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

Forcing Power Shortcuts

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This approach to limiting the cost of pursuing conflicts to the bitter end starts by recognizing the EATNA Limit.  The EATNA limit suggests that the parties to important, high stakes intractable disputes are unlikely to voluntarily accept a settlement if they feel that some force-based alternative is likely to better advance their interests. If they think that they have such a force-based option, they are likely to use it as a basis for threatening their opponents and demanding that further concessions be included in any agreement.

If the other party believes that the threats are credible and that they do not really have any workable counter threat strategy, then it would be rational for them to make the concessions and accept the revised agreement and, thereby, at least reduce their transactions costs. If, on the other hand, the threatened parties believe that they have realistic counter-threat options, they are likely pursue those options and demand their own counter-concessions.

If the conflicting parties can both agree on which threats are a realistic and credible, then they can negotiate a settlement which produces a similar outcome and saves everyone the transaction costs. In cases where this agreement is absent, the two sides are likely to pursue their force based options. Unfortunately, these options are often then fully pursued to their eventual and often quite bitter and destructive conclusion. While this process usually yields a winner and loser and ultimately settles the dispute, it is not likely to resolve long-term underlying conflict. The transaction costs of these bitter-end confrontations (as measured in terms of time, money, and human lives) can easily outweigh most or all of the benefits of victory. This can be true for the winner as well as the loser. There is also the risk of a protracted stalemate in which the destruction continues indefinitely with no clear winner emerging.

Power contest shortcuts provide an alternative approach which pursues force-based confrontations just long enough for the parties to determine whose threats are really credible. At that point, the parties can best advance their position by "looping back" to a negotiation process and accepting an agreement which is similar to the expected force-based outcome.

Shortcuts work best in cases where the balance of forcing power clearly favors one side over the other. In these cases it is likely that pursuing the issue to the "bitter end" will produce outcomes which are very similar to those forecast by the "shortcut."  Also, when pursuing the issue to the "bitter-end" is likely to result in some type of compromise, shortcuts can be very good at identifying the point where this compromise will occur.

There are also likely to be cases where different shortcuts predict different outcomes. For example, different public opinion polls might predict different outcomes for an election. Constitutional scholars may also have different opinions concerning the Supreme Court's likely ruling on a precedent-setting case. In these cases, it may be appropriate to pursue these issues to the bitter end. This is especially true in cases where decisions would be made by social institutions created for that purpose (such as elections or the supreme court).  However, this is less appropriate in violent confrontations where the outcome will not be determined by processes which are widely regarded as legitimate. Also, it is vastly more costly to pursue violent strategies to the bitter end.


In the case of a dispute which will likely be litigated, a good lawyer should be able to give the parties an honest assessment of the merits of their case and the probability of successful legal action. In the U.S., parties considering an expensive legal battle can   hire a retired judge to hear the cases that both sides plan to present and then offer his or her opinion of the likely outcome of the litigation process. The parties can then negotiate a settlement which parallels this opinion and avoids litigation costs. (This is called "private judging.")  An alternative shortcut is a "mini-trial" in which a neutral third party, along with decision makers (not lawyers) representing both sides hear the merits of the case presented briefly, and then the decision makers try (alone or with the third party's help) to negotiate a settlement. This approach, too, is likely to result in a decision very similar to that which would be obtained through much lengthier and more costly litigation.

The outcome of precedent-setting legal action is likely to be less amenable to a private judging or mini-trial shortcut because there are no clear precedents to provide guidance. In these case, consultations with a number of constitutional scholars might be more likely to provide reliable information about the strength of the contending parties' cases. It is also true that the setting of new legal precedents is likely to be of sufficient value to justify the increased cost of litigation.

The outcome of legislative contests can often be forecast through informal polls of   legislators or by paying careful attention to votes which raise similar issues and mobilize similar coalitions. If water developers are, for example, to suddenly start losing votes on environmental issues that they used to reliably win, then they might decide to be more willing to compromise on environmental issues. Public opinion polls and focus groups (see below) can be used to predict voter response to particular candidates and ballot measures.

Parties trying to change public attitudes in preparation for election campaigns often use small but representative groups of people (focus groups) to test responses to their public information and advertising materials. This allows parties to try several different approaches and then use those approaches which are found to work best with the electorate.

Parties engaged in public protests and nonviolent demonstrations could carefully model their efforts around successful historical campaigns which addressed similar issues.   They could  then clearly explain their plans to adversaries while also providing them with accounts of how these techniques have worked in the past.  This might help to convince adversaries that the protests and demonstrations represent a significant source power, and that they should negotiate with their opponents with this ultimate power in mind.  Another shortcut might involve the preparation of detailed economic analyses of the likely costs of  a prolonged strike for both labor and management.  If it is clear that one side can withstand a strike longer than the other, it makes sense for the parties to sit down before the strike an negotiate a settlement that takes this power difference into account. 

The visible mobilization of military forces may also be able to convince adversaries that threats are genuine. (There is, of course, a  danger that such displays of force can  escalate out of control.)

EATNA stands for "expected alternatives to a negotiated agreement."  If one or more of the parties expect that they have an alternative to the negotiated agreement which they think is superior, then they can be expected to take it. [Scroll back up to the top to resume.]

Links to Examples

1995 Aspen Institute Conference on Intervention in the Post Cold War World: Report of Conference Key Findings, Ideas, and Recommendations
One of the key recommendations made by conference participants was to avoid the rush to military intervention, utilizing non-military approaches first.  These approaches (for example, mediation, political and/or economic sanctions) can be considered, in a sense, forcing power short-cuts which have the potential of the same result as force, but at much lower cost.

Links to Related Sections

Limits to Agreement: Better Alternatives

Negotiation Loopbacks

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