OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

General Information About Force

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The Use of Force-Based Strategies in Intractable Conflicts

Since many of the issues involved in intractable conflicts are considered non-negotiable, and the integrative system has often broken down in intractable conflicts, parties frequently attempt to use force to prevail in these situations.  While force can sometimes work quickly and effectively, it has many dangers.  This section describes the problems which arise with the use of such force-based strategies, and links are provided in the write-ups to strategies for limiting these problems.

As an introduction to a complicated concept, this section of the training program includes general information on the definition of force; a summary of the many different types of force; a discussion of the difference between offensive and defensive uses of force, and an analysis of the a relationship between force-based strategies and strategies based on exchange and the integrative system.


Definition: What Force Is and How It Relates to Other Types of Power

Force-based strategies for dealing with core issues attempt to compel people to do things that they do not want to do. This is done by threatening to impose painful sanctions upon those who do not submit to the demands of the forcing party. Perhaps the simplest force-based interaction is a robbery in which one party (the criminal) uses a gun to threaten to kill another party (the victim) if that party does not give the criminal his or her money. This is an example of illegitimate force--force being used in an illegitimate (that is, socially disapproved way) to get someone to do something they otherwise would not do.  But force can also be used legitimately.  For example, police use force--sometimes overwhelming physical force--to arrest and imprison criminals.   If society agrees that the act the person committed was indeed illegal and immoral (for example, armed robbery), they usually feel the use of force to imprison such a person is legitimate. On the other hand, when the police imprison people for political crimes, there is likely to be much less agreement that such use of force is legitimate.

The same is true when nations use force to get another nation to do something it would otherwise not do.  If one nation uses the threat of war or actual attack to get another nation to give up some of its land, this is usually considered illegitimate by the community of nations, and they--often through the U.N.--may act to stop such aggression. (For example, the UN coalition forced Iraq to move out of Kuwait in the Gulf because Iraq's attack and occupation of Kuwait was widely considered to be an illegitimate use of force.)  However, the coalition's application of force against Iraq was generally considered to be a legitimate use of force, as it was designed to reverse and punish what was seen as, essentially, a criminal act.  (These designations of legitimate and illegitimate are variable, of course, depending on who one is and where one stands.   Iraq and its allies would certainly see the situation differently.)

Force need not involve physical violence. People can simply do something unpleasant or embarrassing if they don't get their way. Parents can take away a child's privileges if that child misbehaves.  Labor unions can picket businesses that they believe are treating their employees unfairly. Consumer groups publicize unsafe products. People can also be compelled to change their behavior through the civil court system.   If people believe that they have been treated improperly, they may (in many legal systems)  file a lawsuit against offending party.   If their suit is successful they will receive a court judgment which forces the offending party to correct the situation.  Although not often thought of in this way, elections are actually another form of force through which the power of the people is brought to bear on governments.  By threatening to vote leaders out of office if they do not make decisions their people like, leaders are forced--at least to some extent--to comply with their electorate's wishes.

In all of these cases, people are being forced to do something they would otherwise not do.    They are not doing so because they are receiving something in exchange (see exchange) or because they believe that it is the right thing to do (see integrative system).

Types of Force

As suggested above, force can take many forms.  It can be violent or nonviolent.   It can be utilized by individuals. organizations, groups, communities, or nation states.  It can be seen (by the general society and/or outside observers) to be legitimate or nonlegitimate.  It can be limited to threats, or it can involve actual negative sanctions.  These sanctions can involve physical attacks, legal actions (as when one party sues another), police actions (when police arrest and/or imprison people who break the law) or political actions (when one party tries to change a law or get a leader out of--or into--office.)

Offensive and Defensive Force

Force can be used either offensively or defensively. Offensive uses of force occur when people seek to advance their interests by forcing others to do what they want. When viewed from this perspective, the parties are primarily interested in ways of overcoming problems which undermine the effectiveness of force. Their goal is to make inexpensive threats which quickly force their opponent to submit to their demands. They also need to understand the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force, and how to limit or prevent backlash over the short and long term.

Force-based strategies are very different when viewed from the defensive perspective. While offensive force is often viewed as illegitimate, when force is used defensively--to prevent an attack or to respond to an attack made by another party--its use is generally considered legitimate. While defensive force may still lead to an escalation of the conflict, it is unlikely to lead to the long-term backlash that offensive uses of force tend to create. The primary problem with defensive uses of force are therefore deciding which approach to use and determining how to make these approaches most effective.

Often, parties are simultaneously involved in both offensive and defensive strategies, and the same strategy can be offensive in one situation and defensive in another.   The problems and treatments thus combine offensive and defensive uses of force, although differences between the two are noted in the write-ups.

The Relationship between Force, Exchange, and the Integrative System

Force is one of Kenneth Boulding's "three faces of power," the other two being exchange and the integrative system.  (The "integrative system" is the system of social bonds that hold social groups, and society overall, together.)   Very often in intractable conflict situations, the parties turn to force-based strategies immediately, without considering other options, or the risks of using force.    The issues are often considered nonnegotiable, so exchange is not expected to work, and the the fear, distrust, and hostility between groups has led to a significant breakdown of the integrative system. As a result, people, groups, and even nations turn to threats and sanctions quickly, before they give alternative measures a chance to work.

Traditionally, the conflict resolution and peace research fields have focused their attention upon the development of dispute and conflict resolution mechanisms which provide constructive alternatives to force-based dispute resolution mechanisms.  Most of these alternatives focus upon the negotiation of win-win compromises, (exchange) and/or the improvement of interpersonal, intergroup, and/or international relations (the integrative system).  While we agree that these methods are useful and critically important, was also believe that there are many instances in which the parties will insist on continuing the use of force, either in conjunction with some of these other approaches, or alone.  For this reason, we have tried to develop ideas about how force itself can be pursued more constructively, rather than insisting that conflicts be approached with negotiation or integrative strategies only. 

Since the constructive use of force is a strange topic for conflict resolution researchers, we have found we have much less material to draw from in our immediate fields.  At the same time, associated fields are very helpful in this regard.   Legal remedies, for example, are mostly force-based approaches to conflicts, as are military strategies.  Community organizing and activism relies heavy on the use of force as well--though most often nonviolent, not violent, force.  We have tried to draw ideas from these fields into the material presented below.  However, our personal lack of familiarity with some of these concepts has left these write-ups more sketchy than many of the others--a problem which we hope to remedy with future funding.

We also recognize that much information is already available about the principal force-based strategies (political, legal, police, and military action). Our intention is not to duplicate information about these approaches, but rather to provide links to appropriate sites where possible, and to illustrate how these approaches can be thought of and used in a more constructive way.

Organization of This Section

This section is organized differently from the others, because many forms of force can be considered a problem or a treatment, depending on whether they are being used offensively or defensively, and legitimately or illegitimately.  Thus, some of the "force problems" also appear on the "force solutions" list. The short descriptions on both lists are linked to the same write-up--which describes how this approach can be a problem in some cases, but a solution in others.

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu