The Intractable Conflict Challenge

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

We believe that society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, infectious disease, or any of today's other big social, political, economic, and environmental challenges. In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it so difficult for us to effectively meet these other challenges.

The roiling Middle East offers but one terrifying example of how bad things can get when societies collapse into wars of “all against all.”  Also deeply disturbing is the degree to which the United States, and many of the world’s other developed democracies, are fragmenting into hostile factions that seem increasingly unable to work together to define, let alone advance, “the common good.”

Society's chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict constitutes as serious a threat to human welfare as climate change.

Those working in conflict and peace-related fields have an obligation, we think, to promote greater public awareness of both the seriousness and the pervasiveness of what we call the “intractable conflict problem.” We also need to help people understand that there ARE realistic steps that can be taken – by “ordinary people," as well as conflict resolution experts and decision makers – over both the short- and long-term, to address these conflicts more constructively.

As is the case with climate change, there is an urgent need to intensify our efforts to deal with this problem. Yet the amount of effort currently being focused on improving the way in which we handle conflict (as opposed to playing the same old destructive conflict games) is infinitesimal when compared with the amount of attention being given to climate change or many other social, economic, and political problems which are at their core--conflict problems.

We must find ways to raise the profile of the intractable conflict problem and greatly increase the number of people with the motivation, knowledge, and resources needed to address it effectively. To do this, we have to be willing to tackle the tough problems that lie at the frontier of the peace and conflict field. We must go beyond “business-as-usual,” table-oriented resolution strategies that work well for simpler, smaller-scale conflicts, but are simply not up to the task when presented with society-wide, complex, and intractable conflicts.

The MOOS project is our effort to help us do that.