Swans Commentary » swans.com August 23, 2010  



Of Conflict And Misdirection


by Michael Barker





(Swans - August 23, 2010)   Interactive conflict resolution (ICR) "involves problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of groups or states in violent protracted conflict." (1) Within a capitalist world, whose very foundations are premised on exploitation, the development of such initiatives plays a critical role in defusing (often violent) disputes that stem from revolutionary resistance to institutional injustice. According to a leading proponent of ICR, professor of international relations at American University Ronald Fisher: since around 1965 "impartial team[s] of scholar-practitioners" -- aided in more recent times by various nongovernmental organizations -- have "sought to increase mutual understanding" of individuals involved in protracted conflicts (e.g., complex ethnopolitical disputes). The emphasis here is on resolving, not solving issues: whereby the former isolates problems from their complex political and economic roots to provide superficial solutions to redirect anger into harmless channels. Resolution provides a stark contrast to solving problems, which necessarily entails actually trying to go to the root cause of a problem so that the causes of conflict can be effectively addressed.

In the world of ICR practitioners, conflict is not addressed as a class phenomenon, but instead the "method is rooted in social-psychological assumptions about international disputes" that place a strong emphasis on bringing about change within individuals. There is a recognition that protracted social conflicts are often "rooted in the denial of fundamental human needs for individual and social development," (2) but given that capitalism, the primary institution of oppression is off limits, problems are hence located in individual minds, which on a pragmatic level can be changed. The key word is consensus, with participants being "guided" towards consensual peace agreements.

This shift in thinking is in keeping with historical movements within US foreign policy circles, which openly recognize the stability of consensual over coercive forms of consent. Thus compared to other forms of third-party intervention, which...

"... generally accept an adversarial and/or judgmental approach to settling the substantive issues in a conflict, ICR (and some forms of conciliation and mediation) attempts to induce an analytical and collaborative reorientation of the parties, which may ultimately transform their relationship in a conflict -- and thus the conflict itself -- into a more positive social reality." (p.229)

Critically though, ICR is only considered to be an unofficial complement to official diplomatic and governmental channels of intervention.

"The rationale is to provide an informal, low-risk, noncommittal, and neutral forum in which representatives of the parties may engage in exploratory analysis and creative problem solving, free from the usual constraints of official policy and public scrutiny." (pp.229-30)

Former Australian diplomat John Burton is considered to be one of the key founders of ICR. Other leading thinkers in this field include Leonard Doob, and the American social psychologist Herbert Kelman. Kelman's study of the work of Burton and Doob then "helped prepare the way for a 1971 prototype [ICR] workshop, codesigned with Canadian social psychologist Stephen Cohen, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." (3) Kelman subsequently organized more than thirty workshops on the conflict, whose outcomes facilitated the path to the Oslo Accords. One should note that an early "third-party member" in one of Kelman's workshops was the American political scientist Edward Azar, who later worked closely with both Cohen and Burton and invited the latter to "help launch" his Center for International Development and Conflict Management in 1985, which resulted in them co-editing the book International Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Rienner Publishers, 1986).

Based at the University of Maryland, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management is currently headed by Jonathan Wilkenfeld, who since 1977 has served as co-director (with former Rockefeller Foundation fellow Michael Brecher) of the International Crisis Behavior Project, a "cross-national study of international crises in the twentieth century." In recent years, Wilkenfeld has worked closely with the US Department of Homeland Security, and he presently sits on the advisory board of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace. John Grayzel, a former senior official with the US Agency for International Development currently maintains tenure as the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at Maryland, and his predecessor, Soheil Bushrui (1992-2005), works closely with leading elite networker Ervin Laszlo, and serves on the advisory board of the Dayton International Peace Museum -- a museum that includes well-known "humanitarian" activist Richard Holbrooke on their board of honorary trustees. (4) Such elite interlocks are the norm for many of the leading advocates of ICR.

Other ICR scholars who in 1965 helped Burton found the London-based Centre for the Analysis of Conflict included A.J.R. Groom, Anthony de Reuck, and Christopher Mitchell. Burton and Mitchell have continued working together for years, and in the late 1980s, Mitchell "joined Burton at George Mason University, where both contributed to the development of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), [which was] initially established in 1981 by the late Bryant Wedge and his colleagues to train professional practitioners in conflict management." (5) Just prior to this Wedge had played a key role along with James Laue and Ambassador Andrew Young in launching the National Peace Academy Campaign (in 1976), a group whose lobbying led to the creation of the National Peace Foundation in 1982, and the establishment by Congress of the US Institute of Peace in 1984. Writing in 1990, Sara Diamond and Richard Hatch provide an important critique of the so-called peace establishment, and recall how Bryant Wedge had formerly "produced psychological studies for the Department of State, the US Information Agency, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the CIA."

Here it is relevant to introduce Roger Fisher, the leading promoter of the ruling class alternative dispute resolution mythology (see "Alternative Dispute Resolution or Revolution"), who in 1979 founded the famous Harvard Negotiation Project. This is because in 1982 Fisher helped James Laue establish the Conflict Clinic, a negotiation and mediation firm that has now been incorporated within ICAR's Applied Practice and Theory program. Notably the current head of ICAR, Andrea Bartoli, is a board member of Search for Common Ground (a longstanding recipient of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy for their work in Africa), and Bartoli serves on the advisory board of the conservative and evangelical stronghold, the Council on Faith and International Affairs.

Remaining on the theme of Fisher's ruling class ties; Fisher is the founder of a non-profit conflict resolution consulting firm called Conflict Management Group -- an organization that was merged in 2004 into the US-government funded "humanitarian" non-governmental organization Mercy Corps (in 2004 alone, Mercy Corps obtained $98 million from the government). The current chair of Mercy Corps, Linda Mason, is the chair of Human Rights Watch's Africa advisory committee, a group of scholars with commendable imperial credentials (see "Human Rights Watch Brings Imperialism to Africa").

Furthermore, the former cofounder and president of Fisher and Laue's Conflict Clinic, John Murray, serves as an associate of another offshoot project of the Harvard Negotiation Project known as Conflict Management Inc., whose work, like that of Mercy Corps, is intimately entwined with a firm called CMPartners. This connection is illustrated by the background of CMPartners' partner, Elizabeth McClintock, who prior to accepting this position had acted as the director of programs for the Conflict Management Group. Moreover, it is interesting to note that McClintock is currently undertaking a Ph.D. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; the Fletcher School being a favourite hunting ground of "democracy promoting" imperialists like Peter Ackerman, the executive producer of the propaganda documentary Bringing Down a Dictator (2002) -- a film that brilliantly glossed over the manner in which US-backed social movements facilitated the ouster of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. (6) As one might expect, capitalist "conflict resolvers" were on hand in Yugoslavia:

"The now defunct Preventive Diplomacy Program at [Center for Strategic and International Studies] sponsored a multiyear project directed by David Steele to provide conflict resolution seminars for religious leaders from the different faiths in the former Yugoslavia. Between 1995 and 2002, more than thirty workshops provided a combination of dialogue, conflict analysis, and training in conflict resolution to leading peacebuilding activities at the local level and to the creation of interreligious institutions. The overall goal of the project was to develop support among religious people to overcome the ethnic divisions that shattered Yugoslavia." (p.249)

"When CSIS abolished the Preventive Diplomacy Program, Steele moved his projects under the aegis of the Conflict Management Group." Indeed, Steele served as an interim executive director of the Conflict Management Group, and then as a program manager at Mercy Corps, before moving on to later become a reconciliation facilitator for the US Institute of Peace, and a senior associate for the International Center for Conciliation. (7)

ICR scholars and their conciliatory acolytes likewise fulfilled a critical role in South Africa by transmuting resistance to acquiesce in the "critical prenegotiation period of the longstanding conflict in South Africa between proponents of apartheid and the African National Congress (ANC)."

"Of particular interest in ICR, [Daniel] Lieberfeld reports on a series of six workshops held in England between 1987 and 1990 that brought together prominent members of the Afrikaner Broderbong (League of Brothers), closely linked to the ruling National Party, and high-ranking leaders of the ANC. These quiet, unofficial meetings were organized and facilitated by executives and consultants of a British mining company with interests in South Africa. The participants used the opportunity to seek information on each side's intentions, options, and priorities; discuss political and security issues; and propose reciprocal confidence-building measures. Overall, the meetings contributed to the perceptions that the other side was reasonable and that a negotiated settlement was possible." (p.247) (8)

With respect to South African political affairs it is interesting that influential ICR scholars are closely tied to the "democracy promoting" Institute for Democracy in South Africa. Thus Harold Saunders, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (1978-81), and current director of international affairs at the Kettering Foundation presently serves on the US board of friends of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. Saunders is also the founder and president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue (formed in 2002), and two of his fellow board members are likewise linked to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, these being Ramon Daubon (also a US board member), and Theodore Nemeroff (who acts as one of their project coordinators). Ronald Fisher points out that while unusual:

"Harold Saunders is one of a small number of diplomats, along with John McDonald (9) and Joseph Montville, (10) who have moved... from official diplomatic work to unofficial conflict resolution efforts. Saunders served on the National Security Council in the White House and then in various roles with the U.S. State Department. He was involved in the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and in the Carter mediation team that brought about the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. ... However, Saunders made his most extensive contributions through his role in the Dartmouth Conference..." (p.241)

Much like similar efforts that were utilized in Africa to resolve exploitation through elite "education," the Dartmouth Conference appeared to serve much the same purpose, and since 1960 it...

"... has annually invited Soviet (now Russian) and U.S. influentials, primarily foreign policy specialists, to an unofficial, policy-relevent, citizen-to-citizen dialogue on relations between the two countries. ... In the late 1980s, a number of the Soviet participants served as policy advisors to Gorbachev, and many of the principles and approaches articulated in the Soviet leader's 'new political thinking' had their genesis in the Dartmouth discussion." (p.241)

Contrary to simplistic analyses of power, ruling elites have been always promoted two-track imperialism. The first utilizes coercion, and the second consent; the only difference today is that the scholarship undergirding the peaceful track is much more advanced than in previous years. The major problem it seems is not that imperialism cannot be countered, but that many of the scholars and media commentators that the left relies upon -- to inform effective responses -- have either been co-opted by this liberal discourse, or are simply asleep at the wheel. Either way the task that lies ahead is to reinvigorate leftist research, so we can collectively determine how to solve our capitalist problem.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Ronald Fisher, "Interactive Conflict Resolution," In: William Zartman (ed.), Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques (U.S. Institute of Peace, [1997] 2007), p.227. All following quotations are taken from this chapter.  (back)

2.  Fisher, Interactive Conflict Resolution, p.227, p.230.  (back)

3.  Fisher, Interactive Conflict Resolution, p.232.  (back)

4.  Martin Sheen presently sits alongside inhumanitarian warrior Richard Holbrooke on the board of honorary trustees of the Dayton International Peace Museum. In recent years, Sheen's smoothing vocals have also been in heavy demand by nonviolent moviemakers, as he narrated the English language version of Peter Ackerman's controversial documentary Bringing Down a Dictator, and is starring in the forthcoming documentary Peaceful Warriors: The History of Nonviolence, which was produced by James Otis and Lester Kurtz -- Kurz being an academic advisor for Peter Ackerman's imperialist International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.  (back)

5.  Fisher, Interactive Conflict Resolution, p.234, pp.234-5.  (back)

6.  Peter Ackerman serves as the chair of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tuft's University. The current director of the International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Fletcher School, Eileen Babbitt, had prior to joining Tuft's served as the director of education and training at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Before this Babbitt had been the deputy director of Harvard University's now defunct Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, which was then headed by Herbert Kelman. Presently Babbitt is also a faculty associate of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.  (back)

7.  Fisher, Interactive Conflict Resolution, p.250. Elie Wiesel serves as the honorary chair of the International Center for Conciliation.  (back)

8.  Fisher notes how Daniel Lieberfeld's 2002 article -- "Evaluating the Contributions of Unofficial Diplomacy to Conflict Termination in South Africa, 1984-1990" (pdf) -- "describes and evaluates the contributions of these two-track initiatives and generally concludes that they made positive contributions to the initiation of negotiations and the changes in party politics and public opinion that supported talks." (Daniel Lieberfeld's Ph.D. at the Fletcher School was supervised by Herbert Kelman.)  (back)

9.  John McDonald is the chairman and co-founder of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy. Formed in 1992, this Institute has previously worked with the National Endowment for Democracy in Sudan (in 2004) in cooperation with the Sudan Council of Churches. The Institute's international advisory board includes Joseph Montville, a representative from other democracy-manipulating groups that include World Vision, Mercy Corps, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.  (back)

10.  Joseph Montville, a former US foreign service officer, is "acknowledged as the creator of the term 'two-track diplomacy,' which refers to unofficial, unstructured interaction, that is, problem-solving workshops, between members of adversarial groups or nations directed toward conflict resolution by addressing psychological elements of the conflict." (p.240) Montville is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he formerly acted as the director of preventive diplomacy. He is presently chairperson of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution's Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, which was formed in 2003 at George Mason University. Here it is interesting to note that until recently Montville served on the board of directors of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a group that describes itself as a "non-profit organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to studying Islamic and democratic political thought and merging them into a modern Islamic democratic discourse." It is not hard to see that this "democratic" Center serves a useful purpose for imperialism, so it is unsurprising that their former executive director, Abdulwahab Alkebsi (in 2002), went on to become the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. Thus it is perhaps appropriate that Stephen Zunes, who is the chair of Peter Ackerman's International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, was a panelist at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy's 11th annual conference (April 28, 2010).  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/barker63.html
Published August 23, 2010