Burton, John W. "Conflict Resolution as a Political Philosophy"

In Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice: Integration and Application. Ed. Dennis J. D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993. Pp. 55-64.

Summary by Mariya Yevyukova.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


John Burton begins his essay with the discussion of the conceptual differences between disputes and conflicts. He starts by distinguishing between dispute settlement and conflict resolution: while a dispute evolves around conflicting, but negotiable interests, conflict develops around nonnegotiable issues of basic human needs deprivation. Settlement implies negotiated or arbitrated solutions, while resolution is concerned with satisfaction of basic human needs of all parties involved. The confusion about the terms and their conceptual meaning has led to a differentiation between international disputes and conflicts and domestic disputes and conflicts. Conflicts and disputes have been regarded as interchangeable terms. International situations have been considered more serious than domestic, and the term "conflict" has been applied to them more often. In reality, these assumptions have led to serious policy mistakes. Since it has been assumed that domestic issues do not produce "conflicts" which cannot be handled by the higher authority of the state, the same model of introducing a central power was thought to be applicable to the international system. A standing international force was proposed to be under the jurisdiction of the Security Council. Fortunately, this was not realized. Recent ethnic wars proved that many global conflicts are the results of the spilling over of internal conflicts. Thus, "we are forced to the conclusion that conflict is a generic phenomenon that knows no system boundaries" (p. 56). The conceptual understanding of disputes and conflicts presented above provides us with two frameworks for conflict analysis: one is that of evolving around conflict situations with negotiable issues and requiring judicial treatment or arbitration, and the other developing around the situations where compromise is impossible and requiring analytical problem-solving.

Power-political realism versus behavioral realism

The author traces two conceptual frameworks outlined above to the concepts of "political realism" and "idealism" that emerged several decades ago. What was called "political realism" was mainly the application of coercive strategies for handling conflicts which went back to feudal times. In the cases when this practice failed (wars, revolution), it was believed that not enough power was applied. Political realism proved to be unrealistic and self-defeating. Idealistic thinking was leaning toward cooperative relationships. Neither of the two approaches had a theoretical basis. The result has been that "power politics has failed domestically and internationally, but no alternative has been articulated and applied as policy" (p. 57).

From subjectivity to theory-based objectivity

Without a theoretical basis, the meaning given to such concepts as "justice" or "human rights" is subjective. For example, "democracy" defined as the majority government controlling ethnic or class minorities is perceived as unjust and produces conflicts. In order to have an objective basis for conceptual definitions, we need a theory of behavior. Such a theory originated in the book "Needs Theory" (Lederer, 1980). Its authors presented the image of a person who, due to his or her ontological needs, cannot be "socialized into the requirements of an institution" (p. 58). The new theoretical paradigm suggests that insitutions have to adjust themselves to basic human needs. Ontological human factors "which cannot be subjected to authoritative controls" are placed at the core of the theory (p. 58). Since coercive power cannot contain them for a long time, a new strategy of satisfying basic human needs in order to resolve conflicts has been created. Based on this theory, such concepts as "justice" or "democracy" obtain their objective meaning as related to "conditions that satisfy human needs of identity, recognition, and autonomy, all of which imply equity" (p. 58).

Political experience

The conflicts in Eastern Europe are examples of the failure of authoritative social institutions to accommodate the human needs of ethnic groups, such as recognition and autonomy, leading to violent struggle. Another example is drug and gang violence, which are consequences of social deprivations. Societies have to acknowledge the failure of power methods and come up with strategies of satisfying violated human needs.

Problem-solving conflict resolution

Burton suggests that scholars in their social analysis have to move from institutions as the main units of their research to persons and, based on this, create political theory. Problem-solving conflict resolution is a process that utilizes such an approach. The procedure of problem-solving conflict resolution includes the following steps: analysis of the parties and issues; bringing the parties at the negotiation table to discuss their relationships; establishing an agreement about what the problems are and acknowledging the costs of the former conduct (human needs violation); and an examination of possible options.

Conflict provention

The goal of problem-solving conflict resolution is not to merely remove the causes of the discord (conflict prevention) but also to create conditions for cooperative relationships (conflict "provention"). Conflict resolution differs from settlement in that it tries to predict future relationships and formulate policies at the core of which the poltical philosophy of human needs satisfaction as the main goal of the society is placed. The author provides an example of possible development of the situation in South Africa between whites and blacks, if it is managed through problem-solving.

Alternative dispute resolution.

ADR works closely with courts providing an alternative to adjudication. It is different from problem-solving in that it is based on the assumption that all conflicts and disputes can be resolved by application of laws to them or by some kind of negotiation. Even though most of the conflicts resolved through ADR involve negotiable issues, many of them contain hidden elements of human needs dissatisfaction. The author believes that there is a need for a real alternative to courts that can incorporate the problem-solving approach. He goes further in suggesting that the judicial process itself should be changed if problem-solving is to be institutionalized. There is also a need for alteration of the institutions that deal with human needs satisfaction. Incorporation of the problem-solving approach in ADR and the legal system would develop the knowledge required for change.

Crisis in capitalism and communism.

The author concludes that both the capitalist and communist systems failed. Capitalism led to increased inequality, which in turn created social and economic problems. The Communist idealistic assumption of working not for a reward but for the social good could not work under conditions of demand for consumer goods. Both systems relied largerly on authoritarian regimes and the assumption that people "can be socialized or coerced into required behaviors" (p. 62).

John Burton believes that one of the problems of past political systems was that they did not have mechanisms for peaceful system change. Thus, "conflict resolution processes and conflict prevention policies could be the means for peaceful change" (p. 63).

Conflict resolution as a political system

Disputes can be resolved through the use of ADR and other institutionalized means. The situation with conflicts is more complicated. Here conflict provention becomes a priority. Political philosophy has to incorporate conflict resolution which is applicable to any economic and political system. It is external to any ideological framework. Problem-solving and conflict provention are the missing parts needed for peaceful transformation of troubled societies.

A summary

Dispute settlement does not constitute a problem anymore. New techniques have been developed in dispute managment in recent years. The legal system itself might change to include more of the parties in dispute. Conflict resolution has not received as much attention though. It is capable of dealing with both domestic and international conflicts, as well as in operating in different economic and political systems. Its analytical problem-solving techniques provide insights in understanding the causes and nature of conflicts. But these are not the main tasks of conflict resolution. The major promise of it is conflict provention. Both goals promote conditions for peaceful transformation of the societites toward social harmony.