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Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 5th Ed.

Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 5th ed., by Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 434 pp.

The current Constructive Conflicts edition, by Louis Kriesberg and Bruce Dayton, expertly continues past successes by explaining why conflicts begin, how they are conducted, and when resolution becomes possible. The book’s first edition was published in 1998, and it has been updated every four to five years since with the most recent version in 2011. The theoretical detail and linked conflict examples are strong evidence why this text has survived to a fifth edition. In distinguishing between constructive conflicts that improve participants and their destructive opposite, Constructive Conflicts offers exhaustive examples to detail social conflicts, defined as “when two or more persons or groups manifest the belief that they have incompatible objectives” (p. 2). Cross comparisons to traditional constructivist world views appear frequently as the authors plot conflict life cycles from emergence and escalation to settlement and outcomes, similar to constructive normative processes for emergence, escalation, and internalization. Further, one clearly sees secondary linkages to interdependence studies as the authors highlight state and nonstate interaction through conflict management channels. The book proves a solid, instructional win with a well-constructed plan and easy references with numerous examples soundly driving points home.

Each chapter and subsequent conflict element across the text focuses on three basic areas; one’s surrounding environment, internal social arrangements, and external adversaries. The text demonstrates where conflicts may shift from destructive to constructive patterns, which improve the potential for mutual benefit. Regardless of whether the surrounding analysis emphasizes escalation, conflict strategies or other areas, the authors deconstruct each conflict area according to the same, set framework. The standardized pattern allows one to easily follow the internal logic across multiple chapters. Surrounding environments address basic cultural, resource, and hierarchical aspects throughout each social group. The next element examines how internal conflict elements relate through illustrating where leaders lead, how followers follow, and when interdependent channels shape interaction. The final area—and most critical to conflict—considers how any group interacts with others, either singularly or in multitudes. It is interaction that allows conflict and improvement to occur, almost modeled as a constructivist, conflict dialectic. Each area is divided with clearly marked sub-areas with easy-to-find highlights and examples.

As a first conflict step, one must identify where conflicts emerge. Constructive Conflicts points to four conditions collectively forming a minimum conflict emergence requirement: separate entities, presence of grievance, goals that require a changed behavior, and the aggrieved party’s belief that they can change the antagonist’s behavior. Once identified, each step describes subsets internal to each condition and their unique elements. The authors then expand from basic conditions to illustrate subsequent conflict strategies with emphasizing behavioral change from destructive to constructive. An interesting area emphasizes conflict management as a set of practices repeated over time, suggesting national, electoral practices form an institutionalized conflict management as the practice regulates social conflicts, repeatedly (p. 97). Chapter four’s excellent diagrams help one advance from conceptually understanding conflict strategies of persuasion, reward, and coercion to applying practices supporting those same techniques. Each different theoretical application was closely matched with contemporary conflict examples. Another chapter analyzes why adversaries pick some strategies over others even when paths appear nonsensical or self-defeating. Returning to their structure, the authors debate engagement examples considering external constraints, internal structures, and adversary relationships.

Once a conflict’s conditions and strategies are established, the next step explains why some conflicts escalate rapidly and others simmer slowly for years. Escalation occurs through two main branches: the intensity of inducement and the impact on those engaged in the struggle. The authors tie escalation and de-escalation practices to previous chapters’ conflict strategies, illustrating destructive and constructive elements. At the same time, the analysis isolates elements through three overarching factors. Identifying strategic channels between adversaries as an interdependent mechanism explains influence exertion by different states and agencies to create behavioral change. One counterintuitive example first suggested conciliatory practices result in escalatory behavior and included British and French concessions to Nazi Germany in 1938 (p. 173).

Finally, the last two chapters examined resolving conflict through mediation and settlement. These two practices show a true constructive philosophy in attempting to produce mutually beneficial outcomes. The authors do offer that the true constructive nature of any conflict’s settlement may only be judged ultimately through evaluation against universal justice and human rights standards. Fortunately, a secondary approach is offered in the text through game theory applications of win/win, win/lose, or lose/lose. These outcomes are further influenced by whether they result from a negotiated or non-negotiated settlements with the latter deemed as significantly more violent. Throughout, just as each conflict was assessed in three areas, conflict resolution is assessed in three change areas: environmental, internal social order, and one’s adversaries.

One of the text’s greatest strengths—and weaknesses—was the use of a wide range of examples. The examples ranged from well before the modern era to events as current as the recent Iran deal. No example contained sufficient detail to be termed a case study, and many felt as though their explanation and causation was lacking. One instance was the recent agreement with Iran allowing it to renew nuclear processing before recent, renewed US sanctions called into question whether the Iranians are compliant with their declared treaty positions. A second instance is a non-sourced Cuban example, suggesting US sanctions against Cuba were equally destructive to both sides. While the Cuban example was interesting, no support was offered suggesting how the example was destructive or which effects were measured. While noting only two examples here, similar examples could be selected from across the work regarding items such as the Iraq war, world trade protests, or apartheid reactions. Most were excellent and easily understood, but occasional examples seemed to lack sufficient depth to support broader understanding. Another disappointing facet was that the text failed to reference new additions to this edition versus elements retained from older versions. Good comparisons help readers understand why the new book is required and when an electronic copy or other quick reference might be sufficient.

This text was useful and informative. The emphasis on constructive outcomes and the subsequent constructivist lens applied against existing social conflicts helped broaden my own understanding regarding how conflicts occur. I particularly enjoyed the links presented to interdependence theory, as suggested by Joseph Nye, demonstrating where state and nonstate actors use multiple channels with indeterminate hierarchy as a means to de-emphasize military power. Constructive Conflicts offers more of a textbook approach than a structured read while still including sufficient material to move the reader along. The more valuable chapters are the later ones focusing on mediation and settlement rather than historical perspective. Airmen who work in planning or intelligence analysis certainly want to add this book to their shelf to help inform them as to how powers fight, and resolve, their conflicts.


Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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