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6. History of conflict resolution

by John Burton

March 1998

An entry prepared for the Institute of Peace Studies, Seoul, Korea, for its "World Encyclopedia of Peace", 1998 Edition.



The post World War II World Society

Philosophical Failure

A Shift in Thinking

The Development of Theory

Recent Developments: Interests and Needs

Settlement Processes as a Cause of Protracted Conflict

The Problem of Change

An Emerging Political Philosophy




Conflict resolution as a concept has been promoted over the years by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and others. When "Conflict Resolution" was introduced at the University of London in 1965 as an extension of the conventional strategic, power politics, International Relations course, it was given a specific meaning. This new section dwelt on the possibilities of analytical problem solving in inter-state relationships rather than dealing with potential military conflict situations by balance of power and alliance means. Why had Germany and Japan gone to war against Britain? Why was a revolt in Vietnam not deterred by the threat of force from the leading world power of the time and from the United Nations? If deterrence did not deter, what were the options? After some years of debate and discussion Conflict Resolution became an alternative to the traditional Morgenthau (1948) power politics approach to International Relations.

This problem solving approach, with its analytical focus on human motivations and relationships, was soon seen to apply to all social and political levels, thus offering an alternative to the power-based law-and-order approach to the problems of societies. A body of theory and a Conflict Resolution literature quickly evolved. Conflict Analysis and Resolution emerged as a separate social science area of study. To cope with its comprehensive, a-disciplinary approach, frequently independent Institutes and Centres were established within universities, rather than separate departments or sections within departments.

By reason of its comprehensive nature, Conflict Resolution is now emerging as a political philosophy, with widespread social and political implications.

The post World War II World Society

The Charter of the United Nations was drafted at San Francisco in 1945. At that time conventional wisdom held that the emerging global society should be a centralised federal system. The central authority was to have final power in the preservation of peace. There were certain international legal norms to be observed. There was to be a Court to interpret these. There was to be a body, the Security Council, comprising the five major powers, plus ten others elected by the General Assembly. The Security Council was given enforcement powers. Member states were to contribute forces for the purpose.

The world society was, in short, to be constructed and administered along the lines of the prevailing single nation state. Majority rule, law and order, the common good, were among the conceptual notions that made up the political philosophy of the time.

Philosophical Failure

It was not then acknowledged that the common good was, both at the domestic level and at the international level, the common good as interpreted by the powerful. It was assumed, and widely accepted, that authorities which have effective control within their territories are, by dint of this control, politically legitimised authorities.
We now know from experience that this power conception of legitimisation is false. In the absence of consensus support, the maintenance of law and order through coercion by a central authority, can be a source of violence and protracted conflict which spills over into the international system.

The UN was thus flawed from the outset in two ways. Many of its members are non-legitimised authorities and, as such, the source of serious domestic conflicts. And the UN is flawed by its own non-legitimacy. The General Assembly has no means of control in respect of matters of international concern. Only the Security Council can apply law and order, and the permanent members of that body each has the right of veto.

It is hard to believe now, but at the time at which the Charter was drafted few people, perhaps none at San Francisco, had any clear ideas on the handling of conflict situations outside this traditional power framework. The national central authority coercive model was what was in the minds of all as the ideal for an international institution. The goal was to prevent aggression of the World War 11 German, Italian and Japanese type. Few were educated to ask why this aggression had occurred, what were the background circumstances, and were there problems that could have been resolved.

It was not until the early 'sixties that there was any effective challenge to the normative and authoritarian approach of power theory. When it came, it came in the field of industrial relations. Scholars and consultants, (such as Blake, Shepard and Mouton, 1964), pointed to the need for inter-action between management and workers if there were to be co-operation and increased productivity. This coincided with work in decision-making theory which focused attention on the advantages of feed-back processes, rather than on unqualified power and hierarchical approaches to decision making, (Karl Deutsch, 1963).

A Shift in Thinking

A group of lawyers in Britain associated with the David Davis Memorial Institute published in 1966 their considered view that the institutions available to states, judicial settlement, mediation, conciliation, negotiation and the other means contemplated within the UN Charter and within classical power political philosophy, were adequate as means by which to maintain peaceful international relationships. The League of Nations had failed because of an unwillingness on the part of states to use the instruments available, but the powers given to the United Nations Security Council had changed this.

The academic community became sharply divided between those who adopted this traditional power view, and those who sought to determine the nature of conflict and how to resolve it through an understanding of it by the parties concerned.

In England in the late 1960's one outcome of this quite bitter academic debate was an attempt by some teachers of International Relations at University College, London, to falsify the belief that parties in conflict were unwilling to cooperate in resolving conflicts. Their hypothesis was that parties to conflicts would endeavour to avoid the costs of escalation of conflicts and to resolve them if they were placed in an exploratory and analytical framework in which they could explore possible options.

Obviously some new process would be required, some analytical process, that would avoid power bargaining from stated positions and would be exploratory once the goals and objectives of all sides had been revealed. Clearly, this would require an appropriate third party, preferably a panel of four or five facilitators, who could inject interdisciplinary knowledge and information, not about the conflict at issue, but about conflicts and human behaviour generally which the parties could apply to their conflict. This would need to be without publicity so as to avoid charges of weakness by leaders who were willing to negotiate with the enemy, and possibly change perceptions and policies.

One test case in the mid-60's concerned a conflict in South East Asia, involving Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which the British Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, had tried to mediate. The parties had all refused to accept his invitation-which he had made public. With his knowledge and consent the London group invited the three heads of government to send nominees to meet in London for an off-the-record analytical and exploratory dialogue. They responded immediately. The nominees met for ten days in a face-to-face situation controlled by a panel of five scholars. The agenda was an analysis of the situation, with no preliminary proposals. There was no bargaining or negotiation. All three discovered that they shared the same fears and aspirations, possible infiltration, sponsored by the other parties, of their economies by foreign nationals. After some days they could communicate readily. They returned home. Fighting stopped and diplomatic relations were re-established without any public statements. (For an account of this intervention, see "Civilisations in Crisis" in International Journal of Peace Studies Vol 1 No 1.)

This exercise was followed by others which again falsified the proposition that conflicting parties would not meet together. The same processes were tested at the industrial level and at the community level. Much was learned by these experiences, which were shared by many scholars working in the field. Confidentiality became an important consideration. There were none of the usual academic reports of experiments. Once it was accepted by the parties that there would be no publicity or reporting of any observations made during discussions, at least for many years, changes in attitudes and policies could be made, without any possibility of accusations of being "weak" or climbing down. The degree to which parties re-perceived the total situation, and the values and motivations of their "enemy", came as a welcome surprise to those facilitating and observing.

The Development of Theory

A theory of behaviour was now required which would not merely explain why parties were unwilling to meet within existing international institutions, but which would also indicate what kind of institutions and processes would be acceptable and helpful.

Paul Sites, in 1973, introduced a previously neglected behavioural dimension into the study of human relationships. He attributed "power", not to governments, but to individuals and groups of individuals. He observed that they use all means at their disposal to pursue certain human needs. The individual or group has an inherent need for a social role, an identity and identification with others, and social recognition as an individual or ethnic group. He argued that there are certain societal needs that will be pursued regardless of consequences. This, in his view, was the source of ultimate power and explained why authorities are powerless in many situations, both domestic and international, to deter or to enforce their decisions.

It was then possible to make a clear distinction between human needs, such as those listed by Sites and which are an ontological part of the human organism, and interests, such as commercial and material interests. It followed that in any conflict situation there are differences (interests) that can be negotiated, but there are also differences (human needs and some cultural values) that are not for trading at any price. The latter, being ontological needs, are shared by all parties. When there is a direct interaction they are readily recognised by all as shared sources of conflict to be removed.

It was necessary, therefore, in resolving any conflict situation to work towards political structures that enable the full development of the individual and of the identity group to which the individual belongs. Ethnic conflicts could not be settled by "democratic" majority government, and other options had to be explored. Indeed, the major role of panels associated with conflict resolution processes would be to be innovative in translating the shared needs and values that are revealed by the dialogue into political structures, institutions and behaviours that would promote their fulfilment.

There is one other strand in the development of conflict resolution theory that should be noted. We are here dealing with what must be regarded as the most complex field of study that man will ever come across: the behavioural relations of humans as persons and as groups. It happened that, during this period of development of behavioural theory, the philosophy of science was also developing. What was previously described as scientific method was found to be not so scientific, and indeed, useful and reliable only in limited circumstances. The debate between Popper (1957) and Kuhn (1962) revealed shortcomings in controlled experiments and in empirically based theorising. It also demonstrated that a formal deductive approach that relied upon falsification was impractical, as such testing was usually not possible in open systems.

Further insights emerged after Peirce's work on "abduction" (1980)-the questioning of the consensus assumptions. Those engaged in conflict resolution analysis were persuaded, by the behaviours and responses revealed in a conflict situation, to conclude that traditional concepts of law and order, of the common good, of majority decision making, of the right to rule and to expect obedience, were probably at the root of a great deal of social conflict. Clearly this was the case in situations where there was an absence of political legitimisation. The attempt to impose structures that denied to people their identity and their development in all aspects, and the attempt to impose the norms of the powerful, were dysfunctional and a source of conflict.

Recent Developments: Interests and Needs

The theory of needs led logically to the development of a process that would enable parties to conflicts to ascertain the hidden data of their motivations and intentions, and to explore means by which human-societal needs held in common could be satisfied. As these needs were universal, and as they related to security, identity and other developmental requirements that are not in short supply, the process soon revealed that conflict resolution with win-win outcomes is possible.

Many research and teaching institutes in different cultures have now sought to test both theory and practice in actual situations. The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State has published reports on the process (1986). An extensive literature on conflict resolution now exists. (Banks and Kelman, 1984, Burton, 1979 and 1990, Dukes, 1996, Mitchell and Banks, 1996, Sandole and Van der Merwe, 1993, and many others).
In summary, classical thinking led us to believe that conflict was about negotiable interests only. For that reason it was thought that the individual could be socialised and, if necessary, deterred by punishments. What both conflict theory and resolution processes revealed was that protracted conflicts are primarily over non-negotiable human needs such as those listed by Sites. This being the case, it is impossible to socialise the individual into behaviours that run counter to the pursuit of security, identity and other aspects of development. (Burton, 1997). The warning flag is out: conflicts, such as wage disputes, and conflicts over opposing cultural and national "human values", may not really be over negotiable interests. They may relate to needs that are not for trading, such as being treated on the shop floor as a person and not a machine. Indeed, it may well be that conflicts are protracted unnecessarily just because inalienable values (identity) are translated into interests (wages) merely to fit into the traditional processes of bargaining and negotiation. When analytical processes are available, the hidden data are revealed and can be dealt with.

A new conceptual frame requires a new language. As suggested, there is a need to re-define disputes and conflicts. A "dispute" may be a matter for negotiation, but a "conflict" has its sources in values that are not subject to bargaining or negotiation. "Prevention" by police action is a quite different concept from "provention", that is getting to the source of problems so that they do not occur. There are many terms with special meanings within this non-power philosophy. (Burton 1996).

Settlement Processes as a Cause of Protracted Conflict

At the international policy level, however, there has been little change. National defence is the main priority of state policy. Superiority of power remains the goal of states-which leads to adversary diplomacy and politics, and to arms escalation. States, and the UN as the institution of states, still see the global society in the classical framework.

In the absence of any national institutions or international agency with the role of conflict resolution, leaders of powerful governments intervene. They seek credits for their initiatives, and informal, confidential exchanges become impossible. Publicity forces parties to adhere to their positions and to avoid being accused by local interest groups of weakness in changing their positions.

There are, in addition, structural conditions which make any significant change towards conflict provention unlikely. Whenever there are political changes which remove a source of serious international conflict, as for example, changes in the former Soviet Union, other serious situations seem to emerge, for example, the denial of "human rights" in China and its reactions to Western policies, and existing "preventive" structures are once again justified and extended. The practical reality is that national armies, intelligence agencies and the global arms industry combine to make up an interest group more extensive and powerful than any other likely combination of problem-solving structures. (Saul, 1993 and Timberg, 1996).

The Problem of Change

The evolution of civilisations has required change and adjustment to change, yet "survival of the fittest", the struggle by leaders and potential leaders for recognition, identity and a social role, results in many built-in mechanisms for preservation against change. Leadership and elites seek to conserve existing roles and institutions by whatever military and political means are at their disposal until overcome by more powerful forces. Societies have always been in conflict because some sections have drives for change stemming from pursuit of their human needs, while others fear it and its threat to their interests.

The facilitated conflict resolution processes that have now evolved are effective to the extent that parties to conflicts are helped to cost accurately the consequences of change or no change, to cut down the delays that occur in change, and to speed up the evolutionary process toward greater fulfilment of societal needs. Societies are moving towards insights and processes in which bargaining of needs against interests can be avoided, and in which the parties concerned can define needs and interests and cost the consequences of preserving interests at the expense of needs.

Translated on to the global scene the great powers fear change lest it prejudice their relative power positions. Yet all sides know that change in political systems is not merely inevitable, but also desirable. The U.S. does not particularly desire to defend repressive feudal systems in Central America and elsewhere throughout the globe; but it fears the consequences of unpredictable political change. China fears the responses of existing "great powers" to its emergence as a major developing economy. Analytical interaction has not yet taken place. If there were a means of reliably bringing about change with desired outcomes, many situations in the world society would no longer attract great power interventions.

An Emerging Political Philosophy

The shift of Conflict Analysis and Resolution as a study from the resolution of specific conflicts to the "provention" of conflicts by getting at their institutional sources is a shift towards an altered political philosophy. It is a shift from adversarial political, industrial, legals and other institutions towards problem-solving processes.

This makes Conflict Analysis and Resolution a challenge to all social sciences, which have to date failed adequately to include a human dimension. Economics treats unemployment as a function of economic development, treating the unemployed as robots to be employed or not according to financial needs governing inflation and investment. Sociology was founded on the assumption that the human being is malleable and can, if socially motivated or coerced, adjust to institutional requirements. Politics is still within the traditional power frame and continues to define "democracy" as majority rule, the majority frequently being elected by a minority of voters, and excluding many class and ethnic groups.

Once a human dimension is included in social analysis it becomes clear that many traditional assumptions are false, and no more than historical myths. The long-term trend from feudalism, through industrial relations and political classes towards continuing and increasing conflict has now placed civilisations in crisis. A holistic approach is required to all problems: conflict, crime, violence, corruption and other sources of personal insecurity.

The analytical challenge is finally a challenge to political philosophy. Democratic systems are founded on adversarial institutions: adversarial party politics, adversarial industrial relations, adversarial legal systems and processes, and others which are power based and do not take into account the human needs which have been found to require satisfaction if there are to be non-conflictual relationships.

In the light, however, of structural conditions which ensure the continuing production and sales of weapons of war, and professions which rest on continuing threats to security, national and international, movements towards conflict resolution, to be credible, must be within the prevailing defence, intelligence, and industrial structure. It may be possible to modify or eliminate some adversarial processes in party political processes, in industrial relations, in law and order, in families, etc, but more than this becomes no more than idealism, at least until these preliminary changes become accepted and future generations are educated in a non-power environment.


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