Conflict resolution and negotiation in an era of growing uncertainty

Rising nationalism, persistent threats of terrorism and North Korea’s unpredictability are just some of the issues that have contributed to growing international tension in recent times. This has put increased pressure on world leaders to engage in effective conflict management to ensure peace.

Conflict has always been present in one form or another, from the devastating international World Wars of the 20th century to subnational and regional conflicts that persist today. Although wars in the past few decades have generally been contained within countries and states, a US intelligence report predicts dark times ahead for the world, with rising nationalism, anti-globalisation and terrorism all increasing the risk of conflict that could potentially alter the global landscape.

The possibility for disputes has been further increased by globalisation, which has resulted in higher levels of connectivity that drive interactions across economic, political and social dimensions. Transnational conflict has also become more prevalent due to people fleeing unsafe conditions by crossing borders.

It is hence becoming increasingly important to focus on finding solutions through conflict management, which looks at constructive ways to transform disputes. Political leaders and public administrators have to be particularly skilful in conflict management to ensure that things run smoothly. Here are three ways in which leaders can resolve conflict and engage in effective negotiation.

1. Engage, not isolate

In order to negotiate successfully, political leaders have to learn how to engage the opposing party in a constructive manner. One of the biggest current threats to global peace is terrorism. Francesco Mancini, Associate Dean and Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said in an interview with Global-is-Asian: “Disenfranchised societies and groups within countries… can become easy prey (for) radical groups. The more you marginalise these groups, the more radicalisation is likely to happen.” This accurately sums up the issue with current approaches in the West – countries and societies tend to isolate populations at risk instead of engaging them.

In the Philippines, however, President Rodrigo Duterte has established relationships with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front in order to achieve productive dialogue with them. With the Philippine army still battling Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated militants in Marawi, this is important in preventing the spread of ISIS propaganda. Addressing widespread poverty and youth unemployment by educating the next generation of Muslim youth will also help integrate them into society instead of leaving them vulnerable to radicalisation.

Apart from terrorism, the other huge threat to geopolitical stability is the unpredictability of rogue nations such as North Korea. Heavy sanctions and increasingly numerous country alliances with the US have not halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. In fact, the programme has developed at a faster rate over time. Instead of President Trump’s approach of threatening “fire and fury”, emphasising diplomacy whilst maintaining sanctions could de-escalate tensions and preserve the potential for a halt on its nuclear weapons development.

2. Seek cross-cultural collaboration that addresses the needs of all parties

In regions where there is great diversity, conflicts such as territorial struggles or secessionist movements are common if various groups feel that their interests are not adequately addressed. When it comes to separatist movements or protests, governments tend to respond with force, such as the Myanmar army’s crackdown on the Rohingya. Unfortunately, violence ultimately reinforces oppression of the minority.

On the other hand, peaceful cross-cultural negotiation can be a way to ensure that the needs of all parties are met. For example, despite the immense diversity of Southeast Asia, leaders in the region have managed to successfully cooperate by adopting the ‘ASEAN way’, which is often lauded for reaching consensus through establishing common interests. Though some criticise it as being slow in achieving progress, it has resulted in positive results, such as the endorsing of the framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

Research has shown that negotiating across cultures tends to lead to less favourable outcomes as we are inclined to rely on stereotypes or interpret behaviour through our own lens of culture. To avoid misunderstandings, collaboration has to take into account cultural barriers.

Another important aspect of cross-cultural negotiation is how leaders verbally address the issue. It is important to avoid exclusionary language in conflict resolution. It may appear simplistic to say that words such as ‘them’ encourage divisions whereas words such as ‘usencourage inclusion, but these nonetheless have an impact on our resolve to seek mutual understanding and respect. Therefore, leaders should be careful about their choice of words when engaging in negotiation.

3. Cooperate with peacebuilding institutions

Peacebuilders are institutions that help mediate conflict between groups and organisations. Some of the better-known institutions include the United Nations (UN), International Committee of the Red Cross and International Crisis Group.

In instances of armed conflict, the UN has carried out numerous peacekeeping missions. Although a few were considered failures, such as those in Rwanda and Somalia, other missions have been considered more successful, such as Sierra Leone’s. If a country wishes to settle a dispute by arbitration, there are mechanisms such as the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, which provide advisory opinions or mediation services.

Despite the existence of these numerous peacebuilding institutions that have proven themselves to be capable of effecting change, countries do not engage them often. This is likely due to the importance that states attach to sovereignty in international affairs, especially for larger powers that perceive themselves as independent actors in the global order.

For such peacebuilding institutions to be effective, it is therefore essential that leaders embroiled in disputes seek and accept assistance from them. In the aforementioned interview with Mancini, when asked about the capability of the UN to resolve conflict, he stated that “the UN can get teeth if stronger member states give them teeth”.

Maintaining an equilibrium

Hard and soft power, cultural differences and peacebuilding initiatives are just some of the factors that influence conflict management. There are also other approaches that have been studied in depth. Examples include structural prevention, which focuses on institutionalising rules to strengthen nonviolent channels for dispute resolution; or normative change that sees the development and institutionalisation of principles, such as non-interference, to create a new context for managing conflict. Ultimately, leaders need to navigate each situation carefully to find the best possible way to address the concerns of all parties and maintain the delicate balance of peace in this increasingly volatile world.


This piece was written by Prethika Nair based on an interview given by Francesco Mancini, Associate Dean and Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.