Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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I wasn’t familiar with the term “frozen conflict” until I saw it applied to the current stalemate in the Ukraine, but apparently it has been used to describe other similar disputes in the past, especially dealing with other former territories of the Soviet Union. In the Ukraine, “frozen conflict” seems an apt description of a situation in which neither side can win, at least for the moment, but neither can formally accept the status quo either. The government of Ukraine refuses to acquiesce in the illegal seizure of a portion of its territory, but cannot reclaim that territory from Russia either, especially since a large number of people in the eastern part of the country support Russia. So they are forced, if not to agree, at least to live with a breakaway region of the country. And people who inhabit that region are forced to live with continuing tension, occasional outbreaks of violence, distrust and fear. Other countries like the US, have imposed sanctions or otherwise attempted to influence events, but nobody wants to start World War III over the Ukraine.

It’s a good reminder that not all conflicts are resolveable. “Resolution” of a conflict such as exists in Ukraine may be too ambitious a goal for now. What is needed is management of the conflict, to make life somewhat tolerable for the people affected by it. People need to develop a tacit understanding that flare-ups of violence should be avoided. People need to learn what topics to avoid in conversation; what neighbors to avoid; what side of the street to walk on. And people need to start building a few tentative bridges to the other side to prepare for the day when a fuller resolution might be possible.

Sometimes frozen conflict inspires the construction of borders and security fences, as have existed in the Korean peninsula for a lifetime, as in Berlin for a generation, as in Israel for most of its history, as in Cyprus for many years also. In other places the combatants cannot be so easily separated, as in Northern Island, and people just learn to associate with their own side. In most of these situations, the conflict is exacerbated by differences in culture, in religion, in language, in ethnicity, or in ideology, differences that allow each side to view the other side as “them,” somehow completely unlike “us.”

We have conflicts in our own country’s history that have existed since its founding. The most serious conflict, over race relations, was supposedly resolved by a bloody Civil War, but a system of white supremacy was allowed to remain in place for a century after that. This conflict was resolved more completely by the Civil Rights movement, but not entirely then either. Our nation’s frozen conflict still flares up today on the streets of New York City or Ferguson, Missouri. We can’t just make it disappear.

Yet we still have an urge, when faced with intractable conflicts such as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, or between the East and West of Ukraine, or the one that arises from our own history of slavery and discrimination, to push the parties to the bargaining table to hammer out an agreement that will finally solve the problem once and for all and enable them to live in peace. In many cases, it is probably more realistic instead to accept that the conflict is not going to be resolved in one fell swoop, and help the people affected by it develop just enough tolerance and understanding to get by.