Conflict Resolution is a fairly young field. How did you become interested in it?
I've always been drawn to international relations and the set of obstacles facing countries and their citizens—cultural differences, legal barriers, political orientation divides—and how they intersect when parties interact. The potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding is constantly in the shadows. National identity and pride get in the way too. This is not only true when hostilities are brewing and conflict escalation is running apace in preparation for war, but even when everyone wants to cooperate and be friends. In sports, travel, and trade, signing a bilateral agreement between people or between governments can be complicated. These differences make it difficult, creating conflict. The centerpiece of international politics study, not surprisingly, is conflict. It's always there.
So, I became a student of international conflict and discovered diplomacy, which is basically another term for conflict resolution. But the world of official diplomacy is a world apart: mostly, professional diplomats circulate among the governmental elite and beyond the reach of others. Their skills and services, smoothing out issues of disagreement separating parties, are not widely available. A good diplomat consistently practices alternative dispute resolution techniques. These skills probably reflect innate talent in combination with challenging experience. Diplomacy means conflict resolution. I was intrigued by problem-solving more than conflict creation, perhaps because it was given less attention. Everyone want to know how things got worse; I wondered how they got better. To me this was a more important issue. Conflicts were commonplace; conflict resolution was not. And, why all the attention to conflict when the real story behind understanding human progress was conflict resolution?
These crusading academic ideas gradually acquired more depth and structure as I worked on my doctoral dissertation topic: the Kashmir dispute, a case of up-and-down tensions (including wars, cease-fire accords, an arms race) between India and Pakistan that started in 1947 and hasn't been solved yet. It was a rather random process that brought me to this point; I had never planned to get a Ph.D., nor to research a conflict in South East Asia. I wrote a research proposal on the Kashmir crisis in a class, Politics of India (a subject I knew absolutely nothing about); other students worked on economic and social development issues affecting the Indian state, but since I was the only International Politics student in the class, the professor assigned me this topic. He liked the paper and decided I ought to join the doctoral program for I already had a dissertation prospectus, a reversed linear process! Well, why not...
What particular ideas attracted your attention? What events influenced your thoughts?
The essence of the drama of conflict lies in its resolution, wrote Kenneth Boulding in his classic book, Conflict and Defense. This idea, poetically expressed, has been my mantra. Boulding was an economist and peace activist,very successful in both areas; his work is theoretically rigorous, an impressive application of scientific standards and systematic quantitative analysis for understanding conflict resolution. But it's an abstract approach, away from the world of people. For historical reading, Bob Jervis's work on misperception has always been a favorite. Tom Schelling, another economist makes the game theory case for conflict resolution; Hubert Blalock, a sociologist presents a compelling argument for group identity, ideology and willingness to cooperate in Power and Conflict. These scholars stand tall; their works, though, are not standard fare on Conflict Resolution reading lists—too dated, too abstract, too complicated—I don't know. But they pushed my interest in the field, while particular events, as such did not. It's the sway of the big ideas, macro causes that influence the world and micro perceptions and interpretations of these forces, that have always sparked my interest in Conflict Resolution.
Have your ideas about the field changed over time?
Well, yes. The Conflict Resolution field has grown, it's got name recognition. Just a few years back, ACR, the premier professional association was created from smaller, specialized groups of lawyers, educators, counselors who came into a single tent: Conflict Resolution became home base. That unifying move suggested something broader was at stake and would now be taken seriously. President Bush actually used the term in a public speech in Virginia (he was talking about family disputes, not the war in Iraq, but it's a start). Academic conferences, a journal, special dictionaries and handbooks, critical assessment of the subject—all of these accruements exist in the field of Conflict Resolution, strong indicators that the subject has gained respect in the social sciences. Conflict Resolution of the sixties meant peaceniks. Since the 1980s, the Legal profession has been popularizing the ADR theme. The corporate world now speaks of win-win solutions. Diplomats learn the Fisher-Ury technique. These are huge changes, both in accepting the conflict resolution idea, and in admitting it is a serious, developed subject for study.
Another development: my image of conflict resolution expanded into a search for unifying knowledge across various disciplines: psychology, sociology, management, human communications, among others, presented by relevant theories in these diverse areas. There is a tendency for academics to think in tunnel-vision terms. Exploring Conflict Resolution interests on the DU campus, make me think more broadly; this was exciting—we could think about forming a multidisciplinary-based community of scholars. Realizing the richness of campus resources and educational quality at DU,
I was convinced we could offer something unique. The entire building process proceeded inductively, where one contact would led me to another, creating, in the end, a solid network. The net result was a Conflict Resolution Graduate Program that combined six different academic units at the University—a first, and a process itself that was an exercise in conflict resolution!
Your books and research interests focus on military intervention and international terrorism—conflict. Does this work connect to conflict resolution?
I firmly believe in straddling two opposing camps—international security and conflict resolution. Both are important to the course of global political events, and the two communities need to speak to one another to understand their linkage, rather than adopted a segmented approach. My current research combines all of my interests—intervention, terrorism and conflict resolution—and arose from puzzlement over the rise and fall of terrorism. We know something about triggers and causes of terrorism (foreign intervention is critical) but I wanted to understand how terrorist campaigns come to an end, where negotiation entered the scene. My current book project addresses that issue, looking at several historical cases: U.S.-Cuba conflict and Hijacking Terrorism, settled in 1973; U.S-Iran Conflict and Teheran Hostage-taking Terrorism, settled in 1981; and U.S.-Iran Conflict and Lebanon Kidnapping Terrorism, settled in 1991. It is absolutely fascinating to understand the negotiation tactics used by the parties, and what style reaps what rewards. It's not public knowledge, and it is a very important topic. My research, part of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis project, "Negotiating with Terrorists," will be presented in Vienna in June.
You seem energized talking about Conflict Resolution. Why are you passionate about it?
It's the key to security, survival and contentment in the 21st Century. We all function more creatively and more efficiently under these conditions. Conflict is costly, it zaps energy and limits human growth.
What are the greatest opportunities for Conflict Resolution students? Any advice to offer?
Right now is the perfect time to be a student of Conflict Resolution—the field is fresh, ideas are new, public recognition is growing. Set these developments alongside the world of turmoil and violence, whether in the home, in the community, at school or in the workplace, and the need for expert practitioners skilled in mediation, facilitation and negotiation techniques is obvious. Our graduates are getting in on the ground floor and I believe this is very important for the future. Advice? Take theory seriously, it helps you analyze situations. Consider integrating different substantive perspectives in Conflict Resolution (management, law, social work, social psychology, international relations) it helps you get a broader, unified picture. Think about the spiritual approach to peace, Buddhism and Yoga traditions offer a calming approach. And remember, the aim is peace and harmony.
Dr. Karen Feste is the Director of the Graduate Program in Conflict Resolution and a Professor in the Graduate School of International Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview was edited for space and formatting considerations.