Some Radical Thinking on Centrism, Politics, And the Future of Conflict Management

The theory and practice of conflict management has a venerable history. [1]Over the last twenty-five years it has also gone from “movement” to “mainstream” — up to a point. By now, the field, if it can properly be called that, subsumes a wide range of activities in many settings. Virtually every court in the country now offers some form of alternative dispute resolution, conflict resolution, joint fact-finding, mediation, settlement conferencing, facilitation, consensus-building, or negotiated problem solving. Public policy disputes — up to a certain size — are now often submitted to mediation. And Federal agencies ranging from the Air Force to the Post Office to the Department of Agriculture have installed new conflict management practices and activities.

Beyond these domains, serious experimentation has continued in other sectors as well. The Oslo Accords, the reconciliation tribunals in South Africa, and the peace process in southern Sudan all suggest that conflict management theory has potential practical applicability in disputes that involve intervention and/or reconstruction in the face of civil strife. Programs and projects have been created in the corporate sector with companies as diverse as Motorola and the World Bank. At the community and municipal levels, most cities now have some form of a mediation, restitution, or ombuds program. As Jeffrey Krivis points out, the impending authorization of the Uniform Mediation Act represents a watershed event: the full acceptance of mediation principles into civil law and a merger of the idea of non-adversarial problem solving into America’s legal culture. [2]In the space of a single generation, it would seem, the idea of using less-adversarial methods of conflict management has come of age.

But what of the political culture? What about in the law-making work that goes on between Republicans and Democrats, and the less obvious aspects of the “metapolitical” negotiations between the left and right? Or the ongoing negotiations between the executive and legislative branches as policies, rules, laws, standards, and regulations are made or refined? Is there a spirit of conflict resolution and a search for mutual understanding in the media that track our major political dramas and gives them either longer or shorter shelf-life? What about the world of public opinion and popular culture, where opinions are mined regularly by pollsters but where participation and dialogue are rarely solicited?

Here the record is weaker. While some notable national public policy mediations have taken place in the energy, environment, public health, and social policy arenas, most of America’s largest and sharpest political controversies have been resistant to the systematic principles and practices of conflict management. Conflict managers have been notably absent from the great debates on balancing security and civil liberties, fixing health care, improving public education, reforming the tort system, selecting new energy strategies, or creating the next generation of industrial and environmental laws in light of what we now know about climate change. We believe this absence has had a cost beyond the adverse “tone” of debates, in fewer potential great and creative bargains than might have been forged.

As we see it, this means that to date, the fundamental ideological thinking of the conflict management movement has not yet found a place in America’s politics. One astute U.S. Senator who is also a skilled negotiator recently said, “American politics always has been and always will be a contact sport.” [3]In fact, the issues that are wrestled with daily on Capitol Hill and in the offices of the President and our 50 state governors have so far been largely unaffected by the fundamental political values that appear to underlie the theory and practice of conflict management — values of process and mutual respect that, history has shown, are not the property of any political wing or party. Despite its roster of successes, the field has done little to reshape the decision-making bodies and institutions that manage major societal conflict.

From our point of view, the problems should be addressed as a matter of improving competence of the field, not relegated to ineffectual complaints about the refusal of the larger world to adapt to our existing abilities. Despite a flood of popular and academic books, the political “values” that are fundamental to the contemporary theory and practice of conflict management remain obscure, confused, and often unexamined even by its most ardent proponents. In fact, most theorists and practitioners in the field do not think of themselves as political actors, nor do they tend to be self-reflective on the political implications of their mediations and resolutions. [4]

In response to these difficulties, we believe there is emerging a nascent philosophy of “muscular centrism.” It is “muscular” in that it is proactive, assertive, and deliberate in its strategies to bring people to the table to negotiate effectively and honorably. It is “centrist” because it inevitably seeks to bring competing interests and ideologies to some kind of common ground. We think that most conflict management strategies share the following common political beliefs and values:

i. Inclusion of the fullest possible diversity of voices and viewpoints;

ii. Participation in both the formulation of the process and the content of discussion;

iii. High quality information and data, including grappling with scientific and technical uncertainty and the limits of current knowledge;

iv. Questioning and critical inquiry to reveal, understand, and test key underlying assumptions;

v. Mutual listening and understanding as bedrock for productive dialogue, the invention or practical reconciliation of competing ideas, and the hunt for practical outcomes;

vi. Fair decision rules that do not tilt the playing field or the marketplace of ideas;

vii. Transparency so that tradeoffs are understandable to those affected by but not present for decisions;

viii. Accountability so that those who are making decisions participate in their implementation;

ix. Amendability so that decisions can be adaptable to new information or changed conditions;

x. Assent/ Consent/ Acceptability so that new ideas can move forward with the highest levels of political traction;

xi. Implementability so that solutions are pragmatic and do-able. [5]

None of the above individually constitutes a coherent political philosophy. Yet, when applied together to the great political debates of our time, they might lead to a new and productive formulation. We believe not only that this is, but that our field should now be grown-up enough to admit that it is, a political enterprise, not in the “party” sense – for we see signs that committed and even distinguished members of both major parties may be open to this way of thinking — but in the higher sense of an effort aimed at influencing the polity. Aimed accurately and developed thoroughly, such an effort might help to restore centrism to a valued, central role – central in fact rather than in wistful reminiscence — in political dialogue.

Finding a unifying principle for centrism is inevitably a difficult problem for conflict managers. But defining centrism in terms of an overt willingness to base policy choices on a balance of knowable facts, on dialogue, and on the acknowledgment of the inherent messiness and frequent ambiguity [6]of policy choices, as well as on the willingness to engage in principled negotiation because it is our cultural imperative, could change this.

A mass of immediate adherents is not the cornerstone of political potency. The “Neo-Con” movement in the U.S. is an iconic example of how strongly argued social and economic ideas, even when held by a distinct minority, can become political coin of the realm. The conflict management movement, which sweeps in many different types of mediators, facilitators, organizational development experts, deliberative democracy theorists, and dialogue experts, can and should learn from this. Influential neo-conservative thinkers like Paul Wolfowitz, Irving Kristol, Lewis Libby, Robert Kagan, Norman Podhertz, and others actually developed the dominant current philosophy as long as 25 years ago, and patiently set about making it a reality. In addition to deep engagement with each other and serious on-going deliberations over what constitutes the common good, these political theorists and practitioners found intellectual “homes” in both political parties, in influential think tanks, in scholarly publications, and in the administrations of several presidents. Regardless of how they may now be viewed from other positions on the political left or right, the neo-cons are a success story, united around a deep belief that the United States must use its unrivaled power – forcefully when necessary – to promote American values around the world. [7]If a small number of neo-cons could change the political tide in the course of one generation, might others learn to do the same, to different ends, by twenty-five years from now? We believe the intellectual and practical-experience groundwork is in place to begin such a discussion.

End Notes

1 Barrett, Jerome. A History of Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Story of a Political, Social, and Cultural Movement, Jossey-Bass, 2004.

2 “End of the Cold War: The Marriage of Mediation and The Court System,” by Jeffrey Krivis at , January 2001.

3 Senator Larry Craig at The Keystone Symposium on Political Courage and Bridge-Building, June 8, 2005 in Washington, DC. Emphasis added.

4 In an unpublished paper by longtime conflict management professionals self-critical of the field, however, Christopher Honeyman, Sanda Kaufman, Michael Elliott and Andrea Schneider suggest that there is a core “ideology” espoused by most conflict practitioners, theorists, and trainers, and that it is a largely unspoken and unexamined ideology, for reasons that are open to debate, but which may involve a failure to distinguish between an admittedly desirable and productive state (of independence from all political parties) and an undesirable one (of unwillingness to recognize that in a higher sense the field’s stance is unavoidably “political” in nature.) They write: “We tend to explain past events in terms of conflict theories, confusing hindsight with insight. We don’t recognize past errors and change course. We do not seek counterevidence to test our prescriptions. Instead, we identify actors and actions that we believe foiled strategies that would otherwise surely have worked. Even where our various activities have borne no fruit, we continue to recommend them. We fail to react to information and update theory and recommendations: we tend to ignore scale, sea changes that affect the reality and incentives of key players, and evidence from those who were directly involved in events, if it runs counter to our beliefs and values. We fail to factor in anything but conflict management explanations, ignoring “rest-of-the-world” factors related to geopolitics, economy, etc. We fail to differentiate in nuanced, meaningful ways among parties. We conflate fairness with symmetry: e.g. referring to “cycles of violence” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to “extremists on both sides.” We have heroes and villains, who remain heroes or villains despite any change in behavior. We treat everyone as if they were free democratic actors at the negotiation table, as when we do workshops with, or poll, people who either live in dictatorships or have no decision authority. We fail to snap out of our own frames in the face of contrary evidence. We have framed power as inherently “bad,” and weakness as inherently “virtuous,” regardless of the reality of the interaction, so that a powerful side is deemed wrong by the sheer fact of having more power. We have framed certain behaviors as “extremist” to denote our lack of comfort with them rather than with (verifiable) levels of popular support for them; we have also tended to frame adherence to any religion as “extremist” behavior regardless of diversity of content or of implied behaviors. Having diagnosed a problem as being rooted in identity, religion or interpersonal hatred, we keep “treating” these ailments (often at the interpersonal level, regardless of how decisions are made and by whom), ignoring the more salient and important incentives inherent in the situation: for example, when the Oslo Accords were concluded soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was frequently accounted for by the interpersonal “magic” created when the parties at the negotiation table baked bread together. We arrogantly ignore the parties’ own rhetoric in favor of our own analyses, attributing to them attitudes and motives they themselves deny. Perhaps most worrisome, we tend to ignore scale, and the uniqueness of public and international conflicts which defeats any simple generalization or transfer of wisdom from one case to the other. Although such conflicts are sufficiently large, consequential and different from each other to warrant a case study approach, we frame them in groups/classes, which may obscure the very information necessary to resolve them. (Session given by those above named at the 2005 conference of the International Association for Conflict Management, Seville, Spain.)

5 “From Deliberative Democracy and Conflict Resolution: Notes on the Workshop on Deliberative Democracy and Dispute Resolution (June 24-25, 2005),” by Carrie Menkel-Meadow. Unpublished paper.

6 For a discussion of how different conflict resolution processes treat ambiguity, see Honeyman, C. “In Defense of Ambiguity” (1987) Negotiation Journal 3: 81-86. reproduced electronically at

7 See “Neo-Con 101” at .


Christopher Honeyman

Christopher Honeyman is managing partner of Convenor Conflict Management, based in Madison, Wis. and Washington, DC. He has served as mediator, arbitrator and in other neutral capacities in more than 2,000 disputes since the 1970s, and as a consultant to numerous academic and practical conflict resolution programs in the U.S. and… MORE >


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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