Thinking Conflict

EDITORIAL, 21 Apr 2008

#5 | Johan Galtung

In an important article in the leading Austriannewspaper Der Standard (16-17/02/2008), Hans Küng, the famous presidentof the World Ethos Foundation, calls for more than “change” from a newUS president. He calls for basic change, guided by a new ethos. AndKüng gives a number of examples of misguided policies by the present USand Israeli administrations.

Notdifficult to agree. But something even more basic than a new ethos alsohas to happen, like coming to terms with conflicts where the USA isinvolved. And exactly with the term conflict, how to think aboutconflict, let alone solving it.

Of course, nobody has a monopoly on defining that rather key term,regulating the use of the word. But we are all entitled to discuss it.How that C-word is used does matter.

I remember from my childhood stories from the Wild West and the whitepioneers penetrating the wilderness with three dangers lurking andlurching: wild nature, wild animals, wild, savage, “hostile Indians”.Read The Journal of John Winthrop, the real founder of the USA, 12times elected governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, for stories.Hostile they were, and in addition “they hate us”. With that theconflict is defined as Attitude, hatred + Behavior, hostility; A + B.Today conveniently summarized as being “anti-American”, or worse:”terrorist”.

What is missing in the case of early colonist Winthrop?  Like thePilgrim Fathers, the 102 on the Mayflower in 1620–35 of themseparatist Puritans who had settled in the Netherlands–who founded thePlymouth Colony? The C for contradiction in an ABC-triangle forconflict. The idea of a contradiction over ownership and use of land.Much land and much contradiction. The colonists wanted to own what the”Indians” used as theirs.

And which term did they use when hatred + hostility spelt violence?Trouble, frequent in Anglo-American conflict speak.  Trouble is theirviolent behavior and hatred, meaning they have to be changed by a rangeof measures, from killing and bribing them to converting them, intofriendly, even loving Indians.

Unfortunately, there are deep implications flowing from this naiveté,by no way saying that hatred and hostile acts are not important. Whatis left out is the contradiction, the pro et contra dicere, talking forand against, Self and Other and the goals they have, what they want,their values and interests.  For Self and against Other are easy. Tolisten to for Other and against Self is harder, and very difficult ifone sees oneself as Good only and Other as pure Evil. So keep it likethat.

How do we get from the easy to the difficult? Through dicere, talking,talking with, also called a dialogue, through the word, the dicere, toidentify the problem,`issue,’ clash, incompatibility or whatever it iscalled.  The problem.

Take Iran. Hatred and hostility certificates attributed to the otherside simplify matters. They are like that. Launch sanctions. Very fewbelieve that they work by making the other side yield, like giving upenrichment. But one may believe in a different function: to stigmatize,to mark Iran for destruction like a tree is marked for felling, in theforest. Rather that than approaching the issue: regretting what USA-UKdid in 1953.

Take Hamas.  The attribute as “terrorist” makes talking with them atotal waste of time as their only goal is evil.  Of course that isfacade. The real problem with talking is that they might have somethingto say that would make the issue less clear and clean. There may besome light in what they say that might shed some shadows on our ownposition. As Carter found.

Take Syria. Spy on them, designate a building and kill two flies, Syriaand North Korea, with one strike: Israeli bombing.  Put together anarrative uncomfortably similar to Colin Powell’s one and a half hourUN Security Council presentation. Do not talk with them publicly. Butthe Syrian ambassador was on the media saying, let them play out theirnarrative, it will implode from the inside. We’ll explode it from theoutside. A nuclear facility with no barbed wire, alone in the desert,no security? Maybe Syria’s narrative will get the upper hand over anarrative designed to prevent trading North Korean nuclear disarmamentfor normalization (diplomatic relations-peace treaty), and revertingthe Golan Heights to Syria as a park and an economic free zone?

Take Venezuela, take Cuba. Paraguay goes left – something basic hashappened to the country that was devastated by their neighbors, eggedon by the UK, in 1874 for economic success due to collective landownership and self-reliance. That something is now all over LatinAmerica. Why not talk with all of them?

For lack of maturity. The USA has an immature, autistic approach to itsconflicts, like a spoilt child. A leadership has to come to grips withthe root of conflicts–not symptoms like hatred and hostility–thecontradiction itself, a problem in search of a solution. And be a goodteam player as USians often are; the team being the world. Seeing acontradiction as dangerous and as an opportunity to create somethingnew. Like cooperation with Iran on non-oil energy. Like cooperationwith Hamas on a two state solution. Like cooperation with Syria on aMiddle East Community, starting with the Golan Heights. Like a newAmerican Hemisphere, a true American Union – with the USA as an equalpartner, like Germany became in the EU.

So much challenge!  So much opportunity. So much, yes, joy!!

Galtung’s book 50 Years – 100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives, thefirst publication from the TRANSCEND University Press is launched thisweek; soon available from

A propos Hitler-vergleich und Johan Galtung: Fehlgeleitet. Galtungs Meinung in drei Worten: “Nie wieder Hitler!” Als Galtung 11 Jahre alt war, war er Kurierbursche für den norwegischen Widerstand gegen Hitler. Seine älteren Geschwister ebenfalls im Widerstand mussten das Land fliehen, sein Vater, ein hochrangiger HNO Arzt, war Gefangener im Konzentrationslager in Oslo und diente Hitlers Nazi- dort als Verhandlungspfand. Wie hat Galtung seine von den nazi-verübten persönlichen Traumata verarbeitet? Es gibt zahlreiche Bücher in denen Galtung-zitate noch und nöcher beschreiben, dass Gandhi dem jungen Galtung als Vorbild gedient hat, um nach dem Schlüssel zur Überwindung nicht nur der Gewalt wie er diese durch Hitler selbst erlebt hat zu suchen, sondern auch zur Überwindung der direkten, strukturellen, kuturellen Gewalt weltweit.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Apr 2008.

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