Friday, February 10, 2006

I am all about Conflict Resolution, Baby!

Bernard Mayer, in his book, The Dynamic of Conflict Resolution offers four factors to explain how individuals approach conflict: values and beliefs about conflict, approaches to avoiding and engaging in conflict, styles of conflict, and the roles people are drawn to play in conflict.

How can this framework for understanding the behavior of an individual be applied to the behavior of states?

I think the way the question for this discussion is phrased: “How can this framework (Mayer’s four factors for how individuals approach conflict) for understanding the behavior of individuals be applied to the behavior of states?” implies that the answer is not whether or not the framework is appropriate. To answer this question, we have to assume that the framework IS appropriate, so that we can respond to “how” it is appropriate.

To answer “how,” we must look at our possible responses. Is Mayer’s framework a useful descriptive tool to give observers the language to contemporaneously communicate the underpinnings of state to state conflict? Is the framework a useful historical tool into which the actions of main players in a past conflict can be readily slotted to provide lessons learned to illuminate current conflicts? Or is the framework a predictive tool upon which intelligence analysts can rely to give policy makers an indication of what course of action an potential adversary is likely to take? Given the first two chapters of Mayer’s book, the examples contained within and the realities of state to state conflict, the framework seems to be a tool more likely to be of value in retrospect.

Take the four parts of the framework: values and beliefs about conflict, approaches to avoiding and engaging in conflict, styles of conflict, and the roles people are drawn to play in conflict. “Values and beliefs” do not seem to be particularly useful, even in the historical context: as Mayer himself says on pg28: “Some people have set and unvarying beliefs about conflict. Others tend to values that can vary according to the conflict and its context.” States are the same way, sometimes they seem to act according to stated principles, sometimes they don’t. When will individuals or states stick to their values and beliefs, and when are these values and beliefs merely situational? According to Mayer, that depends on the context.

The “context” is shaped by the various players in the conflict, and by their approaches to avoiding or engaging in conflict. For individuals in conflict, their approach to engaging or avoiding can be gauged by tone of voice, tone of writing, body language, volume or first-hand reports from associates. Individuals can get a gut feeling about the frame of mind of their adversary based on actual sensations, and respond intuitively. Mayer emphasizes the personal component of conflict in the numerous examples he sites. In state to state conflict, these sensations are often lacking. Absent first hand impression, an action can be interpreted as passive avoidance, or as capitulation or as a manipulative trap. The enemy’s actions could be aggressive avoidance, or actual power-based aggression. Assigning a “conflict approach” to the actions of an adversary without actual intelligence is little better than a guess, and could in fact be worse than a guess. Once a leader of a country thinks he has divined his adversary’s approach, the leader’s course of action is laid out. But if he has guessed wrong, disaster awaits.

So, given the variables within variables inherent in using the Mayer framework to analyze the styles of conflict of states, is it nonetheless a useful tool? I would answer yes, with the caveat that it is useful when we are considering conflict between rational actors. If we are in conflict with a madman, or someone on drugs, the framework is not so good. The framework does servesto remind us that argument and conflict is not something that occurs in a vacuum, but in fact is the end result of the psychology, the stimuli and the pressures on individuals and states. The framework is a valuable basis to continue studies in state to state conflict, but I would not assign it much value beyond that