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.
All that is required to
round out this necessarily simple sketch of
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.
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
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
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 (
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
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,
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
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.