What Are Intractable Conflicts?

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This 10-minute video explains what kinds of conflicts we will be examining in this seminar.  

We start by explaining that we call them intractable conflicts (ICs), although some people don't think ICs exist.  We discuss the controversy over the term, and why we have stuck with it over the years. 

We then compare our definition of ICs to Peter Coleman's definition and give a number of examples: 

  • International and civil wars (Such as Syria & Congo)
  • Conflicts with non-state actors such as ISIS
  • Failed States (e.g. S. Sudan and Sudan, Somalia)
  • Gross Inequality and Plutocracy (The "1%" in the US and elsewhere)
  • Developed but Fracturing Democracies (US & Europe)
  • Hatred, fear, and polarization short of war
  • Bad Decision Making Caused by Lack of Understanding of Systems

I should note that this video was made before the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, and the nature of the conflicts here are now clearly more profound and deeper than this video might suggest.  We have decided to continue to make new videos rather than re-do early ones at this point, but certainly the political conflicts in the US are even more intractable than this video suggests!

Frontiers MOOS Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

Things to Think About:

Look again at the list of issues that Americans think are our biggest problems (that we discussed in the "Why Can't We Solve Anything" video.)

  • Where would you put these on the "intractability continuum"?  Are they very intractable?  Tractable (or resolvable)? Somewhere in the middle?  
  • What does that say about how we might approach these problems? (To discuss this question, please register to be a "read-write" contributor and add your thoughts to the second discussion topic on "Fostering Constructive Approaches to Difficult Conflicts.")

Full Transcript:

In this video I want to talk about what kind of conflicts we will be talking about in this seminar, or put another way, what are intractable conflicts and are they real? Well, we know they are real because we have been having an argument about that question for over 20 years! As we have been studying these conflicts, we have discovered that most scholars agree with our notion that some conflicts are intractable. They may call them different things – they may call them deep-rooted or protracted. A term that is getting more commonly used these days that is similar, is "wicked problems."  But everybody who is using these terms agrees--these problems exist.  They are real.

Some practitioners, on the other hand, argue that there are no such things as intractable conflicts. Some say there are intractable people; some say there is bad tradecraft, but they tend to think that the only reason that conflicts appear intractable is that they haven’t been handled properly. We don't agree.

We believe that conflicts are intractable when they lie at the frontier of the field, stubbornly eluding resolution, even when the best available techniques are applied.

Now keep in mind, when we say a conflict is intractable, it does NOT mean that it is impossible. It just means that we did not know how to deal with it effectively YET. Figuring out better ways to deal with these conflicts is the purpose of this seminar.

Another way to define intractable conflicts that we used for many years is suggested by this document called Best Practices for Government Agencies: Guidelines for Using Collaborative Agreement-Seeking Processes. This was written by an organization called SPIDR-- The Society For Professionals in Dispute Resolution--which now is called ACR or the Association of Conflict Resolution. This document, which was written in 1997. if I remember right, was about 30 pages long. About half of it talked about when you shouldn’t use collaborative agreement seeking processes because they won’t work. Our argument at the time was that that means they are intractable. We thought that somebody needed to start focusing on how to deal with those conflicts, rather than just finding better ways to deal with the easy ones.

A colleague of ours, Peter Coleman, wrote a book about seven years ago (I’m estimating there) called The Five Percent, dealing with intractable conflicts (he did use that term).He also called them “5% conflicts” because he claimed that 5% of all conflicts at all levels from interpersonal to international tend to become intractable. He defines intractable conflicts as ones that” have acute and lasting antagonism, resist mediation, defy conventional wisdom, drag on and on, worsening over time”. Once we are pulled in to 5% conflicts, Coleman says, “it is nearly impossible to escape. Intractable conflicts,” he says, “rule us.”

Another way to define them is by example. Now most of my students immediately think of Israel/Palestine, and indeed, that is an intractable conflict. So too are the civil war in Syria, the wars in Congo and Yemen, and lots of other international and civil wars currently raging around the world. Now we’re also looking at terrorism and non-state actors such as ISIS said Al Qaeda and Boka Haram. Unfortunately we just don’t know how to deal with these problems yet. We have ideas, but clearly, nothing has been working very well. So I would put those in the intractable category as well.

The Fund for Peace has  been running something for a long time that they used to call the Failed States Index. They now call it The Fragile State Index. The states at the top of the list of the ones that have already failed or are at high risk of doing so. The 2015 list has South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Sudan as the ones on “very high alert,” and Congo, Chad, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Guinea on” high alert.” (I find it sobering that Syria is number nine on the list!) These, too, are intractable conflicts.

One thing that’s getting a lot of press and has a lot of concern in the United States is gross inequality. We talk about the “1%” and plutocracy. This is a Bill Moyers show from 2012 and the situation hasn’t gotten any better. This is a big conflict in the United States and other places as well – who has the most money, who has the most power, who has the most influence, and what they do with it. It’s intractable.

We see both in the United States and in Europe the fracturing, to a large degree, of pretty established democracies. If we’re going to try to go around the world establishing democracies in other places, it would be good if we could show that our democracy works here first. But it isn’t working so well here in the United States. We shut down the government-- or come close to it--several times in the last few years because Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on how to fund it.  We’re having a big dispute this just starting now – I predict it will become intractable – about how and when and whether to replace Supreme Court Justice Scalia who recently died.

The European Union is under a lot of tension as well. It had been stressed already from widespread economic problems and the austerity measures implemented to correct them (which weren’t working). Now the Syrian refugees may well tear the EU apart. So fracturing democracies in the developed, democratic world are another intractable conflict issue.

Short of civil war is hatred, fear, and polarization. We have had a serious conflict recently over Planned Parenthood here in the United States. We had another serious (intractable) conflict involving violence on blacks by police. We have a presidential candidate in 2016 who, among other things, has espoused closing our borders to Muslims until we “figure out what’s going on.”  He and other candidates are also talking about trying to close our borders to immigrants from Central and South America. We also have plenty of homegrown hatred fear and polarization with the red-blue divide.

Lastly I would argue there is bad decision-making. A former colleague of ours, Kenneth Boulding, talked about the “law of political irony” which he defined as “everything you do to help people hurts them, and everything you do to hurt people helps them”. The Iraq war, Operation Iraqi Freedom, is one good example of this. We thought by getting rid of Saddam Hussein we would have been bringing the Iraqis freedom and peace. It didn't work out that way.  The austerity measures in Europe didn’t help stabilize their economies nearly as well as hoped (that’s what’s being protested in the picture on the lower left).

Another example within the United States – our penchant for cleanliness starting with dishwashers in the 50s and antibiotic soap in the 80s and 90s (and now) is apparently making us much more prone to getting sick because we haven’t developed antibodies we used to have and we’re creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, so we’re falling prey to diseases that we used pretty much have cured. All of this is caused because we been making bad decisions because we don’t understand how the system works-- and this is true in many other cases.

Why does this happen? Well I would argue it’s because we confuse simple problems with complicated problems and complicated problems with complex problems. We’re going to explain in future videos what the difference is there. Suffice it to say for now that when you assume that complex problems are simple you tend to make bad mistakes.

So once again I want to leave you with a question. When I teach intractability in face-to-face classes, I put a continuum on the board running from tractable on the left to intractable on the right. I note that intractability is not an either/or kind of thing—it’s a continuum. Look at the list of the major problems facing the United States that we talked about the “Why We Can’t Solve Anything” video and see where you would put those things on the continuum. What does that tell you about the nature of these conflicts? And what does that tell you about what we need to do to solve them? We will be talking about this a lot more. Right now it’s just something to think about.

Referenced Resources:

  1. SPIDR [Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution]: Best Practices for Government Agencies: Guidelines for Using Collaborative Agreement-Seeking Processes. Report and Recommendations of the SPIDR Environmental/Public Disputes Sector Critical Issues Committee. Adopted by the SPIDR Board January 1997.
  2. Peter Coleman: The Five Percent. Public Affairs. May, 2011.
  3. Fund for Peace: Fragile States Index.  Accessed at http://fsi.fundforpeace.org
  4. Moyers and Company: "Plutocracy Rising:" Aired on PBS Oct. 19, 2012.  Accessed at http://billmoyers.com/episode/plutocracy-rising/
  5. Gallup, "Most Important Problem" Retrieved 15 February, 2016 from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1675/most-important-problem.aspx

See Also:

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base has several articles on this topic.  See:

  1. "What Are Intractable Conflicts" by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
  2. "Nature of Intractability" by Louis Kriesberg
  3. "Characteristics of Intractable Conflicts" by Jacob Bercovitch

Photo and Graphic Credits

Slide 3: Birds: Creator: Chiltepinster. Permission: cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 4: Pasture:  Permission: CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use (No attribution required )

Slide 7: Collapsed Building. Creator: Voice of America News: Scott Bob report from Azaz, Syria. Permission: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Jeep. Permission: CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use No attribution required.  ISIS Flag. Creator: Almandillo. Permission: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 10: Government Shutdown. Creator: User:z22 (own work). Permission: cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.  Supreme Court. Creator: Mattpopovich (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  EU flag: By Ssolbergj (Own work) cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons. Red-blue-divide map : By Angr (self-made; base map is Image: Blank US Map.svg) Permission: cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 11: Jail abortionists: Creator: RevSpitz (Took picture). Permission: cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons
Black lives matter: By The All-Nite Images.  Permission: CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Planned parenthood: By CreatirL Neon Tommy. Permission: CC BY 2.0.  Immigration sign: By Makaristos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Trump: by Gage Skidmore cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons. Muslim girl: CC0 Public Domain Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

Slide 12:
Dishwasher: No machine-readable author provided. Piotrus assumed (based on copyright claims: cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons. Greek Protest (lower left pic) cc-by-sa3.0  via Wikimedia Commons. Troops: By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Brandan W. Schulze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Dishsoap by theimpulsivebuy CC BY 2.0