By James Adams
A United States so internally conflicted that intervention is required to save it from itself is something that probably few have contemplated beyond perhaps a small collection of Department of Defense and law enforcement analysts preoccupied with remote-scenario war gaming. What would an intervention look like in the United States? When would such a thing be called for? Who would carry it out? Is such a thing even thinkable?
Probably, such questions have been given little thought since the American Civil War – until lately.
“I have seen the consequences of caustic discourse, deep societal division, and the dehumanization of others that, when taken to their logical extreme, slice through families, societies, and nations, leaving destruction and decades of tragedy. Nationalistic and ethnic-racial passions are stirred to hatred and violence, and identities and circumstances are weaponized for political ends.
Such a path, if taken unrestrained, leads down the avenging-angel road to its logical extremes – civil strife, civil war, hundreds of thousands killed and maimed, and millions made internally displaced or refugees, plus the inevitable perpetuation of cycles of violence. Rule by mob is not a circumstance you want to find yourself in.” (Adams, XIV)
The two paragraphs just above are pulled from my one and only book (Analytic Reflections from Conflict Zones: A Cautionary tale for A Polarizing America and World) – A post-retirement memoir of sorts following many years of working in conflict zones overseas. The paragraphs were originally intended for discussion about serious conflict and international interventions in foreign lands. I did not expect to be quoting myself in connection with conflict and intervention in America in my rocking chair retirement years.
Analytic Reflections from Conflict Zones links the consequences of political polarization, extremism, and trends towards fascism (strong leader + propaganda + mobs) with similar patterns that I have witnessed in conflict and “post”-conflict zones overseas. The conceptual work of the book flows from an observation that I made to myself some time ago – The pressing problem now is what to do when a political settlement, and stabilization and reconstruction as we know it, are not enough to break a deep-rooted protracted conflict cycle. This essay addresses conflict and peacebuilding dynamics that fall somewhere along the war to sustainable positive peace continuum.
When I was recently asked to share my thoughts on polarization and extremism in America, my first thought was that it is not my area of expertise. My core specialization is explaining peace and stabilization operations and associated conflict and peacebuilding dynamics, presumably in foreign lands. But unfortunately, given the conflict dynamics in the United States these days, it seems prudent to include the USA on my list of countries of concern. I delayed the publication of my book to back track and add some commentary on what I see going on in the USA lately that concerns me – a possible future history of failed state status, or in any case, a possible failed democracy.
What I see happening now in America is the early-stage genesis of such a history in the making, if we continue on this course of increasing violence, broken discourse, extremism, and political and social polarization.
The implications for the United States – and the rest of the world – are profound. The United States, despite its historic place of democratic moral leadership and innovation, cannot claim exception to this destructive dynamic – therefore, my book, and this essay, emerge as a cautionary tale for an increasingly conflicted America and world. I think it is time for some conflict-consequences insight and reality-checking in the United States. The lessons to be learned are not new.
Partly, my motivation for writing the book goes back to reflection on a moment in time in Kosovo. I was working for the United Nations in Kosovo as a civil-affairs officer assigned to community-level minority issues and protection when a local citizen asked me why I worked in such places, meaning conflict zones. I replied, “It’s a job … and because I don’t want my country to have to need someone like me back home.” Meaning, among other things, that I worked
to address problems overseas so that they would remain overseas; so that my country would not need someone specializing in post-conflict reconstruction and civil-society building back home in the USA.
Generally, a humanitarian-relief operation and post-conflict reconstruction are intended to help bring about the normalization of life in the aftermath of war. The book was to be a simple reflection on my experience over the years in that line of work along with a conflict and peacebuilding frameworks section. A retirement note-to-file, so to speak, that would give my perspective on things, and convey some thoughts and opinions from others that I have encountered along the way.
The book still contains a memoir (of sorts) and experienced-based observations and frameworks; however, it also now contains a running commentary on some of the conflict patterns that I now see in the USA that remind me of similar patterns that I have seen in conflict zones elsewhere. It is a cautionary tale about the consequences of unchecked impulses toward prejudice, intolerance, hatred, and extremism in the USA. It is a cautionary tale for an increasingly polarized America – a hard-won model of democracy, now at risk.
Partially, my response to the matter of polarization and extremism in general was to personalize the book to appeal to a wide general readership – citizens as well as academics and professionals. I understand that this is not normal practice, but these are not normal times. Internet connected societies are subject to ever greater misinformation and disinformation influences that drive much of the political and societal fragmentation and extremism dynamics today (leadership included).
Essentially, I see a need to make better understanding conflict and peacebuilding more accessible – through personal human-level expression – in an effort help prevent our deteriorating national discourse from sliding into the worst manifestations of destructive conflict.
I suggest simplifying and promoting a common orientation (common language) between academics, professionals, and citizens for better mutual understanding of conflict and peacebuilding dynamics. I think that such an approach, combined with public awareness raising efforts at a wide cross-section of speaking venues, can contribute to changing the hostile tone of conflicted national discourse for the better. It can reach and inform audiences otherwise not exposed to informed conflict, peacebuilding, and human condition explanations.
I have developed a collection of composite frameworks and models intended to more readily clarify conflict and peacebuilding circumstances with my illustrated structural and relationship elements assessment scale, operationalized negative and positive peace parameters, and War to Sustainable Positive Peace Continuum indicating fundamental peacebuilding and conflict thresholds.
I developed a dedicated scaled survey to probe for specifics of a particular conflict, but the frameworks and models suffice to facilitate orientation and discussion of conflict and peacebuilding dynamics in general. The frameworks and models were designed for international stabilization and peacebuilding environment operations, but I believe that the same tools are useful for group, community, or societal level analysis.
A Broader Perspective / A Shared Awareness
I believe that a broader perspective is needed. It has become clear to me that the journey of individuals, groups, societies, and nations cannot be separated from humanity’s journey overall. It is one and the same journey, really. A great stream of collective bits and pieces of experience, emotions, and observations, past and present, that eventually, unavoidably, merge and speak of ancient repetitions by individuals and nations, of acts of kindness and wisdom, and acts of arrogance and foolish destruction.
In this greater stream, it is the dynamics of hatred, polarization, and emerging extremism in present-day America and elsewhere that concern me most – particularly the impulse for self-righteous indignation, a sense of superiority, and its primal holdover vengeance, from which all manner of vile forces emerge, seeking release and justification.
Extremism and polarization, which I see as stones on an avenging-angel road, can facilitate convenient blame and assuage the stings of perceived slights and wrongs, but it is laid with traps for the arrogant and overly prideful – even the innocent. At the end of that road lays the lonely ruin of individuals and the graveyard of empires. Nazi Germany took it to the bitter end. The global refugee movements and earnest efforts at genocide of the Second World War are evidence of this.
Grievance-based lashing out without actual evidence, or a basic understanding of conflict or peacebuilding dynamics, or a serious consideration of consequences will, most likely, lead to destruction and regret. This dynamic seems to apply whether the conflict is internal or across international borders. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to become a future case in point in this regard.
Concerning conflict in America: The world cannot afford to lose the hope and role model of democracy, of a free people, that the United States represents historically in the world, even with its numerous flaws. People living under the iron heel of authoritarian regimes around the world need the kind of hope and encouragement toward a free society that the United States has promoted in the past, despite some notable lapses in judgment as to support for certain dictatorships and an ill-chosen war or two.
Still, the torch of freedom needs American leadership. The torch of freedom needs the continued American practice of democracy and active support for basic civil and human rights as envisioned by our founding fathers in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, despite notable omissions, and the flaws of their own characters and time.
Never-the-less, the struggle of American democracy for respect for basic human dignity, and the civil and human rights of all, needs to be demonstrated. This effort that we have inherited from our forefathers and foremothers down to this day, despite their flaws and oversights, and despite our own very human flaws and clashes, must continue. It needs to be seen – for humanity’s sake, and for America’s sake.
I believe that a shared awareness of key conflict and peacebuilding fundamentals, and of extremism and polarization consequences, is needed among governmental and nongovernmental representatives (civilian and military) as well as the general public. A brief common language with an illustrated framework can more readily facilitate such awareness – literally, a common picture.
I expect that a shared awareness (beyond conventional mediation and expedient political settlements) will result in fewer misunderstandings and less frustration during normalization or reconciliation efforts, and reconstruction, if needed. Or at least that a shared informed awareness will encourage more functional working relationships by virtue of there being fewer uninformed people groping around in the dark, scaring each other. Better awareness by citizens about conflict and peacebuilding fundamentals also offers some immunity to divisive, bombastic rhetoric, and agendas.
In terms of perspective, after years of living and working in conflict zones and much academic/scholarly contemplation, an unembellished revelation came to mind – War is the road rage of humanity. I mean this to be taken literally. After a time, it occurred to me that even road rage (the tiny wars) and courteous driving are examples of the passions of war and peace, albeit on a non-lethal (usually) personalized scale.
As such, it has become clear to me that the elements and dynamics of conflict are similar whether at the individual, societal, or global level, given that human fundamentals are involved at all levels – emotions, perceptions, needs.
Reactionary deep-origin rage is about parts of humanity enduring injury and, in turn, striding the avenging-angel road – a road to hell if taken to its logical extreme - one paved with stones of arrogance, self-righteous indignation, and injury. It is also about magnificent moments of the human spirit and strong evidence for hope.
Given that conflict, regardless of location, has the commonality of human fundamentals. What applies in foreign lands, applies in America as well. Conflict elements impacting Ukraine currently have deep origins in historical traumas, lingering assumptions of imperial procurement prerogatives, and traditional realpolitik/geopolitical calculations.
In relatively recent years, this scenario has played out on a smaller-scale in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. American leaders and citizens would do well to heed the lessons available from the wars of the former Yugoslav republics – painful lessons still being taught.
The primary distinction now is that the conflict in Ukraine has serious potential to escalate across Europe and the dominant combatant, Russia, has major power status with nuclear weapons to brandish at those inclined to intervene. In any case, territorial procurement conflicts have much to say about who we are, previously and now, domestically and globally.
The shooting has started, so it’s too late to work-out a preventative strategy. It might even be too late to achieve a negative peace status (International intervention and suppression of violence) since the intervention force would likely be seen by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a combatant. Unless the dominant combatant relents, or Ukraine submits, the conflict(s) will play themselves out sooner or later.
An additional complicating factor is that Ukraine is now a test-bed for measuring the strength of autocratic governance impulses (Russia) versus the political-will-to-resist of open democracy-oriented societies (Ukraine and western nations), generally speaking. The United States cannot claim immunity to this kind of pressure either.
World War II was also a collision of resentments and ambitions driven by conflict entrepreneurs. This is a dangerous moment for humanity with many inclined to autocratic iron-fisted solutions for resolving conflict, and many inclined to collaborative relationship-improvement solutions to conflict.
It appears that the current Russia/Ukraine conflict is more of an autocratic impulse versus a genuinely representative governance impulse projected to a global scale. That is to say, opposing convictions are embedded within societies worldwide according to, primarily, autocratic impulses versus relationship-improvement impulses (negative peace versus positive peace oriented tendencies).
Therein lies an explanation as to why some people in democracy-oriented societies support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with ultranationalist versus liberal perspectives in the mix. A phenomena, it seems, at work in the USA also.
Conflict is pervasive. Like oxygen to the brain, it is necessary for clarifying things. Like fire, it can be used in constructive or destructive ways. Conflict is a fact of life. It is omnipresent nature – human, animal, and environmental. We need to aim for constructive conflict.
What is needed now are efforts by which to more readily assess and discuss circumstances from a more informed standpoint, a more civil standpoint, and to find a viable balance within constructive conflict (Kriesburg, 2016); Not total apathy, and not total war, which at either extreme indicates abandoned hope.
After a certain point working in conflict zones, I began to see that I am a participant in the conflicts that I have witnessed, and part of the solution, if I choose, regardless of scale. The book is also about that revelation and the ongoing process of understanding. It is a work in progress, as it seems we all are.
It seems that it takes generations to heal. Perhaps, a psychosocial educational and healing effort could be advanced concerning territorial procurement assumptions and generational harms done. There have been, and are, some efforts in this regard, but they are relatively small scale and underfunded.
Peacebuilding efforts can only go so far without some genuine understanding of the psychosocial dynamics underneath. Such an understanding on the part of interveners, and ultimately by conflict parties themselves, is essential to getting at chronic destructive forces underneath and dealing with barriers to the humanization of others. This kind of knowledge and effort is essential to understanding constructive conflict and human relationship-based positive peace.
Humanity is in need of balance. Our impulses are in need of balance. Ultimately, I’m talking about humanity’s search for balance. Conflict in Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the United States, although painful, is an opportunity to further that process.
A broader perspective is needed – on war, when things have already gotten out of hand, and on peace, which is often misunderstood and mislabeled. There are different levels of conflict and different kinds of peace. Distinctions between negative peace and positive peace need to be made so that authoritarian leadership cannot so easily pass off negative peace circumstances as real peace, or positive peace.
My intent is to help fractured societies better see the elements and dynamics of their conflict circumstances and peacebuilding possibilities, thereby being better able to move on with constructive discourse toward a functional working relationship with respective “enemies,” and the eventual normalization of relationships and conditions.
Examples of destructive conflict sentiments expressed in earlier conflicted eras and
places are most notably in association with the authoritarian and fascist movements in the years leading up to and during the Second World War that led to massive loss of life, destruction, and displacement.
Similarly, divisive ethnopolitical sentiments expressed and exploited during the breakup of the Yugoslav republics in the 1990s, echo the hate and blame rhetoric used earlier by Benito Mussolini. Mussolini, an admired authoritarian and fascist, pioneered modern fascism in Italy in the years prior to the Second World War – practices that were later adopted by one of his most ardent admirers, Adolf Hitler.
Sometimes, when I saw and heard President Trump, I saw and heard Mussolini and former President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. In other words, a style of leadership promoting blame, character assassination, exclusion, division, and coarser instincts, particularly toward
immigrants, minority groups, intellectuals, activists, and a free press. Such a practice does not lead to a good end.
Democracy is based on trust that truth is being held forth. There are differences in perceptions of truth, of course, but the deliberate purveyance of falsehoods for personal or political gain is reckless and dangerous at any level.
I don’t have all the answers to our human dilemmas. I’m not aware of any easy solutions to societies’ ills. What I can contribute are some experienced-derived illustrated frameworks, models, and recommendations that I believe can be helpful in efforts toward informed civil discourse. Some thoughts, I’ve already mentioned above. Others are listed below.
Who Would Manage An Intervention In the United States?
There is a large well-educated, well-trained body of professionals in the United States, with supporting institutions (governmental, civilian, and military), capable of managing the tasks of a large scale in-house intervention in the United States should it be necessary.
I think that an intervention task force from outside the United States is not needed and would probably be counterproductive. Ideally, sufficient preventative measures would be carried out precluding the need for a post-conflict intervention. There is time yet. The core task is to prevent a violent, total political and societal split.
Never-the-less, there is a conceptual distinction to be aware of regarding governmental and non-governmental decision makers (generally speaking); There is a kind of conceptual parallel universe regarding the interpretation of conflict transformation. Track One (governments) typically proceed according to political, structural/technical imperatives, followed in turn by strategy and policy development, followed by policy and planning implementation (planning and execution, if military).
Track Two+ (I am thinking of scholar-practitioners and social organizations) typically proceed according to relationship change imperatives conditioned by peer reviewed discourse, followed in turn by applied theory practice in the field by trained facilitators.
Different conceptualizations of conflict transformation imply different responses and possible cross-purposed actions. This can also mean an implementation void or implementation imbalance – essentially, this is a matter of structural/technical solutions versus relationship change.
Policy for the construction or reconstruction of transparent democratic institutions and systems (structural elements) is well understood and receives the predominate share of planning, funding, and resources. Generally speaking, policy and funding for relationship work is missing, and is a significant gap in the overall intervention picture.
The conceptualization of approaches, whether policy or theory derived, is a definable distinction between Track One and Track Two+ interventions, and perhaps a meeting ground between the two, as there is overlap.
Essentially, the distinctions I make for further research, theory, and practice are research oriented, and the distinctions regarding peace and stabilization interventions are policy and operations oriented. There is precious little time for operations oriented administrators and commanders to do sufficiently focused relationship work, and far too little time and resources are allotted to scholar practitioners to carry out meaningful relationship studies and relationship change facilitation.
In any case, all intervention actors would, hopefully, have an interest in, if not a stake, in knowing more about the approaches of their various intervention counterparts across governmental and non-governmental, and political and social divides.
Further Thoughts On Intervention
Other intervention factors to be aware of: Peace and stabilization operations usually achieve negative-peace status – in essence, a negotiated political settlement and cessation or suppression of overt hostilities. But, despite intense diplomatic and reconstruction efforts, they often stall without creating positive peace (Adams, 2014).
In this context, an international peace and stabilization intervention presence holds open warfare or violent civil disorder in check and engages in a variety of reconstruction and civil society building projects, but conflict party sentiments that precipitated the intervention are still in place and remain largely unchanged.
In essence, the framework and composite models draw a picture of key conflict and peacebuilding elements, dynamics, and thresholds that are tangible for all to see and discuss. This is particularly useful for those who are new to fieldwork or not familiar with peace and stabilization intervention environments. It is also useful in aiding informed discussions for conflict parties who are focused on conflict circumstances, but without the benefit of a broader context or conceptual perspective.
I believe that it is reasonable to assume that key decision makers and officials, who are briefed on the status of particular elements and context dynamics utilizing the framework and models discussed in this essay, would be more fully informed and more readily able to discern which actions to take.
Invoking the term “reconciliation” right up front as the stated objective of a meeting or conference can immediately provoke deeply embedded anger, emotions, and a strong resistant stance. I recommend characterizing an otherwise dialogue or reconciliation-intended encounter as an effort toward improving working relationships or perhaps as a facilitated problem-solving effort. This would offer conflicted communities space more conducive to organically, naturally timed mutual acceptance and joint project development experiences.
The following are my evidenced-based observations concerning interventions:
- The status of structural and relationship elements of conflict transformation can be discerned and in inferred association with negative and positive-peace parameters.
- Structural violence is suggested in the status of structural elements.
- Positive peace-oriented measures alone are often not sufficient to ensure sustainable positive peace.
- Negative peace-oriented measures alone can ensure sustainable negative peace until the inevitable violent reaction, or until combined negative and positive-peace measures can push the overall status of structural and relationship elements past fragile peace, viable-peace, and sustainable positive peace thresholds, respectively.
The perception-derived statistics from my Bosnia survey might or might not be precisely accurate. Nevertheless, in my opinion, perceptions matter because they drive conflicts. In my analysis, I posed the question of whether structural and relationship elements can be identified in relation to specific operational tasks such as diplomacy, security, political tasks, economic and institutional reconstruction, and civil-society building.
I believe that the question can be answered – Yes, they can; at least indirectly, within these five basic operational sectors: Good Governance, Security, Rule-of-Law, Legitimate Economy, and Social Wellbeing. Essentially, the same answer applies to the identification of operational tasks in relation to negative and positive peace.
The distinction is that relationship elements and positive peace-oriented measures are more narrowly focused on personal, group, community, or societal relationship improvement and common values identification. Mutually beneficial values identification and actions are anticipated outcomes.
Based on my survey administered in personal interviews in Bosnia and Herzegovina, of those who suffered significant personal losses, the great majority believe that work on improving relationships between ethnicities needed to be done first in order for structural or institutional reconstruction tasks to succeed.
Negative peace-oriented measures tend to involve coercion, and structural/institutional projects typically proceed whether relationship improvement or consciousness-shifting/attitude change is expected or not. Nevertheless, conflict transformation constitutes two sides of the same intervention coin.
There is no overriding reason, beyond a political one, that relationship focused activities cannot be carried out within diplomatic, security, political, economic, and institutional reconstruction contexts, as well as in more traditionally relationship-oriented civil-society peacebuilding.
Essentially, this requires awareness raising on the part of intervenors and conflict parties regarding the dynamics and processes involved and the expected benefits. In my opinion, negative and positive peace-oriented measures can and should, when possible, proceed simultaneously and in concert for optimal progress wherever security conditions allow.
There is a historical perspective involved here, and a human perspective, a meeting of realism and idealism – what I refer to as “human realism.” It is a useful meeting place, I think, for engaging a common-ground discussion about changing things for the better in stressed times.
There is no taming civilizational crises, or international terrorism, or riotous nature by going it alone. This can only be done through a basic display of respect at a human level, and collective effort. I argue for a judicious balance of negative and positive-peace initiatives, which is only possible through the development of common understandings. I believe that the insights and frameworks that I have acquired from others, and those of my own that I have developed, and field tested, contribute to clarity.
Sometimes, humanity’s journey, America’s journey, is a search for redemption and happiness. Sometimes it is a reach for revenge. But it is always a search for balance. Peace guaranteed by the hammer alone (negative peace), or by mutually assured destruction, or by futile isolation, is no longer a viable bet, domestically or internationally.
Realism (negative peace), although often a protector and a sometimes necessary short-term measure, is often of little use in creating anything beyond itself – think most international stabilization interventions, negotiated political settlements, military operations, and most law-enforcement approaches (Adams, 2014). Idealism, although often empathetic, creative, and visionary, is, in the usual sense, too often naive and ineffective
Either approach, if to the exclusion of one from the other, often enough leaves wreckage in its wake. So, I argue for humanizing realism, bracing idealism, and making conflict transformation transparent – in essence, find the equilibrium in our midst, draw the picture, and tell the story of constructive conflict. In other words, think in terms of human realism.
Human realism is acknowledgement of humanity’s dual capacity for constructive and destructive interaction. It is full awareness, not just realism, and not just idealism. It suggests insight, deliberate pause, and a tendency toward more balanced encounters. Choice. Deliberate mutual awareness. Mutual acceptance. And perhaps, mutual redemption.
I define human realism as the proven capacity of humanity to deliberately engage in inconsiderate, competitive, selfish, win/lose acts at others’ expense for the personal gain of wealth, resources, territory, power, prestige, or survival. The term also encompasses the proven capacity of humanity to deliberately engage in considerate, more collaborative, constructive processes to understand, to change, to overlook or forgive, and to engage in a more meaningful dialogue for managing and resolving differences.
This seems to be the conceptual crux: the control of violence with a focus on fundamental relationship and attitudinal change (narrative change), or control of violence through political settlement, law enforcement, and economic and structural/institutional change. What remains is the matter of how to get it done, and with what degree of expediency and balance, and how to maintain that state of affairs. What is clear at this point is that policy for relationship work is generally missing from diplomatic and governmental management of stabilization and peacebuilding interventions.
In practical terms, time-sensitive political, security, and funding requirements call for enforcement expediency (minimalist negative-peace measures), whereas deeper relationship work, which seems to take more time, only comes when that option is prioritized, if considered at all (maximalist positive-peace measures).
The question then is which intervention outcome – negative peace or positive peace (or a combination thereof) – must actually be achieved for a declaration of sustainable positive peace, or a mission-accomplished status. This is a matter of one’s conception of conflict transformation, and therefore success.
For the most part, military and civilian peace and stabilization operation decision makers have been trained in nation-state adversarial, competitive systems and disciplines such as political science, diplomacy, international relations, law, military studies, and management. These areas of expertise are crucial in analyzing many issues of concern. However, given the current strong resistance of intra-state conflict (roughly 9 out of 10 conflicts in recent decades) to traditional nation-state protocols, additional perspectives and protocols are needed.
In response to this growing problem, former Track One diplomats, civilians, scholar-practitioners, and some military officers, have been working steadily on trying to better understand the nature of this resistance and what can be done about it. Consequently, within the past roughly thirty years the field of conflict resolution (a term generally encompassing conflict analysis, prevention, management, settlement, and transformation) has been brought into existence to study the problem.
I built my comprehensive multilevel framework (CMF) on that foundation to aid in the analysis and identification of viable intervention measures for stabilization and peacebuilding. I believe that, with minimal adaptation, my framework and models can be used for analyzing smaller or larger-scale conflicts and interventions.
The idea is to have on hand additional tools by which someone trained in conflict analysis and resolution theory and practice can efficiently analyze a situation and project needed responses from a more informed standpoint, and brief decision makers, staff, and conflict parties accordingly.
On a practical note, any measures that can help clarify matters will ease stresses on all concerned who are subject to very tight timelines, limited resources, and sometimes literal agitation at the gates. Such an orientation is helpful in understanding issues or events coming from “out of nowhere” that are simply interactions between levels, or otherwise predictable outcomes.
Political and social polarization and extremism is driving an upward trend of violence in America. Greater familiarity with violence processes (individual, community, and societal) is needed as well as more realistic and effective intervention analyses, strategies, and mechanisms for its mitigation.
Athens’s theory of violentization has clear implications for accounting for violence processes at individual, community, and societal levels (Athens, Lonnie, and J. Ulmer, 2003). I believe that promulgating Athens’s understanding of violentization would improve the odds for interrupting violentization processes in a peace and stabilization operation environment – in effect, a violentization-process awareness-raising element within an overall conflict and peacebuilding dynamics awareness raising campaign.
Regarding Dialogues and Mediation
In my time the field, I found that there were numerous fact-finding and planning meetings, and numerous negotiation and mediation conferences. There were, however, few genuine dialogues, facilitated or otherwise, between conflicted communities or leadership. The following actual scenario is reflective of intervention approaches used in the field.
“There will be no talk here about anything controversial.” That statement by a KFOR colonel at an interethnic community meeting that I witnessed shortly after I arrived in Kosovo reflects the style of mediation or discussion facilitation typically used by UNMIK and KFOR officials in Kosovo; that is to say, a traditional diplomatic, political, or arbitration directed approach. Some referred to it as a dialogue, but it was not a dialogue at all.
The purpose of the meeting was to address the lack of cooperation on municipal governance matters between Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Albanian refugees who had returned to their hometown – the same hometown – which traditionally had a Serb majority. At the center of the confrontations was Kosovo-Serb insistence on flying the national flag of Serbia in front of the municipal building, and Kosovo-Albanian insistence on flying the national flag of Albania. The population of Kosovo is roughly 90% Kosovo-Albanian and 9% Kosovo-Serb with a very small number of other minorities.
Fundamentally, the problem was deep ethnic hostilities and mistrust and the inability to develop a shared understanding of how to move forward for mutual benefit. Concerning interventions in general, Harold Saunders, a retired American diplomat turned conflict-resolution scholar, argues that a different kind of process is needed:
“Relationships across borders today are facts of life. We cannot ignore them. If we look at these relationships in the context of changes in how nations interact, we may see not only the dangers of improper intervention; we may see that some cross-border interaction can offer opportunities for peaceful change with full respect for others. A sensible approach today might be neither to denounce this interaction nor to apply the principle of nonintervention in internal affairs in pure and rigid ways, but to build relationships in which mutual respect might keep that interaction within limits that define and protect the integrity of each party. Understanding the interaction more fully might even suggest imaginative approaches to common problems in an interdependent world.” (Saunders, Harold, 1999, 155)
The KFOR colonel’s approach mentioned above was to impose a decision, much as an arbitrator or judge might – fly a United Nations flag, or no flag. No confrontational discussion was allowed, nor the suggestion of a deeper ongoing dialogue, so there was no opportunity for people to air their underlying perspectives, grievances, or emotions in a safe environment.
In effect, a town cold war was established; a negative peace, without anticipation of a transition to a process for collaboratively working out problems. I believe that such a perspective applies to inter-community as well as international interactions, whether across a border, or across the street. Whether in a foreign war zone, or in America.
Generally, true dialogue facilitation, as opposed to assisted negotiations
(mediation), were not attempted in Kosovo by UNMIK or KFOR officials. I understand the necessity for an imposed decision during an interim political status, but the blockage of all confrontational discussion precluded the legitimate airing of perspectives and grievances, and the development of genuine dialogue. It precluded trust-building and joint, mutual problem-solving experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
An outside order to adversaries to cooperate with each other is usually not productive but does encourage the perpetuation of shouting the same position demands. It leaves little room for creative exploration. Sole reliance on an imposed, coercive, negative-peace approach is of little use in creating anything beyond itself.
From my perspective, it was a missed opportunity for facilitating experiences of constructive relationship building and mutual problem solving, or for establishing the possibility of better interethnic relations and cooperation. Or, as might be applied in an American conflict scenario, a civil discussion across ideological or cultural divides.
Related to the topic of dialogues is mediation (a facilitated negotiation). Why do many negotiations (mediated or otherwise) fail? The nature of position-based negotiation (win/lose bargaining) of non-negotiable cultural, security, religious, and identity needs and values by conflict parties is fundamentally a futile exercise (Burton 1990; 1997).
It accounts for much of the perpetuation of intractable conflict cycles despite enormous political and financial resources and/or pressures (coercive mediation, mediation with muscle) – Coercive mediation being the case when mediators have a strong vested interest in the negotiated outcome, and the capacity to apply significant pressure (Fisher 1997, 165).
Considering the non-negotiable nature of many basic human values and needs, alternatives to position-based negotiation and mediation is needed. It is in this context that sustained dialogues and other positive peace oriented approaches are of particular use; the key distinction being that positive-peace approaches are aimed at changing the underlying assumptions, perceptions, and dysfunctional relationships that drive conflicts.
The lack of fora for sustained collaborative civil dialogues is a problem associated with heavy reliance on negative peace approaches. And, there are potent forces of greed, corruption, power plays, ambition, hatred, indifference, and even deliberate malicious intent by conflict entrepreneurs in chronic conflict zones. The likelihood of coerced or purchased peace settlements lasting very long is not good. Nevertheless, there is hope.
Saunders’s sustained-dialogue model captures the essence of interactive mutual problem-solving approaches aimed at working on fundamental issues and relationships – not simply getting a political deal (which is often tenuous, at best). The sustained-dialogue model also complements peacebuilding tasks of civil-society capacity building and institutional reconstruction at different levels. Ideally, conflict parties could avoid the destructive interaction stage entirely.
Recommended Follow-Up Tasks
The following measures are proposed and intended to contribute to improving the odds for addressing the problem of interventions stalled in negative peace – wherever the conflict and needed intervention might be (Adams, 2021, 248):
(1) Directly field test the War to Sustainable Positive Peace Continuum model in Bosnia, or elsewhere. This would have intervenors and conflict party citizens record their perceptions as to the status of various structural and relationship elements directly onto the scaled continuum model in an attempt to establish survey statistical significance and an a priori statistical basis for it.
(2) Carry out in-depth statistical analyses of existing and future data collected.
Note: having subjects place their estimates of structural and relationship elements directly onto the War to Sustainable Positive Peace Continuum, however, would probably limit the subject base to those who are literate. As indicated earlier, this is not an issue for Bosnia since the literacy rate is high (ninety-eight percent). In low-literacy intervention areas, an option would be for the interviewer to place the interviewee’s verbally stated response onto the scale for them.
(3) Pursue mutual-victim and mutual-offender restorative justice concepts.
(4) Follow up on the application of constructive-conflict public-peace processes.
(5) Establish Dialogue Support Units in peace and stabilization intervention environments for eventual transfer to local management.
(6) Advance and promulgate Athens’s explanation of violentization processes.
(7) Establish a pilot project for testing and refining the comprehensive multilevel framework, the Structural and Relationship Elements Status Scales, and the War to Sustainable Positive Peace Continuum model as analysis and briefing tools.
(8) Research and apply the principles and models in the book toward utilization in law-enforcement reform approaches and community building scenarios.
(9) Establish on-site conflict transformation advisors to work hand-in hand with local governmental and social organization representatives and staff for civil and human rights training and transparency.
Such a human-realism approach, I believe, provides crucial missing pieces of clarity. The combination of graphic tools, perspective, and on-site support is designed to improve the odds for reaching a judicious balance of negative and positive-peace initiatives, and realism and idealism imperatives when responding to conflict.
I believe that a human-realism approach is readily adaptable to societal, community, and group conflict-transformation circumstances, given that human behavior fundamentals are involved at all levels. The insights and capacity provided are needed for improving our understanding of conflict, and changing the toxic tone of discourse around differing perspectives. I believe that such a profoundly human approach is a needed missing piece in today’s local, societal, national, and global environments.
I hope that my note-to-humanity is helpful. I have confidence that humanity will continue to self-correct toward decency, civility, and compassionate justice, although it will take ever-present vigilance, awareness raising, wise leadership, and patience.
Humanity, in general, is no longer living in the near absolute darkness of mind and heart of previous ages. That threshold has been crossed. If I were to take a survey of humanity, it appears to me that, as a whole, we have crossed the viable peace threshold (Where the performance of legitimate institutions overtakes the drivers of conflict), (Covey, Dziedzic, and Hawley, 2005).
We are in a fragile peace. We still need assisted stability.
I add this notion to the definition of viable peace (When the impulse of individuals and societies to engage in collaborative conflict transformation overtakes the drivers of conflict).
Viable peace is where positive-peace initiatives are born. This offers the promise of a sustainable positive peace beyond the next threshold. I suggested earlier that informed negative and positive-peace initiatives should be used prudently whenever and wherever possible in a conflict zone. I make the same suggestion regarding a supposed intervention in the United States.
The War to Sustainable Positive Peace Continuum is something we can see and understand. I suggest we use it. We, humanity, can help pull each other from self-destructive ways by focusing on what we want our world to be.
A word of caution here to those eager to divide. A few proud politicians and citizens have recently called for the secession of Texas and Georgia from the United States. They should very carefully consider the hard lessons about divisiveness learned from the Yugoslav wars and earlier fascist eras. How will the status of a Texan or Georgian be decided, and who decides? Ethnicity, race, and ideological firestorms burn everyone for a very, very long time. It is a sure path to the pain and destruction that awaits along the avenging-angel road.
There is no doubt, from what I have seen, that ever-increasing divisions only bring further pain and destruction. Is that what we want for those generations who come after us? For our children?
A caution to anarchists, extremists, or want-to-be fascists eager for a fight, eager to burn something. Whether an avenging angel fire is lit, literally, by someone on the extreme left or the extreme right doesn’t seem to matter much. Everything burns.
Oops! War again.
Violence rarely warms the heart or wins minds. As my Mama once told me: “You can’t keep hitting someone over the head with a hammer and get them to like it.” Perhaps it satisfies an impulse to rage on the highway or start a war, but it is dangerous. Perhaps it can satisfy self-righteous indignation, but, in the end, everyone gets burned.
To be clear, I have no objection to self-defense. The protection of one’s own is essential. Finding equilibrium in a polarizing America and world is a different effort. It is a different perspective. I suggest a human-realism perspective. I suggest acknowledging the virtue and vice in each of us and finding the equilibrium. I think that it is a matter of dialogue, of communication, of listening. I suggest civil dialogue. In the home. In our communities. In our nation. In our humanity.
I don’t mean “no shouting allowed.” Call it “civil shouting,” if necessary. But shouting that allows listening – or, perhaps better put, passion that allows listening. Passion that allows seeing. Passion that allows change. Passion that allows understanding for all concerned.
Fundamentally, self-sustaining peace – of the positive kind – is the ultimate challenge and needed future of conflict discussion. In the end, an American intervention story, is a part of humanity’s journey and humanity’s continuing search for balance – in freedoms, in dignity, in civility, in fairness.
I hope that my thoughts and suggestions are helpful in sorting out what is going on – and contribute toward a more helpful way of looking at conflict, and a more constructive way of communicating with each other in our personal, national, and global discourse.
Adams, James (2021). Analytic Reflections from Conflict Zones: A Cautionary tale for A Polarizing America and World, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.
Adams, James (September 12, 2014). Bosnia: Stabilization Stalled in Negative Peace, in Alliance for Peacebuilding Forum, Latest Insights Section, Washington DC; Republished in TransConflict, October 27, 2014, London.
Athens, Lonnie, and J. Ulmer (2003). Violent Acts and Violentization: Assessing, Applying, and Developing Lonnie Athens’ Theories, in Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, vol 4. JAI, New York.
Burton, John W. (1990). Conflict: Human Needs Theory, Macmillan, London.
Covey, Jock, Michael J. Dziedzic, and Leonard Hawley (2005). The Quest for Viable Peace: International Intervention and Strategies for Conflict Transformation, US Institute of Peace, Washington, DC.
Fisher, Ronald J. (1997). Interactive Conflict Resolution, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.
Kriesburg, Louis, (2016, 5th edition). Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, Rowman and Littlefield, New York.
Saunders, Harold (1999). A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts, St. Martin’s Press, New York.