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Proposal: The Constructive Conflict Initiative – A Joint Call for an Expanded Effort to Address the Full Scale and Complexity of the Intractable Conflict Problem

The biggest (and most neglected) reason why the United States (and so many other countries) are having so much trouble wisely and equitably addressing the many problems they face is because they can't constructively handle the many intractable conflicts that inevitably surround those problems.

The Issue

Problem Defined

We believe that the destructive way in which so many societies now address complex, large-scale, intractable conflict represents the single gravest threat to humanity and the planet.  Escalated conflicts undermine democracy, increase injustice and inequality, strengthen authoritarians, and make it nearly impossible for societies to wisely and equitably respond to problems like climate change. Destructive conflict also increases the risk of state failure, large-scale violence, and war.   Solving the conflict problem will require large-scale efforts to increase the utilization of what we now know and the development of new ideas for meeting currently unmet conflict challenges.

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Failure to Look for AlternativesMORE

In general, the public is not focused on the need to implement more constructive approaches to conflict. They see today's destructive conflicts as an unavoidable fact of life and they are increasingly willing to do all that is necessary to make sure that their side wins (even if it means violating previous moral taboos). They have consistently underrated the danger and allowed the political process to deteriorate toward the point where it is now having trouble protecting anyone's interests. In the resulting cynical environment, the steps needed to defend and strengthen democratic institutions are not being effectively taken.

Missing Common VisionMORE

While there is broad recognition of democracy's many past failures and injustices, there is much less agreement on exactly what those failures and injustices are and, more importantly, what a future democracy that we'd all like to live in might actually look like.  We desperately need to cultivate and then pursue a 21st-century vision that will build on the best of past democratic ideals, ensure that the human needs of the citizenry are met, and give everyone in our highly diverse societies the freedom to live life as they choose (as long as they extend those rights to others).

Scale and Social ComplexityMORE

With many millions of people involved in today's big society-wide conflicts, it has become increasingly difficult to get the multitudes of disparate stakeholders with widely divergent and competing interests to work together on complex and interlocking sets of social problems.  We need to figure out how to adapt traditional, table-oriented, elite-leadership negotiation processes to today's diverse and much less hierarchical environment with its "narrowcast" mass media, divisive social networks, and "mobilize-the- base" politics that focuses less on collaboration and more on demonizing opponents. In short, we need to develop better mechanisms for working together at a very large-scale.

Psychological ComplexityMORE

People are not purely rational actors driven by the quantitative cost-benefit calculations of experts.  Real world human decision-making tends to subordinate such rational calculations to a far more complex and subjective set of thought processes which are, in turn, based on complex information flows involving the full array of interpersonal, as well as mass media and social network, interactions.  This means that efforts to promote more constructive conflict handling practices need to be adapted in ways that better account for and work with the ways in which people actually receive information, communicate and think.

The "Destructive-Conflict-As-Usual" Industrial Complex MORE

The danger posed by the "military industrial complex" is but one example of cases in which those who profit from destructive approaches to conflict tend to act in ways that perpetuate those approaches.  There is, unfortunately, a parallel political dynamic in which, for example, media companies base their business models around intensifying political divisions and then sell coverage of those divisions. Interest groups also tend to go beyond legitimate advocacy and unfairly demonize political opponents. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it's hard to get people to understand the need to change their behavior, if their job depends on not understanding it.

Divide and Conquer Conflict ActorsMORE

To be successful, democratic institutions must also be able to prevail in the face of sustained and sophisticated attacks by cynical, Machiavellian actors trying to advance their authoritarian and plutocratic goals by using divide-and-conquer tactics. These actors, who are often extremely well funded, typically take advantage of democratic norms and institutions to sugarcoat their decidedly non-democratic objectives.  It is also clear that such tactics have become a significant form of international aggression. Of special concern is the fact that today's high-tech propaganda tools are proving especially good at meeting the scale and complexity challenges posed above.

Go deeper
Things YOU Can Do To Help Blog

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess - (Invalid date)


This blog contains posts highlighting things everyone--not just powerful people, not just important or rich people--but everyone of us --can do to help limit the dynamics that lead to destructive and intractable conflicts.

Conflict Frontiers Online Seminar Series & Blog

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess - (Invalid date)


This seminar series takes a complexity-oriented approach to examining frontier-of-the-field issues related to difficult and intractable conflicts. We also explain a "massively parallel peacebuilding" strategy for better addressing such conflicts. 

Conflict Fundamentals Online Seminar/Blog

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess - (Invalid date)


This seminar presents core knowledge from the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields---knowledge that is, to a large extent, considered a "starting point" for our more advanced Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series.  

Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Editors - (Invalid date)


Readable news and opinion articles, "infographics" and reports that help us understand the costs--and hence, urgency -- of the conflict problem, the dynamics that make it so difficult,  alternative responses, and innovative success stories about people who have successfully addressed the problem in different settings.

Beyond Intractability / CRInfo Knowledge Base

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Editors - (Invalid date)


The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base contains 1000s of pages of material on ways of more constructively addressing both "regular," negotiable conflicts, and highly challenging intractable conflicts.  It now has theoretical and practical articles and case studies written by over 400 academic and practical experts.


The Constructive Conflict Initiative is the latest in a series of projects undertaken by the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium under the direction of Guy and Heidi Burgess.  Over the last 30 years the Burgesses have compiled, from the contributions of over 500 expert conflict practitioners, educators, and scholars, an increasingly sophisticated series of free online knowledge-base systems (and associated learning materials) designed to make it easier for general audiences to understand conflict problems and find more constructive ways of addressing those problems.  The resulting Beyond Intractability system (https://www.beyondintractability.org/) currently serves approximately 150,000 unique users each month.

Heidi Burgess
Guy Burgess

The Solution

Proposed Actions
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Start with a Modest but Realistic First Step MORE

Given the overwhelmingly destructive way in which societies are now handling so many conflicts, reversing course will obviously take the time and the efforts of an enormous number of people.  We ultimately seek to help mobilize a very large and multifaceted effort that crosses party lines and integrates the full range of conflict-related disciplines in ways that integrate theory, research, education, and practice. Our immediate objective is much more modest.  We simply want to get a more people to recognize the seriousness of the intractable conflict problem and start thinking about, taking, and supporting much expanded efforts to address it.

Initial Planning and RecruitmentMORE

The first step toward making an ambitious project like this a reality is the systematic recruitment of a very broadly-based network of committed participants willing to help develop a detailed project vision and then help do the work needed to make that vision a reality. Accordingly, we are seeking funds for an initial effort to identify potential project participants and collect suggestions for refining the project design. Our plan is to do this by systematically reaching out to a continually expanding circle of communities who approach the conflict problem from differing perspectives and with differing types of substantive knowledge.

Planning Conference and Follow-on ProcessMORE

As the next big step, we would like to convene a small working conference that would bring together experts on the various aspects of the conflict problem to develop, in a small group setting, the broad outline for a series of realistic and fundable projects that would, in turn, advance efforts to deal with particular conflict problems.  The personal relationships developed during such a meeting would also enable longer-term and more extensive online collaboration that would ultimately transform broad ideas into formal proposals outlining scopes of work to be undertaken by specific project teams.

Online Learning Materials MORE

The kind of very large-scale effort to deal with the conflict problem that we are proposing would differ significantly from the kinds of efforts that have traditionally been associated with the conflict and peacebuilding fields.  To help get people "up to speed" on the ambitious agenda we are proposing, we are seeking funds to "build out" Moving Beyond Intractability's collection of free, online learning materials.  Our goal is to show people how a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics can help them better protect and advance their narrow interests while also protecting the larger Commons on which we all depend.


We all currently living in a saturated information environment in which people are flooded with information sources promising to tell them exactly what they want to hear. Promoting new ways of thinking in such an environment is obviously an enormous undertaking that is one of the big goals of the Initiative. Over the shorter term, however, a modest publicity budget would upgrade the Beyond Intractability system to better compete in this environment by adding things like podcasts, a YouTube channel, Facebook groups, and other outreach features to the system.

Expected Results
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Our ability to quantify the Initiative's expected results will, of course, be dependent upon the amount of funding actually received and the associated scope of work that that funding makes possible.

Plan DevelopmentMORE

Finalization of plans for the Constructive Conflict Initiative in ways that enable it to attract interest and support from a very broad cross-section of the population.


Persuasion of substantial numbers of people to become much more actively involved in efforts to address the conflict problem (including the initiation of many independently funded, spin-off projects).

Public Support MORE

Increased public support for efforts to replace "us versus them" thinking with joint efforts to promote more constructive approaches to conflict.

Learning MaterialsMORE

Production of widely-used learning materials that increase the effectiveness of those doing conflict-related work.

Organizational Structure MORE

Development of a preliminary organizational structure that encourages and supports the above efforts.


Initiative plans call for pursuing the project's long-term goals through a sequence of increasingly sophisticated and ambitious "action" projects in each of the areas described above: networking, planning, learning materials, and publicity.  Our intention is to start with the relatively modest series of projects in each of these four areas and then, based on the lessons learned, develop plans for a series of "next generation" efforts in each area.  As a starting point for discussion we are looking at the following minimal and preferred funding levels for for the first round of action projects: Networking – $20-50,000;  Planning Conference – $50-200,000; Learning Materials: $25-100,000; and Publicity – $10-50,000.  Once we have a clear image of funding levels that might be available, we would expect to prepare detailed proposals outlining how the funds would be used.

The Conversation

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