Conflict Assessment

Chester Crocker

Georgetown University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: That's an interesting point. Can you talk a little bit about the factors of a conflict that are most salient for a party to consider when that party's taking into account the possibility of an intervention?

A: In an intractable conflict?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, there are some pretty basic nostrums, I think. One of them is the Hippocratic Oath. In these intractable cases, they've already probably been made somewhat worse by poor tradecraft in the past. In other words, above all else, don't make things worse and think carefully about whether you are up to it, because this is serious business. It's not something where you mess around, and you shouldn't even consider getting engaged unless you have staying power, enough autonomy, and a clear enough mandate to be able to do something for a sustained period of time. Those are some basic benchmarks, I think. Staying power means a lot of things. It means an institutional base that will be with you. It means that you can get a mandate and you'll have the likelihood of support during the carrying out of your mandate. It means some degree of resources and people, because these things may require years.

I've actually answered this question in some length in a chapter that's coming out fairly soon in one of our two books of the Peace Institute, which we call Getting Started: What Are the Things to Ask Yourself, and they have to do with what I'm suggesting. They also have to do with a lot of analytical work to figure out what are the main obstacles? What are the main sources of intractability, not just the obstacles that were at the outset of the conflict, that you might look at as the outstanding issue, but to look beneath them to how has the intractability made this even harder to get at and what are the sources of the intractability? For example, you may find in a conflict there are ethnic or regional differences, and that that's the stated grievance or the stated dispute, but behind that you may find that essentially the armed entities are living on this conflict and it's their way of life. Anyone who comes in as a conflict manager or conflict revolutionist is basically threatening their way of life. You had better get serious if you want to try and influence people who are living in the war. By getting serious, you've got to address that obstacle somehow.

Q: In other words, people who are waging their conflicts have no interest in ending the conflict because that's their source of daily bread.

A: Daily bread, but also their identity. Who they are has been caught up in the conflict. The idea of ending the conflict would be a basic threat to their identity, their self image, maybe their power base, and maybe their role in the future of their country. Making peace is dangerous. It's very life threatening. It's not easy, that's one reason these conflicts are intractable. You know, there may be a difference between the top leadership elites, who literally live on the conflict, and their grunts, their troops. The way to deal with the troops is to offer them a better life. If you look at all the literature about reintegration of warring sides and the retraining of people to get them back inside a civilian economy somehow, and that takes serious work. As far as the elites are concerned, this is very tricky. You may need to reach out individually to people to figure out what can be done. There's an interesting program at Boston University for African former heads of state, which you may have heard about. It is an effort to treat former African leaders as patriots when they step down, to treat them with dignity, and to give them a chance to tell their stories, oral histories. There's sort of like a panel of eminent persons that's composed of these former wise men, former leaders, who can be made available to serving presidents as kind of a sounding board on issues. There's life after government, is the basic message. It's kind of interesting.

Q: Sounds a bit like a golden bridge constructed to allow the folks to step down without losing face.

A: Well, and to give them an idea of something to do, a period of reflection that is supported. Quite often the day after you lose power you have nothing, and so there isn't the kind of support networks that we're used to in advanced, Western countries. So that's an issue. There are lots of sources of intractability that we argue (my colleagues and I at the institute) that are distinct from the sources of the conflict itself.You need to address the intractability sources. This may have to do with, people living on conflict, but also have to do with poor tradecraft, or with the need to go beyond existing formulas that have just gotten shopworn and are not taken seriously anymore, because the literature of previous negotiations is the literature of failure.