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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .

Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict
Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (eds.)

Washington D.C: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2005, 410pp. PB, ISBN 1 929223 60 9

The authors of this edited volume argue that just like the nettle plant, intractable conflicts will, invariably, cause pain to anyone who touches them. The obvious consequence of this is that most people, including ?would-be? interveners, would prefer not to touch them or to get involved with them. Those that still do become involved are not guaranteed success and thus the overall intractability can often remain. Therefore, the point of this book is to focus, primarily, on some of the challenges of mediating ?the spectre of conflicts that go on and on and defy most attempts at management? (99). In doing so, it is hoped that it will become more readily apparent exactly when third parties can help in such contexts and when their efforts are more likely to be thwarted.

The volume begins with an analysis of the meaning of intractability, an examination of the root causes of intractability, the different ?types? of intractability and the various challenges of negotiations in intractable conflicts. Offering eight cases study analyses -- Sudan, the Balkans, Angola, Colombia, Eurasia, Kashmir, North and South Korea, and the Middle East ? the work concludes with specific recommendations for third party intervention in such conflicts in order that they can, perhaps, help to make them tractable. As such then, the central argument of the volume is that seemingly intractable conflicts can actually become ?tractable? through a meditative process. The key question, however, is how do we determine whether and/or when third party intervention in such conflicts will help to facilitate a negotiation or create additional obstacles to peace?

For scholars of peace and conflict studies, this book will be a welcome addition since it attempts to marry new theoretical approaches to the issue of intractability with the evidence emerging from the considered case studies. For practitioners working in the field, the key recommendations offered are designed to help them attempt to ?create and exploit fluid moments of tractability? (376). Consequently, the book has a broad appeal, and offers something for everyone ? practical lessons for mediators, analytical lessons for students and scholars of the discipline, and up-to-date analysis of some of the world?s most enduring conflicts for all potential peacemakers including government officials, UN policy-makers and practitioners, NGO personnel and the academic community.

Clearly, as the case studies illustrate, an understanding of the historical, cultural and political context in which a conflict exists, is always critical. Much attention is given to the interplay of these variables in the various chapters. Sometimes, however, it is useful to isolate different variables for further in-depth examination. With this in mind, the greatest appeal of the book from my own perspective was that it began to give due regard to the role of leadership in such conflicts, arguing that ?third parties should give intense scrutiny to the role of leadership ? its presence, its absence, changes in its quality, and how to foster the emergence of leaders who can lead their societies out of the conflict trap? (377). Certainly, such scrutiny should extend beyond the third party mediators and, in particular, should include further scrutiny by the academic community in peace and conflict studies. Such future enquiry is critical given that within much of the existing peace and conflict literature there is a temptation to leave the leadership phenomenon as a factor so obvious as to overlook it. In those instances where the leadership phenomenon has been mentioned, the tendency has been to create unhelpful dichotomous distinctions between them (good and bad leaders; strong and weak leaders; heroes and villains etc) when the reality is often vastly more complex. As Schaffer and Schaffer argue in their chapter on Kashmir, ?there is no substitute for leadership? (316) and while the authors of this volume have made the role of leadership during both the conflicts and the peace processes implicit in their analysis, there is further room for a more explicit analysis. Hopefully, this will be the focus of a future USIP volume, and will be another welcome addition to this analysis of third party intervention in seemingly ?hopeless? cases.

Dr. Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Lecturer in Government, University of Ulster, INCORE Associate

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