On Conflict Resolution: Some Critiques

Belfast, N. Ireland

We would be remiss if we did not consider at least a couple of the many non-transformation critiques of CR. What follows here will primarily be taken from a very helpful chapter in Contemporary Conflict Resolution.[1] The chapter outlines four major critiques:

  • the realist,
  • critical theory,
  • post-structural,
  • and non-Western/non-Northern.

Here I will introduce each, while also looking briefly at Roland Paris’ critique of the liberal peace thesis.


In a nutshell, the realist critique problematizes CR’s notion of soft power, claiming – as Gentili stated in 1598 – “where the sovereign has no earthly judge it is inevitable that the decision between sovereigns should be made by arms.”[2] Realist critics accuse CR of being weak and ineffectual as asymmetric conflicts (that is, entailing unbalanced power dynamics) should not be settled through “impartial mediation” attempts as this can potentially (though probably unintentionally) draw out the conflict, causing increased suffering for civilians.[3] Advocating hard power approaches, the realist questions CR’s relevance in this new age of global terror, “rogue states,” and WMDs.[4]


Simplified, the critical theory critique claims that CR does not critically engage international conflicts, but rather assumes each is linked to “local symptoms of local failures” and thus “liberal governance” – the presumed panacea of CR – must be injected like an antidote (more on liberal governance below).[5] These critics assert that powerful world elites have usurped CR to be used as a way to pacify the unrest of (perhaps legitimate) uprisings and intrastate conflicts in order to maintain global control.[6] This is similar to the Marxist critique that attaches naivety to CR, claiming that CR tries to reconcile irreconcilable interests, remains impartial in lopsided struggles, and ignores the forces of exploitation and oppression.[7] In the critical theory critique, the peacebuilding aims of CR are the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, as the competitive hunger of capitalism uses the pretense of creating security as a convenient way  to ensure continued reliance on the world’s elite.[8]


Basically, this critique holds that CR espouses universal ideas about truth and peace that are not in actuality universal. This critique, as evident in the name, suggests that while (from its perspective) CR sees peace as a definite, static structure (and thus something that can be built), “the nature and meaning of peace should be heavily debated and constantly evolving,” with no absolute definition due to its complexity.[9]


For various reasons, much of the prevailing theories in the CR field originate from English-speaking folk from the West and North.[10] Those not from the West or the North have claimed that the non-Western/non-Northern voices that are, in fact, heard are really only those that have been schooled in Western/Northern thought. Thus, their voices can act as reassuring echoes of dominant Western/Northern approaches and perspectives. Paul Salem suggests that CR’s foundational “western” assumptions do not have universal application.[11] He argues that CR carries with it certain cultural conclusions that do not translate, for instance, into the values of many Arab Muslim societies. While some advocates of this critique may conclude that Western/Northern CR has no place in external settings, others may request that a dialogue exist between prevailing Western/Northern CR approaches and the traditional local approaches of other societies and cultures.


To be terribly simplistic, the liberal peace thesis puts forward (as Roland Paris describes it) Woodrow Wilson’s agenda to make the world “safe through democracy.”[12] The idea here is that, in Wilson’s words, “democracy is unquestionably the most wholesome and livable form of government the world has yet tried.”[13] Thus, peace is established through, essentially, democratic evangelism. “To make the world safe, we need to spread democracy around the world,” or so the logic goes. Yet, as Paris points out, while well-established democracies may indeed be more inherently peaceful than other forms of government, little attention is given to the transformation of non-democracies into democracies, a process of liberalization which Paris identifies as having strong tendencies to induce serious internal conflict in the to-be-liberalized nations.[14] In other words, while the end result may be a more lasting peace, the means to get there may be anything but peaceful.

[1] Ramsbotham, “Conflict Resolution: Theories and Critiques,” in Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 396-413.

[2] Qtd. in Ibid., 399.

[3] Ibid., 400. I would argue the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of this. Here you have an established, recognized nation-state, with the fourth most powerful military in the world, in conflict (through occupation) of a disunited, demilitarized, non-Stated Palestinian people. While recognizing this is a controversial assertion, I would suggest that impartial mediation here has served primarily to benefit the powerful (i.e. Israel) and thereupon delay any resolution as it allows Israel to stall all serious peace process negotiations while it further solidifies its hold on the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 401.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 402.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 408.

[10] Ibid. Ramsbotham, et al, suggest that a major reason for this is the “singular achievement of many in the English-speaking world to resist successfully any temptation to read other languages.” A shaming admission to be sure.

[11] Ibid., 409. s

[12] Paris, 41.

[13] Ibid., 40.

[14] Ibid., 44ff.

Works Cited

Paris, Roland. At War’s End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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

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