How to Save Your Country After a Conflict

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

In light of Covid-19 and the conflict resulting from the death of George Floyd by law enforcement, the US is in a -- most say absolutely necessary-- conflict. I'm writing this as a humanities teacher. They say the reason we study history is to inform our current choices, so let's study a little history and see how major historical conflicts resolved . . . or didn't.

How do you deal with conflict? Apparently, there are five approaches to conflict--sorted according to how assertive and/or cooperative you are.

Notre Dame categorizes conflict resolution as a key negotiation skill, one vital to successful business school grads. It's interesting to consider these approaches in light of

 the current conflicts in the world,

 the leaders in our lives, and

 our own brain churning in response to this tumultuous time-- or is that just me?

Avoid it. 

One approach to conflict is to pretend it doesn't exist or to shut down when anything triggers tension.

Give in.

This is the "OK, honey" or "It's fine" approach. You give up your voice for the sake of a nearly immediate return to equilibrium.

Stand your ground.

I picture this approach as a planting of the feet. There is no compromise here, only a winner.


This is best accomplished in tandem--where each party drops small points and agrees to negotiate larger matters.


To collaborate, each party must express his side and work creatively with the team to reach a solution that involves no concessions. This approach takes the most work. I picture the United Nations sessions. 

Havard's Program on Negotiation blog cites South Africa and Ireland as places that have worked through conflict to reach a livable community. They note that in cases where deep values are in conflict, each side should focus more on learning about the other's side than finding a more "traditional" settlement.

How South Africa Addressed the Inequity of Apartheid

In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Beginning in 1996, about 2,000 victims and perpetrators had the chance to share their stories about how apartheid had impacted them. The conversations continued for seven years. There are new laws to reach toward equity, but many social problems exasperated by Apartheid remain. Some say that because the perpetrators suffered no consequences, there was no justice. South Africa saw rounds of anti corruption protests in 2017 as South Africans reached toward the peaceful vision Mandela projected, but today's South Africa remains "the most unequal nation on the planet" (The World Bank). Half of households make less than the equivalent of $90 per month. Unemployment is over 50%. In the AP photo below, the foreground is the mostly black slums while the background high-rises house the rich.

How Ireland Resolved The Troubles

In Ireland, the conflict began in 1919 when some of Ireland (the strongly Catholic southern part) revolted against British rule and became an independent state. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland was supportive of Britain and strongly Protestant. Even though the Catholics and Protestants had often lived in diverse neighborhoods for generations, they generally avoiding mingling socially--no common schools, no intermarrying. When Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, many Irish Catholics felt pushed out of jobs as the Northern Irish--they said--favored the Protestants.

By 1968, what became known as "The Troubles" erupted in riots and Ireland formed the NRA to attempt to reclaim Northern Ireland for The Republic of Ireland. Fiery conflict continued until 1998 when the factions formed a Good Friday pact. Paul Bew, a historian and professor emeritus at Queens University in Belfast compares this compromise to "an agreement between a husband and wife who still can't stand each other but have to find a way to live together." Since 1998, tensions have mellowed so that in 2017, 50% of Irish identified as neither unionist nor nationalist. Some say Brexit is reigniting the need to claim a side because in a recent iteration of the same poll, only 39% of Irish identified as neither unionist nor nationalist.

What Does History Tell Us About Solving Civil Conflicts?

So, how can US leaders save the country after a conflict? Well, based on how leaders as respected as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and even Tony Blair handled the resolutions, it's not quick. It's not easy. Listening is key to any feelings of resolution.

Books/Authors that came up during my reading:

Articles I read:

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