PEACE in Action

Conflict Resolution as a Political System

Font Size:

Promoting International Peace
Conflict Resolution as a Political System

The following is excerpted from Working Paper I, title as above, February 1988, Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030, USA. It was published in PEACE in Action in February 1989. If political leaders would take the message to heart, it would lead us toward conflict prevention.

The practice of “conflict resolution” as defined herein can be used to produce major positive changes in political, social, and economic systems.

Conflict resolution means terminating conflict with an outcome that, in the view of the parties involved, is a permanent solution to the problem. Conflict resolution, as opposed to conflict “management” or “settlement,” requires methods that get to the root of problems and, therefore, are highly analytical.

Conflict resolution has the capability of dealing with all forms of conflict at all social levels from the impersonal to the international. This capability extends to conflicts which are complex, intense, and violent – it is here that conflict resolution demonstrates its unique usefulness.

Let us examine the nature of conflict, for one's theory of human conflict determines the manner in which individual conflicts are handled.

One long-standing notion is that conflict originates in the “natural aggressiveness” of humans. This “natural aggressiveness,” however, is little more than a label. It reflects an attitude that attributes conflict to instinct, immorality, or deliberate anti-social behavior, thus justifying its repression. This “theory” cannot explain historically how persons become anti-social so it cannot, therefore, suggest remedies.[1]

Another view maintains that conflict is inevitable because of the need to compete for scarce resources. This Malthusian notion presupposes an incurably acquisitive person little different from the “naturally aggressive” individual. It grossly underestimates both society's productive capacity and the individual's ability to share. The approach to the nature of conflict and its resolution defined herein is based on a more positive view of human beings. It assumes that participants in conflict situations are struggling to satisfy universal needs and values, such as security, identity, recognition, and development. They strive increasingly to gain control of their environment in order to ensure the satisfaction of these needs.

Values and human needs of a universal nature are not for trading. Sufficient coercion on the one side and the lack of bargaining power on the other can sometimes lead to a temporary suppression of such demands and to what is often labeled the “settlement” of a dispute, but not to its full resolution.

The relationship between unsatisfied basic needs and human conflict is a recent and important discovery. It undermines many basic assumptions in Western political philosophy, e.g., that the individual can be socialized into behaviors required by elite norms, and that the social self is the only self which is important. It suggests that deep-rooted conflict cannot be dealt with by conventional mediation, arbitration, and other implicitly coercive and non- analytical processes.

The new perspective on conflict resolution is far from “utopian.” The political reality is that unless these universal needs are met, no system can be stable. It is not the policy of coercion that creates political reality; rather, it is the drive by individuals and identity groups for their independent development.

The need for independence, which gives identity, recognition, and opportunities for indigenous development, is at the root of conflicts in Central America and the Middle East. It also engenders numerous other violent disputes in world society, not to mention the vast number of smaller conflicts which are daily occurrences in every society.

The practice of conflict resolution via an analytical, problem-solving procedure is deduced from the theory that conflict is a universal response to frustrated needs. The practice involves providing opportunities for the parties to:

  1. analyze relationships so as to generate an accurate definition of the problem in terms of basic/fundamental motivations and human needs;
  2. cost their goals and policies once they are fully informed of all aspects of the dispute, including the fundamental motivations and values of the opposing side; and
  3. discover possible options that may be available once there has been a full analysis of the conflict in all its aspects. [2]

This broad conception of conflict and of conflict resolution through analytical problem solving implies that a wide range of current social problems are resolvable. Deviant behavior of all kinds, drug addictions and their related problems, street violence, spouse abuse, terrorism, and arms control are all problems which can be thoroughly dealt with by conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution as defined herein (i.e., through analytical problem solving) has the potential to take the place of courts and power-based bargaining. Conceivably, it could also deal with many problems of distribution of roles and resources. Insofar as conflict analysis and resolution results in alterations in institutions and norms, thereby becoming a major influence for adjustment and change, it becomes a system of decision making.

When conflict analysis and resolution is substituted for authoritative decision making, it effectively becomes the basis of a political system in which analytical problem solving processes are substituted for elite rule, legal norms and power politics. Conflict resolution, therefore, has to be treated conceptually as an alternative political system.

Conflict analysis and resolution is designed to satisfy basic individual needs while accommodating all forms of government to the reality of individual power. While legal processes are coercive and prohibitive, conflict analysis and resolution processes are positive, non-authoritarian means of social control which seek to establish non-conflictive relationships

The process of social control by power and elite rule has existed throughout most times and cultures. What we are witnessing in contemporary times is the breakdown of this system. Conflict is increasing at all social levels, from interpersonal to international, as individuals resist the attempt by elitists to control their behavior.

There has been an intensifying struggle in modern times to preserve societies by finding an institutional accommodation between the individual and the society. Through all changes in philosophy and practice has run a consistent theme: the individual must be governed by elites who know best, such as philosophers or priests; by elites with power; and by elites guided by an articulated theology. These elites have attached more importance to the control than to the development of the individual.

Has the problem of conflict really been the aggressive individual from whom society must be defended? Or has the problem been the continuing threat to individual development posed by elites and associated interest groups throughout the evolution of modern societies? Conflict analysis and resolution locates the source of deep-rooted conflict within societies and between nations in the attempts by elites of various kinds to repress the irrepressible needs of individuals. The core assumption of this new political philosophy and practice is that existing institutions are and should be the servants of individuals.

Systems of free enterprise, socialism, communism, and communalism all confront problems that threaten their legitimacy. All have been considered ends in themselves – systems to be preserved as they are, rather than adapted to the needs of those on whom their legitimacy ultimately depends. They are systems in which relationships between authorities and subjects, between the privileged and the underprivileged, and among persons and groups have been determined institutionally, by coercion if necessary, and not by the values and needs of their constituencies.

The immediate task, thus, is to deal with these problems in relationships within whatever system prevails, be it free enterprise, centralized planning, or some other. Conflict analysis and resolution is the process that can deal with these problems in all social-political systems.

As systems based on coercive power decay, problem-solving processes are altering the norms of political systems. Conflict analysis and resolution highlights the costs of ignoring the nature of human relationships and suggests the changes that are required to ensure that institutions are the servant of citizens and not their masters.

Whereas legal processes strongly tend to conserve existing norms and institutions, problem- solving conflict analysis and resolution is innovative by nature. It constantly promotes change, but in the direction of satisfying the values and needs of all members of society.

Any system based on conflict analysis and resolution is one of constant adaptation to changing environmental conditions. It is conservative, in the sense that it preserves those aspects of societies that serve human needs and social stability; it is radical, in the sense that it alters those which frustrate human needs and promote instability.

Problem-solving conflict analysis and resolution is a system which allows members of a society to interact in harmony by constantly and continuously dealing with the totality of the relationships in the total environment, and adapting in whatever ways are appropriate.

It is in this sense that conflict analysis and resolution represents a political philosophy; its processes reach down to the motivations and values of those in dispute. Its processes spawn consensus-building and conflict prevention within the society.

Because conflict analysis and resolution may be a component of any system, and at the same time a means of change, it has the potential of bringing otherwise competing systems into harmony. It has the potential to link person to person, group to group, and system to system.


  1. ^ See PEACE in Action, March 1988, p. 17 for a refutation of the natural aggressiveness theory by a group of scientists (Seville Statement on Violence, May 1986).
  2. ^ For a detailed description of conflict analysis and resolution processes, see Resolving Deep-Rooted Conflict: a Handbook, by John W. Burton, University Press of America (Lanham, New York & London), 1987. It is also available from the Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, 3330 N. Washington Blvd. “Truland Bldg”, Arlington, VA, 22201, USA.

Dr. John W. Burton was, at the time of the initial publication of this article, a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and Distinguished Fellow for 1988-89 with the U.S. Institute of Peace. His career at that time included Head of the Australian Foreign Office, teaching at the University of London, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Conflict in London, and Director of the Conflict Resolution Project of the Center for International Development at the University of Maryland, USA.

At the time of this article, Dr. Burton was the author of 15 books, many of which broke new ground in the path to Conflict Analysis and Resolution – and Prevention. Subsequent to this article, he published: Conflict: Resolution and Prevention; Conflict: Human Needs Theory; Conflict: Readings in Resolution and Management; and Conflict: Practices in Management, Settlement, and Resolution, St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, 1990.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional