Learning from John Burton


By Doug Cocks

From Power Politics to Conflict Resolution: The Work of John W Burton by David J Dunn, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2004


John Burton is a great Australian who has spent 60 years pursuing two ideas.  One is that bullying people does not make them behave the way you want them to behave, at least not for long; bullying does not get rid of conflicts.  Burton’s second article of faith is that conflicts between individuals, or collectives of individuals, will often resolve themselves if the disputants, with or without some outside help, can come to see each other as having, and seeking to satisfy, similar fundamental needs.  Corollarily, if people’s fundamental needs are being met, they will be less conflictual.  So, if you are interested in reducing conflict in some sphere of life, from the family to international relations (and not everybody is), Burton may have something to offer you---a suggestion about what not to do and another about what might be worth trying to do. 

Or, to take another slice through the same idea, if you want to forestall a looming conflict, make sure that the parties’ fundamental needs are being met.  Burton’s own term for this conflict-avoiding strategy is ‘provention’. In the context of conflict-reduction (cf avoidance), provention implies that, rather than treating the symptoms that accompany any conflict, one should treat the causes, starting with the degree to which the players’ fundamental needs are (not) being met.

All that is required to round out this necessarily simple sketch of Burton’s thinking is to ask what he means by ‘fundamental needs’.  While not wholly a disciple of the great psychologist Abraham Maslow (Dunn p106), Burton was developing his thinking about human needs around the same time (1950s – 1960s) as Maslow was presenting his comprehensive and widely accepted theory of ‘human nature’.  Both Burton and Maslow see people as striving to satisfy received physiological and psychological needs for life, safety and security, for belongingness and affection, for esteem, for respect and self-respect and for self-actualisation (personal development, realisation of latent potentialities).  As more basic needs (eg food) are met, attention switches, in a hierarchical fashion, to satisfying higher needs (eg for creative activity).  Needs, in general, are ‘that which persons must achieve if they are to avoid sustained and serious harm.’.

This model of humans as ‘need satisfiers’ has proved a useful starting point for thinking about all sorts of questions, from cultural evolution and the nature of happiness to quality of life and the responsibilities of governments.  Burton has used versions of the model throughout his writings, but his work on conflict resolution has focused particularly on people’s basic need for recognition and respect for what one is.  It is a need which expresses itself in diverse ways, most commonly by identifying with a group such as a political, linguistic, religious, ethnic or geographic group; and, as an extension of this idea, actively declaring which groups one is not in. 

It is Burton’s conclusion, after long observation, that people most commonly come into conflict because they feel that their identity is not being recognized, that they are not being treated with dignity and respect for who they are; even when the conflict appears to be about something much more material such as land or resources.  Around this conclusion
Burton spent some years developing processes (eg structured ‘covert’ workshops) which allow conflicting parties to learn to recognize and acknowledge, and not just intellectually, the identity of the ‘other’.  And he claims a number of practical successes in both international and civil conflicts.

So, what are we to think of all this?  Some will see it as fairly standard ‘conflict resolution stuff’.  Such may or may not be aware that, for many people, John Burton is ‘the father of conflict resolution’ (a paternity to be shared perhaps with Johan Galtung and Kenneth Boulding?) and the very ordinariness of the above reflects the growth and spread of his original ideas.  In his academic career, which was almost wholly outside Australia, he established successful centres for the study of conflict resolution in both British and American universities.  He has received many honours, not least being the excellent volume under review.  David Dunn has traced the evolution of Burton’s thinking in great detail and, as a true believer himself, also used that story as a scaffold on which to hang his own views on many of the subtler points that arise.  His final chapter is not only an overview of Burton’s work but a good tutorial on the history of conflict-resolution thinking (read it first).

While Burton sees his model as applicable at all levels and scales of relations between people, one can't help feeling that this model, or more recent interpretations of the same perspective, are most widely accepted by the relevant professionals at the level of interpersonal relations and of relations between individuals/groups and the institutions of the wider society.  A Burtonian style of thinking is bread and butter to psychologists, counselors and social workers, (not to mention grist to the mills of hidden persuaders, spin doctors and other parasites creating false identities for people).  It does not follow of course that the institutions of contemporary societies are structured to capitalize on provention as a harmonizing strategy.  In the main they are not.

In contrast, thinking and practice at the level of international relations is still deeply mired in the realist theory of how nation-states interact: powerful states bully less powerful states, by making or threatening war, into behaving in the interests of the powerful. Moreover, this process, overall, makes for a more orderly world and it is legitimate (on Darwinian grounds) and effective for strong states to use military power to promote their national interests.  Since the 1960s, prodded by a changing world, the state-centric model has been expanded, piecemeal, to recognize a bigger  cast of international players---trade groups, issue groups, political groups etc.  But there has been no crystallization of a new paradigm, only dissatisfaction with the old.

So, while it may well be for want of something better, a solid majority of IR practitioners and the world’s politicians still appear to subscribe to versions of the original paradigm, notwithstanding strong challenges to various parts of it.  The moral challenge came first but was soon followed, thank God, by the discovery of the just war.  And then, in 1910, Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion, a classic which refuted realist thinking on the grounds that it was bad business, so to speak.  Any economic gains from wars of conquest will almost certainly be outweighed by the costs of such things as mobilization and occupation.  A more recent critique of power politics is Gil Merom’s  (How Democracies Lose Small Wars)  insight that in modern  democracies, the nation-state’s ability to wage wars of conquest is much constrained by public opinion.  Once it is widely perceived that a war is too expensive, is producing too many body bags (Vietnam) or is too degrading (Algeria, Abu Graib) the fat lady has sung.  Public opinion can only be manipulated and stifled so far.

Where does Burton fit into this pantheon?  He is saying that not only is offensive war an immoral, uneconomic and politically problematic policy instrument, it does not work!!  Deterrence does not deter.  People are programmed to struggle indefinitely for recognition and dignity.  Ask the Irish or the Kurds or …

Why then, given that these arguments, prima facie, seem pretty fundamental, is the so-called idealist stance in international relations treated so dismissively?  One answer is vested interests.  The military-industrial complex and the armaments industry in particular likes a good war and wields great political power.  For politicians, starting wars can bring temporary political gain and boost short-term economic activity.

But why the imperviousness of the political scientists?  For them, the realist paradigm, as enunciated by Hans Morgenthau and Georg Schwartzenberger in the 1920s is still their first refuge.  Remember that it took 2000 years for the idea of slavery to slowly become unthinkable and conflict is just as metaphysical an idea, as much a ‘foundational myth’, as slavery.

Anyhow, this was the doctrine that Burton encountered for the first time when he was thrown into lecturing at University College London in 1962.  What made him different there was that he had not come up through the academic ranks, absorbing this worldview osmotically along the way.  In fact, back in Australia, Burton and Nugget Coombes were already widely regarded as the outstanding public servants of the early post-war era. As Secretary of the Department of External Affairs (at age 32), Burton is particularly remembered for his independence of mind and his policy push for greater independence from Britain in combination with more engagement with Asia.  He found that the sky doesn’t necessarily fall in if you pursue an independent foreign policy.  That last is one of the reasons why the present revival of interest in Burton’s thinking will be troubling the conservative apparatchiks.  Should they just wait for it to pass or, pre-emptively, ‘do a Manning Clark’ on him?  They will also be remembering his withering contempt for intelligence services in general and ASIO in particular; and his rebuttal of the politicisation and sidelining of the public service; and the degradation of the parliamentary process (see Dissent, Winter 2004).  How contemporary this old man’s thinking is. And Iraq hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

In London Burton brought his distilled experience of international relations, his independent mind and his independent policy inclinations to bear on realist thought.  It was found wanting.  He clashed, and clashed again, with establishment figures like Schwartzenberger and set out to bring down what he saw as a house of cards.   Was he quixotic?  Or won’t we know for another fifty years?   Enormous energy and deep conviction went into writing book after book and organising his crusade, decade after decade.  Perhaps he would have made more friends in Academe if he had been more of a compromiser and followed the canons there for assembling and asserting arguments.  But he didn’t. 

Let us agree then, Burton is not just a great Australian, an architect of the nation as a Norman Abjorensen feature once tagged him, but a great dissenter.  Both his life and his ideas have much to say to the present readership, many of us only too aware of how timid our own dissent is.

As a public servant he demonstrated that entrenched ideas can be overthrown by a small well-prepared group acting at the right time.  Perhaps it was those early successes which have sustained his unremitting struggle to see conflict resolution accepted as a sensible and practicable approach to all sorts of problems.  The paramount example of our times is not, unfortunately, conflict resolution but neo-liberalism.  Hayek and Friedman and their acolytes languished in the intellectual wilderness for decades until, with the apparent failures of Keynesianism in the 1970s, their persistence, just as unremitting as Burton’s, paid off in spades.

While every casse is different, Donald Schon’s perception that what he calls ideas in good currency, are primary determinants of public policy should be part of every gloomy dissenter’s thinking.  The essence of Schon's thinking is succinctly caught in the following quotation from Beyond the Stable State.

Taken at any time, a social system is dynamically conservative in its structural, technological and conceptual dimensions.  This last represents the `system' of ideas in good currency (IIGC).  Characteristically, what precipitates a change in that system of powerful ideas is a disruptive event or sequence of events, which set up a demand for new ideas in good currency.  At that point, ideas already present in free or marginal areas of the society begin to surface in the mainstream   The broad diffusion of these ideas depends upon interpersonal networks and upon media of communication, all of which exert their influence on the ideas themselves.  The ideas become powerful as centres of policy debate and political conflict.  They gain widespread acceptance through the efforts of those who push or ride them through the fields of force created by the interplay of interests and commitments ...  When the ideas are taken up by people already powerful in society this gives them a kind of legitimacy and completes their power to change public policy.  After this, the ideas become an integral part of the conceptual dimension of the social system and appear, in retrospect, obvious.

Note the point that, at any time, society has room for only a limited number of ideas `whose time has come'.  It is as though society has limited attention capacity and when new disruptions appear, ideas for addressing some existing problem are displaced, especially if their prospects of success are limited. 

The message for all dissenters, whatever their cause, is that they are probably playing John the Baptist (ex-Methodist?) rather than JC.  More than that, they have to be content with preparing the way and with forever reworking their epistle to suit the changing times.  Its not that you don’t try your damnedest but, for most of us, the task will be keeping the idea alive, not unveiling it to a receptive and grateful society.