Sunday, October 4, 2009

When Conflict Breaks the Box

In my previous blog entry, “The Rules of Conflict,” I identified the conflict resolution styles that are inside the box: smoothing, withdrawal, compromise, forcing, and negotiation. Sometimes, sadly, conflict breaks the bounds, and turns into war.

Not all war is violent. If you’ve ever been in a bad work situation, there’s war all around you, even if nobody’s getting killed. (Fired, maybe.)

But if you extend the “concern for my needs” line high enough, forcing can turn violent, and eventually becomes a war. War is an extreme form of conflict resolution, but it’s still part of the grid.

So, let’s define war. Why go to war? The first reason why people sometimes choose war (the violent or nonviolent kind) is that their perceived need is so overwhelmingly important that they must achieve it, no matter what the cost. Conflict avoidance isn’t an option, and withdrawal or surrender is morally repugnant.

What can possibly be that important? Well, perhaps the other side is committing genocide against my people, or invading my nation. Perhaps the other side is threatening my religion or my fundamental values or poses a long-term threat to the security and welfare of my nation. Here’s a list of common reasons offered by those who support any given war. Which reasons (or cases) do you think justifies war?

Traditional Reasons for Going to War

  1. We have been attacked militarily (Pearl Harbor).
  2. We have been violently attacked through a proxy force (9-11, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand).
  3. We believe we are in imminent danger of being attacked (the Cuban Missile Crisis).
  4. We believe there is a long-term military threat that will be substantially easier to eliminate at the present time (the suspected Iraqi WMDs, the Iranian nuclear program).
  5. We believe our national security interests are threatened (Vietnam).
  6. We believe our national economic interests are threatened (“gunboat diplomacy” in Central America).
  7. We believe our national economic or security interests can be advanced through military action (the creation of Panama, annexation of the Phillippines).
  8. We believe our moral, political, or religious ideals are at stake (supporting anticommunist forces in Nicaragua, stopping potential genocide in Kosovo, or any of the Crusades).
  9. We believe we are being subjected to intolerable pressures, laws, or demands. (Revolutions and revolts against existing power structures.)

No one agrees in all cases. Some people find no justification for war under any circumstances; others allow limited circumstances, opposing most but not all wars; still others set a threshold for military action at a much lower level.

Others agree on principles, but disagree on cases. The United States was born out of a Reason #9 scenario, but four score and seven years later opposed the Confederate states when they tried the same thing. Individual cases matter far more than general principles.

The reason for going to war matters, but it's not enough. Going to the extreme on the "forcing" axis doesn't make sense if other options remain. While smoothing/conflict avoidance and withdrawal/surrender are out, two other strategies remain: compromise and negotiation.

Is compromise possible? If we’re disputing ownership of territory, perhaps we can split the difference and both walk away with part of what we want. If the issue is genocide, compromising is much less of an option.

That leaves negotiation, the search for a win/win answer.

“Win/win” is an idea that sounds impractical, no matter how desirable it might be. How can both sides win? Harvard negotiation experts Roger Fisher and William Ury in their seminal work Getting to Yes tell the story of the two sisters fighting over the last orange. They decide to settle the argument by compromise, cutting the orange down the middle and each taking half. One sister is hungry. She peels her half, eats the fruit, and throws the peel away. The other sister, however, is baking. She takes her half, peels it, throws the fruit away and carries the peel into the kitchen to grate for her recipe.

Interests are different from positions. The position is what we’re asking for. (“I want the orange,” or “I want to eat Thai food.”) The interest, on the other hand, is why you want it. (“I need some grated orange peel,” or “I can’t eat fish.”)

You can’t negotiate positions. You get the orange, you don’t get the orange, or you cut it up and each take a piece. Interests, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily reciprocal. If you want the fruit and I want the peel, we can split the orange and each get 100 percent of what we want. If you want to buy something from me, you want my stuff more than you want to keep your money. I want your money more than I want to keep all my stuff. We both win. That's SideWise thinking.

Unfortunately, negotiation is more difficult when the parties don’t trust each other. In American politics, one side proposes something that sounds reasonable on the surface (a restriction on handgun ownership by felons, or providing vouchers that enable poor children to attend better schools), but the other side angrily rejects it as being a stalking horse for a hidden agenda (gun confiscation, the destruction of the public school system). Neither side believes the other is being honest about the goal, and negotiations that might possibly have produced good outcomes instead fail miserably.

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” Michael Corleone said (quoting his father) in The Godfather II. Most people interpret that as making sure you keep an eye on them. That’s not a bad reason, but it begs the question of why they should let you get close in the first place.

The real reason to keep your enemies close is to build the relationship. It may be unrealistic to think all war can be avoided, but certainly some wars can be. Settling issues short of extreme means is challenging, but it has been done before. Let's keep trying.

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