What Are Intractable Conflicts?

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

November 2003

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

The term "intractable" was controversial when we started to use it; it still is.  However, more and more of the conflicts our communities and countries seem to be embroiled in now seem to fit this definition. More...


"Intractability" is a controversial concept, which means different things to different people. Some people on the initial BI project team intensely dislike the term, as they saw it as too negative: intractable conflicts are impossible to resolve, they say, so people think they are not worth dealing with. "Do not use a term that undermines everything we are trying to do," argued project member Andrea Strimling.[1] 

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Nevertheless, all BI participants that we have talked to (which includes many 100s) agree that  there is a set of conflicts out there that are hard to deal with. "Protracted." "Destructive." "Deep-rooted." "Resolution-resistant." "Intransigent." "Gridlocked." "Identity-based." "Needs based." "Complex." "Difficult." "Malignant." "Enduring."

All of these words capture some of what we are trying to get at, but none capture it all. As we see it, intractable conflicts are those that lie at the frontier of the field -- the conflicts that stubbornly seem to elude resolution, even when the best available techniques are applied. Examples abound: abortion, homosexual rights, and race relations in the United States; and the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir (among many others) abroad.[2]

These conflicts are not hopeless, and they most certainly are worth dealing with. But they are very different from more tractable conflicts, such as most labor-management conflicts, some family conflicts, many workplace conflicts and even many international conflicts that can be successfully resolved through negotiation or mediation. Intractable conflicts need a different, more multi-faceted, and more prolonged approach.

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Characteristics of Intractable Conflicts

Mutable Characteristics

First we should say that intractability is not a dichotomous concept. In other words, you can't have two bins -- one tractable, and one intractable -- and put conflicts in one bin or the other. Rather, intractability exists on a continuum, with very stubborn, apparently intractable conflicts at one end; very simple, readily resolvable conflicts at the other end and many conflicts somewhere in between the two extremes.

Pre-Disposing CharacteristicsIntractability is also a dynamic state. Few conflicts are intractable at the beginning; rather, they become one way or the other according to how they are handled. Conflicts that become highly escalated and involve repeated patterns of violence are likely to move toward the intractable end, sometimes quite quickly. Conflicts that are managed skillfully to limit escalation and violence are likely to move toward the tractable end.

Additional insights discussing intractable conflicts are offered by Beyond Intractability participants.

But some characteristics make conflicts more difficult to handle no matter what. One might say these conflicts are "predisposed" to become intractable. For example, conflicts that involve irreducible, high-stakes, win-lose issues that have no "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) often become intractable. These are conflicts from which the participants see no "Way Out" (using a Bill Zartman term)[3], because any "solution" would require giving up some very important value.[4]

Louis Kriesberg adds that the conflicts we are concerned with are especially destructive. Some conflicts go on for a long time, but if they do not do damage, and if the parties are not worried about them, he does not consider them intractable. Intractable conflicts are conflicts that are doing substantial harm, yet the parties seem unable to extricate themselves -- either alone or with outside help. This is because the perceived costs of "getting out" are still seen as higher than the costs of "staying in."[5]

Yet intractability is a perception, not a firm characteristic, which can be perceived differently by different people or groups. While some people may consider Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be intractable, others may not, because they see the costs of staying in as higher than the costs of an agreement.[6]

Perception is important, because it influences action. If a conflict is perceived to be intractable, then disputants are likely to engage in desperate measures, such as suicide bombings. Yet those very measures are likely to increase the intractability of the conflict. However, if a conflict is seen to be moving beyond intractability, then more credibility is given to the peacebuilders, the people on both sides and in the middle who are trying to broker some kind of agreement.

The key, it would seem, is not in denying that intractable conflicts exist, as they clearly do, but to develop an image of a "way out," not necessarily substantive, but at least procedural. In other words, people have to have the understanding that there are positive things they can do, even while they are stuck in the morass of an intractable conflict. There are positive actions that can be taken to transform the conflict from a destructive one to a constructive one, even if a full resolution cannot soon be found.

Indeed, even in the context of long-running seemingly intractable conflicts, particular disputes or "episodes" are settled. For example, a law can be passed providing greater or diminished access to abortions, an agreement can be reached regarding the terms of a cease-fire on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or a Supreme Court decision can clarify what types of "Affirmative Action" programs are Constitutional and which are not. Understood for what they are, such settlements are helpful. They often defuse tension and anger, and provide a vehicle for people working together. But they do not solve the underlying conflict, which must be confronted with a long series of settlements to different issues over a long period of time. Only after all the issues are confronted and successfully dealt with will a true "resolution" be found.

Causes of Intractability

The causes of intractability are varied. In earlier publications, we have listed three:

Irreconcilable moral differences are conflicts about right and wrong, good and evil. They may be rooted in different religions, different cultures, or different worldviews. For example, most abortion foes will not negotiate about an act they consider equivalent to murder; similarly, most homosexual rights advocates will not negotiate about their rights to equal treatment under the law. Rather, they will continue to fight for what they know is right, even if they know that, over the short term, they cannot win. What is important to them is that they are engaged in a noble crusade.

High-Stakes distributional issues are conflicts over "who gets what" when the item in contention is very valuable -- often impossible to do without. People are unlikely to abandon continuing struggles over land, water, employment opportunities, and wealth, in general. When there isn't enough to "go around," or when distribution is highly inequitable, these fights are likely to be especially bitter and destructive.

Domination or "pecking order" conflicts are conflicts over power and status: who is on top of the social and political hierarchy, and who is not. While people with higher status tend to win the distributional conflicts, more often than not, status conflicts go beyond distributional conflicts -- they involve subjective assessments of an individual's or a group's "goodness," "value" or "social worth."

The presence of one or more of these characteristics does not automatically make a conflict intractable, but it makes it more likely to be at the intractable end of the continuum. And the more of these characteristics a conflict has, the farther left on the continuum (meaning the more intractable) a conflict is likely to be. All of these issues, for example, are combined in the identity conflicts which divide the many different ethnic, religious, class, and national groups which are at the center of so many of the world's tragic and deadly trouble spots. Identity conflicts involve conflicts over social status and privilege and the distribution of scarce resources, along with a moral component, since each group tends to believe in its own moral superiority. The combination of all three of these aspects makes these conflicts especially difficult to resolve.

Other authors suggest additional causes:

Peter Coleman makes a distinction between issues, context, and conflict dynamics.

Issues: The issues of intractable conflicts are varied, he says, but there tend to be multiple, inter-related issues relating to resources, values, power, and basic human needs. Another issue Coleman highlights is time. Intractable conflicts usually have "an extensive past, a turbulent present, and a murky future."[7] The hatred, the fear, and often the history of past atrocities are hard to let go of, which makes moving into a new relationship with the former "enemy" especially difficult.

Context: Many intractable conflicts, especially at the inter-group and international levels, are embedded in a context of long-standing differences and inequalities. They are "rooted in a history of colonialism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, or human rights abuses" which causes a large imbalance of power and what Edward Azar called "structural victimization," or what Johann Galtung called "structural violence." Both terms suggest that the low-power groups are harmed by the basic social structure of society.

Dynamics: Intractable conflicts tend to be self-perpetuating. Guy Burgess has often argued that the enemy is not the other side, but rather the process of escalation, that takes conflicts out of the disputants' control, and pushes them to act in increasingly extreme ways that would not, under other circumstances be considered remotely acceptable.[8] Indeed, unrestrained escalation is often what takes a formerly tractable conflict and turns it into an intractable one. Like a one-way road without a road going the other way anywhere to be found, escalation is easy to fall into. It is much harder to get out of.

Human needs are stressed by many other scholars as well, among them John Burton[9] and Herbert Kelman[10], who believe that deep-rooted conflicts are caused by the absence of the fundamental needs of security, identity, respect, safety, and control. These needs, human needs theorists argue, are non-negotiable. As such, if they are absent, the resulting conflict will remain intractable until the structure of society is changed to provide such needs to all.

Identity, in particular, is a human need that is singled out by numerous authors (most notably Jay Rothman[11] and John Paul Lederach[12]) as a fundamental driver of intractable conflict. When identities are threatened, people respond very negatively and take either defensive or often also offensive action to protect what they see as the essence of themselves. Identity conflicts in particular are not negotiable interest-based conflicts, so if they are approached with interest-based negotiation, the settlements are likely to be temporary, at best.

Complexity: The sheer complexity of these problems also contributes to intractability. There are so many issues and parties that it is often not logistically possible to do all that is required to reconcile competing interests, even when such reconciliation is theoretically possible. Even when everyone knows "the way out," complexity can make it seemingly impossible to get there. Most observers, for instance, believe that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is a two-state solution (meaning the continuation of the State of Israel and the formation of a second state of Palestine), but there are so many difficult issues involved, no one seems to know how to get from here to there.

Social-Psychological Factors: Intractable conflicts typically have conflicts within groups as well as between groups. Morton Deutsch argues that these internal conflicts actually perpetuate the external conflict, as leaders need to perpetuate the external conflict to preserve their identity as a leader and to encourage group cohesiveness.[13] Fear of losing face also keeps leaders involved in conflicts that are doing more harm than good. If they see no way out that doesn't admit that all their previous sacrifices were wrong or in vain, they are likely to continue to call for more sacrifices, rather than admitting that they made a mistake.[14]

Consequences of Intractable Conflict

The consequences of intractable conflicts are huge, most of them negative, because intractable conflicts tend to be pursued in damaging and destructive ways. The violence that is very common in inter-group and international conflicts causes widespread loss of life and damage to property. This creates massive economic costs, which are supplemented by the costs of defense. But the social and psychological costs are huge too: the fear, the hatred, the anger, the guilt are difficult to deal with while the conflict is ongoing, and are equally difficult to remedy after the conflict has supposedly been resolved. In the Rwandan conflict, for example, the Rwandan children who either watched their parents be killed, or who were forced to kill others themselves, will probably never be psychologically healthy. How can these children put their lives back together and grow into productive adults? A few will, one hopes, but most, probably, will not.

Even conflicts that occur within violence limiting institutions -- such as conflicts over abortion, sexual orientation, or race relations in the U.S. have significant negative socio-economic and psychological costs. They tear apart relationships, and challenge institutions (such as churches and schools) which spend much of their time dealing with these issues rather than focusing on their primary goals of education and/or spiritual growth and healing.

Intractable conflicts can be particularly paradoxical, as they cause disputants to destroy themselves and the things they value in an effort to destroy the other. They may even realize that this is happening, but they will continue, because the goal of destroying the other is seen as supreme (even though the reason to destroy the other is because you think they are out to destroy you). Needless to say, such situations are very destructive for all sides.

Beyond Intractability

As we said at the beginning of this essay, many of the participants in this project, as well as others, have felt that we should not use the term "intractable," because it sounds too hopeless. If conflicts are intractable, they said, that means nothing can be done about them. So why would people read this Web site, they asked?

We have several answers to this question.

First, even though intractable conflicts may not be amenable to final, near-term resolution, they are not hopeless. The parties, with or without the help of intermediaries, can move beyond intractability to make their interactions less destructive and more constructive. Even when conflicts cannot be resolved, parties can learn to live together with less distrust, overt hostility, and violence. They can learn to work with people on the other side, and come to understand the reason for their differences, even if those differences do not go away.

People who have engaged in dialogues about abortion, for example, do not change their attitudes about abortion. But they do change their attitudes about the people on the other side: they learn they are intelligent, thoughtful, caring, humans who, for a variety of reasons, see the issue of abortion differently. But they are people who can and should be respected, people who can even become one's friends.[15]

People caught up in ethnic conflicts, too, can learn to respect people on the other side, learning that they also are intelligent, thoughtful, caring humans who are caught up in a cycle of fear and violence that nobody wants. Working together to try to figure out how to disrupt that cycle is a positive way to respond to intractable conflict, and can make those conflicts less destructive, even as they continue.

Second, sometimes, seemingly endless, hopeless intractable conflicts are resolved. The Cold War is one example; South African Apartheid is another. When we started working in this field in the 1970s, both conflicts seemed firmly entrenched. No one imagined the Berlin Wall falling, much less the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact countries in NATO. Few imagined the end of apartheid, with Nelson Mandela serving as President and former President F.W. de Klerk as one of his two deputy presidents. These amazing transformations prove that no matter how deep-rooted, widespread, and seemingly "endless," intractable conflicts do end. And even more are transformed, as is evidenced by the fragile, but growing peace in Northern Ireland.

Third, if we just ignore intractable conflicts, very often they will just get worse. Like an untreated infection, they will spread, getting "hotter and hotter," and doing more and more damage. As with untreated infections, in destructive conflicts, people will die. So ignoring them, though perhaps tempting, is not a good option.

While our field does not know how to stop these very difficult conflicts completely, we do know a lot about violence prevention and conflict transformation. The breadth and depth of our knowledge is illustrated in this knowledge base: it has over 200 entries now, and over 100 more will be available within the next few months, all discussing what we know about how to deal with intractable conflicts effectively.

However, we still have a lot to learn. Though over 100 people contributed to this web site, we could not come close to including all of their knowledge, let alone all of the knowledge of others around the world who have been dealing with these conflicts every day. We welcome contributions from other people who have ideas to add to our collection. These problems are too difficult to assume that any one group of people "knows the answer." This Web site is a start, but we hope readers will help us make it better.

Since the nature of intractability was a central topic of discussion as this project was developing, we are including several essays on that topic. This is one; others have been contributed by Louis Kriesberg, who wrote several early books on the subject, and Jacob Bercovitch, who has been studying the use of mediation as a means to end intractable conflicts for many years.

Current Implications

The term "intractable" was controversial when we started to use it; it still is.  However, more and more of the conflicts our communities and countries seem to be embroiled in now seem to fit this definition.  We stand by the assertion that "intractable does not mean impossible" but it does mean really, really difficult to resolve.

And even when resolution seems to be achieved, it can later vanish.  Reading through this essay in 2017, I hiccupped on the paragraph towards the end that says ".. sometimes, seemingly endless, hopeless intractable conflicts are resolved." It then cites the Cold War and South Africa as examples.  The Cold War is very much alive again and has even become "hot" in Ukraine,, and while South Africa has not returned to Apartheid, race relations and politics are not nearly as settled there as many of us hoped or believed.  The same can be said for Northern Ireland, although "the Troubles" have not re-ignited in full force.  

So continued vigilance is necessary with these conflicts, even after "resolution" has apparently been achieved. 

-- Heidi Burgess. May 12, 2024.

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[1] Statement made at the first project conference in March of 2002.

[2] For intractable conflict case studies, see: Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases Of Intractable Conflict. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, Pamela R. Aall, eds. 2005. <http://books.google.com/books?id=fshaG2v8O-YC>.

[3] The presence or absence of a "way out" is discussed in Bill Zartman's discussion of Ripeness and Promoting Ripeness in this Knowledge Base.

[4] Observation made by Morton Deutsch in a project discussion on the meaning of "intractability." March 2002.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a discussion of intractability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see: Stephen Cohen, "Intractability and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" in Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases Of Intractable Conflict. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, Pamela R. Aall, eds. 2005. <http://books.google.com/books?id=fshaG2v8O-YC>.

[7] Peter Coleman. "Intractable Conflict," in Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman, eds. Handbook of Conflict Resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), 2000. 432. Updated (2006) edition available here.

[8] See his essays on violence breakover, personalization breakover as well as the main essay on escalation.

[9] John Burton, Conflict: Human Needs Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press), 1993. <http://books.google.com/books?id=cryZPwAACAAJ>.

[10] Ed. Herbert Kelman, International Behavior: A Social Psychological Analysis (New York: Ardent Media Incorporated), 1980. <http://books.google.com/books?id=5925PQAACAAJ>.

[11] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflicts in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (San Francisco: Jossey Bass), 1997. <http://unitednationstest.beyondintractability.org/bksum/rothman-resolving>.

[12] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace), 1998. <http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=7829>.

[13] Morton Deutsch, as discussed in the March 2002 Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Conference.

[14] See the essay on entrapment.

[15] Anne Fowler and others, "Talking with the Enemy." The Boston Globe, 28 January 2001, Focus section. <http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/BostonGlobe.htm>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. "What Are Intractable Conflicts?." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/meaning-intractability>.

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