Conflicts around the world from the unfathomable against the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Brexit dispute are highlighted in the news and rightly so. But these are a small number of conflicts people around the world are mired in.
As conflict breaks, news organizations check them against their criteria for newsworthy events and against its editorial-line, bottom-line, and redlines. Only those that make the cut become headlines.
Death, destruction, kidnapping, revenge, punishment, political deadlock, diplomatic impasse, and the quest for justice within the courts or in extrajudicial fashion are some of the manifestations of conflict we typical read about in the news.
Yet, conflict takes many more forms. Human interactions are a constant exercise in conflict resolution negotiations from ones’ relations with employers or employees to the exchange of money for goods or services to interactions within one’s family, friends, and society.
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The dynamic nature of our existence offers plenty of opportunity for agreements and potential conflict. The inability to reach a satisfactory outcome typically results in conflict prompting a search for alternatives. Negotiating a compromise, coming up with alternative goals, and reframing/redefining sought after outcomes are tactics we utilize every day.
Negotiations over basic needs of existence and rights require similar tactics, but with a real need for a clear-eyed understanding of underlying issues instead of dwelling in the treacherous minefield of arguing the positions people fight over.
Although these seem tricky to engage on, such conflicts are the type that is most worthy of our efforts as they are the most consequential. Contrary to popular belief, conflict is not a negative state of affairs in and by itself. Nonviolent conflict is what gave us many of the positive things we are enjoying today.
While human conflict with nature over millennia made it necessary for man to innovate survival tactics and create tools to overcome challenges, social conflicts gave us concepts such as equality and equitable wealth distributionWalid Jawad
The upside of conflict
While human conflict with nature over millennia made it necessary for man to innovate survival tactics and create tools to overcome challenges, social conflicts gave us concepts such as equality and equitable wealth distribution. It gave us the larger framework citizens to work through: government.
Social norms codified and turned into laws constitute the ultimate arbiter in conflicts within a society. This system strives to be as just and fair as possible to prevent conflicts from becoming violent. The rule of law is a construct that works effectively when applied uniformly within a society.
The latest #MeToo movement has ushered a new era for gender equality and rights. The last midterm elections prompted more women to run for public office than ever before. Indeed more women won their races including the first female Muslim Arab-American to Congress.
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International conflict in the last century gave us military innovations which we use on a daily basis including reading these words on the Internet. If it weren’t for the US Department of Defense, the Internet would only live on the pages of creative fiction writers. International conflicts gave us other advantages such as establishing the concept of sovereignty and international borderlines.
In 1648 the peace agreement between warring groups in Europe planted the idea of nation-states which the basis of our current world order. As consequential as the signed Peace of Westphalia was, the people of that era did not enjoy real peace. For them it was a theoretical exercise which brought them temporary peace; i.e. negative peace.
Negative vs. positive peace
Negative peace is the situation where a cessation of violence is reached based on an understanding between fighting groups. It is the type of peace that is celebrated globally and for good reasons.
Humans are averse to living in fear and loss of life especially one’s own or that of loved ones. Negative peace neutralizes the source of threat allowing people to attempt rebuilding their lives.
Localized violence in faraway lands theoretically poses no threat beyond the local battlefield, but in reality, violence anywhere in the world has unintended global consequences. From a human perspective, we are all connected in this global village. Suffering befalling fellow humans anywhere in the world should be of concern to us.
Refugees dying as they cross the Mediterranean, persecuted Muslim Uighurs in China, oppressed North Korean citizens, Syrians dying in a multiparty conflict on Syrian soil, Houthis and the suffering Yemeni people, Libyans in the crossfire of their civil war, and unrest in Africa and Latin American are some of the glaring examples. My apologies to all of the other groups of people suffering whom I didn’t mention.
But if that concept sympathy is too lofty of an ideal to exist in our consciousness as we battle the hours of our days, the economic fallout is a tangible impact we can all feel. In no subtle ways, global oil prices fluctuate in extreme fashion as a result of wars and the threat of war.
Tracking oil prices over the last three decades of the last century shows an undeniable correlation between wars and spikes in crude oil prices: the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the second oil crisis of 1979 due to the Iranian revolution, and the oil shock of 1990 as a result of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The effects were immediate as we all paid higher prices at the gas pump.
Negative peace as a concept is fragile and should be invested as a transitional period to negotiate a lasting peace. The US Navy is quoted describing negative peace as a “perpetual state of pre-hostilities.”
Positive peace is one that addresses needs and resolves issues. Getting caught up in the positional demands of the conflicting parties only leads to a return to violence. Smart negotiators understand the difference between positions and issues.
The fable goes like this: A mother burst into the living room where her two daughters are fighting over an Orange, demanding to know the cause of the ruckus. One of the two insisted she has the right to have the Orange because she reached for it first. The mother thought to resolve the conflict in a way that is clearly fair to ensure her daughters’ acceptance.
She quickly takes the orange to the kitchen, cuts it in half giving each one of the girls an equal share. The simple and easy solution seems fair and should resolve the conflict between the two, but satisfaction is proven to be elusive.
One girl peels her half eating the orange throwing the peel in the trash, while the other throws the orange keeping the peel to make an orange sorbet. Had the sisters engaged in a discussion, their negotiation would have revealed the reasons behind their position. The positional demand was over who has the right to the orange.
The issue was in fact what each of them wanted to get out of the orange. Effective negotiations would have allowed both to realize they can share one orange yet end up with the whole portion of the fruit according to each of their wants - one would get the peel and the other to eat it.
Of course, when the parties in conflict are too deep into the weeds, positional negotiation become the default. Here is when a neutral third party becomes critical. This outside party can mediate to steer the parties toward negotiating the underlying issues. Positional negotiations can lead to a win-lose outcome, while issue based negotiations can help the parties achieve a win-win situation.
There are many complicated conflicts on the horizon of 2019. Many of which are ongoing while others can be anticipated. The one conflict I predict becoming more contentious in the next few months.
The conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. As we await for Jared Kushner to reveal his peace plan, I can only hope it prompts the conflicting parties to work through the “issues” as defined by them.
Framing the conflict by a third party such as the US and defining the issues for the conflicting parties instead of allowing both the Palestinians and the Israelis to express and define their issues is worse for the prospect of peace than not engaging in the first place.
Wishing all of humanity in the new year 2019, a hopeful reprieve grounded in inspiring conflict and positive peace!
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.