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

Relationship Between Threat and Force

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While force ultimately rests on the ability of parties to harm their opponents in some way, it is often unnecessary to actually inflict harm. Often a forcing party can compel an opponent to submit by merely threatening to use force. The captain of a warship, for example, might decide to surrender when confronted by an overwhelming naval force. In a similar way, a criminal might decide to surrender once surrounded by overwhelming police force. Colonial landowners might agree to transfer some of their land to indigenous peoples as part of a land reform effort when it becomes clear that land reform laws are fully backed by legislative and judicial institutions as well as the police. What makes these threats successful is that they are believable.  It is clear to the target that the other side has the power--and is willing to use it--to get what they want.

Since threats promise a quick and easy victory, people often decide to give them try.   What they may fail to recognize, however, is that the use of threat has a number of serious problems. First, threats do not work if they are not credible.  This means that you must be able and willing to carry out the threat if the other side fails to comply with your demands. To do this you must go to the expense of building up your power base, even if you do not plan to use it.  If you do not have it, not only will your current threat be ineffective, your future threats are unlikely to work as well.

Second, the use of threats and/or force tends to generate a backlash from the target population.  Even if the threat is not carried out, people do not likely to be threatened and are likely to try to subvert or challenge any changes that are made as a result of threats or the use of force. Thus threats and force and not only risky and expensive; they are also unstable, and parties who are forced to take actions against their will are likely to try to reverse those actions (or any decision made) as soon as possible.

This problem can be minimized if the use of threat and force is based on commonly held moral values or principles, and is therefore more likely to be considered legitimate, even by the target.  Also, if threat is not used alone, but is linked with integrative or exchange strategies (in what we call a power strategy mix), the threat (or actual use of force) is less likely to create a backlash than if threat or force is used alone.

Links to Examples

Kenneth Boulding--Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution
This is a summary of one of the books in which Boulding sets out his theory of threats and compares them to other forms of persuasion and power.
Alexander George -- The General Theory and Logic of Coercive Diplomacy
Coercive diplomacy is diplomacy by threat.  This article discusses the theory behind this approach, while the following articles give some examples of its implementation.
Alexander George -- Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War
This is a summary of George's book on Forceful Persuasion.
Alexander George -- The Role of Force in Diplomacy: A Continuing Dilemma for U.S. Foreign Policy
Some of the dilemmas presented here result from the misunderstanding of the relationship between threat and force.
Alexander George -- United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor
This is an example where threats did not work.  They led to a serious escalation of the conflict, not a resolution, as was intended.
Gareth Evans -- Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait in 1990: A Failure to use Preventive Diplomacy
This is an example where threats did not work, and they had to be followed up by force.
Claude Rakisits -- The Gulf Crisis: Failure of Preventive Diplomacy
This is another analysis of what went wrong in the Gulf War.
Saadia Touval -- Case Study: Lessons of Preventative Diplomacy in Yugoslavia
One of the reasons preventive diplomacy failed in Yugoslavia was a lack of understanding of the relationships between force and threat.
William Perry -- Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War Era
Threats must be backed up by the political will to use force, Perry says.  When this link is missing, threats are not credible, and do not work.

Links to Related Sections:

Failure to Anticipate Opponent Reactions and the Backlash Effect 


Coalition Building
Deterrence, Counter-Threats (and Arms Races)
Flight (Refugees)

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