Azar’s theory of protracted social conflict helpful? Do you find the supplements and reactions of others, such as the environmental or the Western capitalist approaches, to be more in line with the way you understand conflicts in the world today?


[1] Ramsbotham, et al, “Conflict Resolution: Origins, Foundations and Development of the Field,” in Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 35-62.

[2] The Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648 between the major European powers of the day, ended the Thirty Years’ War and generated a new political system in Europe based on the notion of a sovereign state that had the right to handle its own affairs without the threat of foreign intervention.

[3] Lederach, Building Peace, 6.

[4] Qtd. in Ibid, 9.

[5] Ramsbotham, 97.

[6] Qtd. in Ibid., 99.

[7] Ibid, 100-102.

[8] LederachThe Moral Imagination, 150

[9] Ramsbotham, 105.

[10] Ibid, 108.

Works Cited

Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies . Washington, D.C.: United States Intitute of Peace Press, 1997.

—. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.

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