Utilizing the Tools of Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction

Policymakers face increasing challenges when utilizing the tools of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. These devices are interconnected, however, since the end of the Cold War their connections have become critically important due to the overwhelming degree of intrastate conflict. This essay will explain conflict resolution and reconstruction as well as why conflict is notably internal post-Cold War. Understanding the connections between political, security and economic tools of resolution and reconstruction will aid in understanding how they are applied. As well, this essay will analyze the challenges actors come up against when using those tools in an attempt to resolve a conflict of notable intrastate dynamics.

Conflict Explained

This section will define conflict resolution and reconstruction methods along with the differences between conflict in the Cold War and post-Cold War.

Resolution: Conflict resolution is a highly dynamic process that entails numerous factors, actors, interests, and timetables often executed autonomously and ultimately aimed at reducing or stopping the violence in conflict. Conflict resolution is not ending or avoiding a conflict entirely, although that is certainly the desired result. Conflict resolution is not about the application of force within a conflict, neither is it about who wins or loses in the end. Conflict resolution is also not only the top-level television-worthy diplomacy of the United Nations (UN) and state governments, although they do factor into the process. All of those things go into resolving a conflict, as well, the processes of conflict and resolution will occur simultaneously. Jacob Bercovitch and Rich Jackson (2012) define conflict resolution as “a range of formal or informal activities undertaken by parties to a conflict, or outsiders, designed to limit and reduce the level of violence in a conflict, and to achieve some understanding on the key issues in conflict, a political agreements, or a jointly acceptable decision on future interactions and distribution of resources.” (p. 1)

Reconstruction: Post-conflict reconstruction focuses on the scenarios and processes of reconstituting a nation after a conflict has come to an end (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 90). Post-conflict reconstruction does not exactly occur after a conflict has ended. Much like conflict resolution, reconstruction occurs along with the actual conflict. As John Hamre and Gordon Sullivan (2002) state, “postconflict does not mean that conflict is concluded in all parts of a given country’s territory at the same time” (P. 90). As such, reconstruction has to be looked at more as a subject than a linear step towards resolution.

Post-conflict reconstruction can be further broken down into interconnected primary categories of security, law and order, social and economic well-being, and governance (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, pp. 91-92). Security concerns are not only the dangers outside national borders but also the safe conditions internally needed for a population. The creation of law and order is concerned with internal safety just as security is, but also focuses on reconciliation and justice between combatants. Social and economic well-being is the focus of securing the basic needs and services a population needs to carry out their daily lives. This is broad category focusing on a range of topics including emergency relief, education, health, food security, and trade both domestic and foreign (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p 91). Governance, as it sounds, focuses on the creation of a robust and sustainable civil society that can administer policies. How a policymaker will secure these services greatly depends on the particular conflict and what is tenable, however, since the end of the Cold War there has been a noticeable difference in conflict, conflict resolution, and reconstruction.

The Cold War Ends: The end of the Cold War matters because it created the space for long-held intrastate conflict to reignite or take center stage in the international community. Analysts use this as a watershed moment in conflict studies because much of the dialogue at the time was advocating a future of sustained peace and stability (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 2). What the evidence shows, however, is that conflict is not slowing down in quantity and is overwhelmingly intrastate in composition. Bercovitch and Jackson state, “since 1945, there have been 1,776 conflicts, and that 1,540 of these, or 86.7 percent, are internal conflicts” (p. 3). They go on to communicate that since 1989, 89 percent of all conflict is internal (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 3). Those figures defend a noted change in recent conflict and the need to understand the differences between pre and post-Cold War conditions. Understanding this shift is essential to understanding the added pressures facing the international community in resolving conflict.

During the Cold War: Conflict resolution and reconstruction before the end of the Cold War directly relates to the balance-of-power dynamics between the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Russia). The term nation-building describes the preferred Western response to reconstruction (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 90). The American created Marshal Plan, the program that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, is arguably the best example of nation-building. The Marshall Plan was a massive humanitarian effort that helped raise the war-torn continent out of utter devastation. However, the strategic importance of a partner in Europe that can act as a buffer against Russia was not lost to the US (Kunz, 1997, p. 162). Diane Kunz (1997) describes the Marshall Plan in saying it “served as the economic and political foundation for the Western alliance that waged the Cold War. It allowed the United States gradually to engage itself in the bipolar confrontation by first committing money, not blood” (p. 162). The Marshal Plan placed heavy emphasis on the participation of the armed forces and the installation of institutions created out of US interests. The international community under the firm leadership of the US established organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, as well as the foundations for European integration (Kunz, 1997, p. 163).

By the 1970’s, large-scale efforts at nation-building by using a substantial degree of force and implanting foreign institutional models went out of fashion. Japan, Germany, and Korea can all be taken as successful nation-building endeavors (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 90). Hamre and Sullivan (2002) in describing the Vietnam War as the turning point say, “many of the term’s negative connotations are related to that war and to efforts by US armed forces to assemble a friendly government as part of the US strategy to win the war” (p. 90).

After the Cold War: Intrastate conflict is not a new concept but in the post-Cold War international community conflict is triggered by identity issues to a much greater degree. Bercovitch and Jackson describe this further in saying because, “the prevalence of religious and ethnic wars based on identity issues rather than territorial ones, the traditional approaches to conflict resolution have been rendered largely ineffective” (p. 8). As Muzaffer Yilmaz (2007) states, “ethnic conflict may lead to the collapse of the state, the collapse, by itself, may give rise to inter-ethnic conflicts. The reason for this is that the state, especially the modern state, has many positive functions in terms of sustaining social peace” (p. 20). The compounding effect of ethnic conflict to quickly bring a country to failure matters greatly to the international community. When a country collapses, it can become a harbor for terrorist groups, criminal organizations, privateering, and anarchic societal settings (Kaplan, 2010, p. 81).

Another defining characteristic change in conflict resolution and reconstruction post-Cold War is the rise of non-state actors and intergovernmental organizations. As noted above, terrorist groups and criminal organization represent a non-state actor along with international non-profits (NGO), regional unions, as well as intergovernmental unions. While these types of community are nothing new, it is the degree of involvement in intrastate conflict post-Cold War that is different today. The importance of the UN has only increased since the end of the Cold War, but many are recognizing the increasing importance NGO’s play in conflict resolutions (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 12).

Of equal importance to the rise of NGO’s is the growth of terrorist organizations that seemingly flourish in conditions of intrastate conflict and failed states (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002 p. 86). Their ability to circumvent and destroy civic institutions, as in the case with Somalia, or to allude traditional military forces, as is the case in Afghanistan makes them particularly hard for a state to subdue. Moreover, their comparative advantage to reek havoc on the general population and attract youth from around the world combine into a problem that continuously plagues the world.

Components and Complications

The next section will further define the tools actors use to work towards resolution and reconstruction post-conflict. As well, the section will highlight the seemingly insurmountable challenges those actors face while using those tools.

Security: While the instruments and methods of conflict resolution and reconstruction are interconnected, obtaining a manageable amount of security takes precedent. As Scott Feil (2002) describes by saying, “security, which encompasses the provision of collective and individual security to the citizenry and to the assistors, is the foundation on which progress in other issues areas rests” (p. 98). If the internal actors involved in an intrastate conflict cannot maintain security and an international force is called in to keep the peace, it becomes difficult to recall those forces for fear of a return to violence (Feil, 2002, p. 99).

The problems of traditional force become further compounded by the resources needed to maintain and monitor the peace. As Hamre and Sullivan (2002) say, “naval and intelligence assets can be stretched only so far for so long” (p. 87). Over-reaching the resources and functionality of the military causes it to lose effectiveness in its chief function of maintaining safety from external threats and providing assistance to the processes of law and order in conflict situations. As post-Cold War intrastate conflict is often identity-based, factored with a rise in terrorist activity using sophisticated technology, and protracted in length this presents heavy strain when utilizing a military in traditional Cold-War nation-building methods. As such, the most effective means for protection and disarmament by military force is an evolving norm.

Politics: The traditional political and diplomatic efforts to resolve intrastate conflict are fickle and ill-suited to the task of mediating modern conflict. The timing of diplomatic product is often lacking and erodes useful security. Summarizing Fiel (2002), the transition of functionality from security forces to traditional forms of development assistance or the private sector often stalls (p. 99). He illustrates this further in describing how troops in the Balkans went from subduing belligerents to conducting drug awareness and prevention training (Feil, 2002, p. 99).

Political and diplomatic processes do not only hold-up other areas of resolution but also have associated risks. For instance, the challenges facing regional unions working in conflict resolution is often a lack of resources and access to the mechanisms that enact positive change. (Feil, 2002, p. 105). This is due to a myriad of reasons, but the root problem stems from a lack of unity among international actors and an increase in overall actors partaking in peace processes. As Hamre and Sullivan (2002) state, “incoherence and competition among outside actors can destroy a local government and society” (p. 93). As conflict is a struggle between combatants when external actors get involved and play loyalties, they are often held responsible for the clean-up by both the country in conflict and the international community (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 88).

The timing in which outside mediation and negotiation are most useful present a paradox of sorts. As the fatalities in a conflict increase the rate of success for meditation decreases, however, combatants do not want to hold talks until a deadly stalemate is reached (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 95). If those conducting the mediation proceedings are an outside actor they not only have to contend with the will of combatants but the political willpower of local constituents for the long-term support needed for procedures (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 98).

Finally, there is a deficit in applicable international law that deals with intrastate conflict that causes the political and diplomatic processes to at times stand without precedent. Yilmaz (2007) explains this in saying, “when wars are fought within countries, existing international law, as it primarily regulates interstate relations, does not directly apply” (p. 29).

Economics: Economic and social tools used to either penalize aggressors or bring peace in conflict situations have unintended consequences making their application challenging. Just as security and the politics of conflict are interconnected, the economics of conflict will place influence on the remaining two factors. International law does use sanction either by states, intergovernmental organizations or multinational corporations. However, those tools of economic sanctions are often used to coerce aggressors before conflict breaks out (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, p. 48).  This essay focuses on the social and economic needs in post-conflict reconstruction and the tools of application.

Social and economic well-being is broad and highly variable in application. Social and economic problems also carry on with the regular day-to-day life of a population after the conflict is over. The needs in this category fall into two core areas. Hamre and Sullivan (2002) state, “as the situation stabilizes, attention shifts from humanitarian relief to long-term social and economic development” (p. 91).

The primary challenge facing social and economic wellbeing in post-Cold War intrastate conflict is the severity of conflict found in identity issues and absences of local institutions robust enough to handle the social and economic needs of a country. Identity conflict is often deeply personal, and the pain is quickly invoked by those feeling victimized. Yilmaz (2007) describes this as historical trauma (p. 21). This applies to social and economic well-being, security, and governance because identity issues if left unresolved, will not resolve and ultimately will be exacerbated by misplanning the tools of post-conflict reconstruction (Yilmaz, 2007, p. 23).

The lack of robust institutions able to handle the needs of a country creates a paradox in obtaining social and economic well-being. As noted above, institutions have a positive effect on social and economic prosperity. In summarizing Hamre and Sullivan (2002) once again,  social and economic assistance or well-being requires the institutions that do not exist in weak or failing states and the US is not prepared to trade with nation lacking local institutions (p. 94). This is a lofty challenge international actors must overcome to provide the services needed for life in a conflict nation. The potential to fall back into conflict because of an exacerbation of identity issues and a lack of well-being can halt the security and political processes needed to achieve resolution and reconstruction.

Reconfiguration and Conclusion

This final section will briefly cover potential new methods and tools that can handle post-Cold War conflict in a more efficient manner than traditional methods.

Reconfiguration: What creates the greatest challenges and roadblocks for conflict resolution is a lack of understanding, lack of coordination, issues of legitimacy, and issues of identity. These problems will halt obtaining security, political progress, and social and economic well-being which are dependent upon each other for success at resolving conflict. In describing the failures of Somalia, Seth Kaplan talks about a lack of understanding in the international community that top-down nation building policies do not work in intrastate conflict. Kaplan (2010) says, “the international communities unimaginative approach to state-building seriously misreads the Somali socio-political context, showing little understanding for how a top-down strategy impacts the state’s fluid, fragmented, and decentralized clan structure.” (p. 89) His approach would see that instead of focusing on a stronger central government, the international community should support a weak central government with a strong confederate structure providing the majority of authority (Kaplan, 2010, p. 90). This is not without its challenges but is more in the spirit of Somalia’s actual societal make-up.

A new approach to coordination both at the national level and within the international community would greatly benefit resolution progress. With increased terrorism and a rise in overall actors partaking in conflict, Hamre and Sullivan are correct in professing the need to create logical divisions of labor among donors and international actors for the proper planning and coordination of efforts (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 93). Hamre and Sullivan continue with the need for the US to shore up its internal institutions and regimes surrounding international conflict (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 95). By repairing institutions at home, the US can maximize response times and the effectiveness of raising funding (Hamre & Sullivan, 2002, p. 95).

Solving the issues of identity and legitimacy happens when domestic institutions are supported instead of imported governing methods. Summarizing Kaplan, he defends local institutions by describing the US military’s emphasis on local actors in Iraq and Afghanistan. As well as the United Kingdoms “drivers of change” program focusing on many of the same focal points found in critical theory (Kaplan, 2010, p. 95). Aspects of identity and legitimacy, however, hint at greater structural problems of state sovereignty that are beyond the scope of this essay. The issue of sovereignty becomes especially pointed when factoring in the rise of non-state actors competing with traditional state functions (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2012, pp. 11-14). As Kaplan described Somalia’s potential benefits to becoming less of a central state and more of a confederation, other weak or failing states will benefit from addressing the problems of conflict in lens other than that of importing a Western model of state authority (Kaplan, 2010, p. 91).

Conclusion: Conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction are complex and highly variable processes involving numerous factors. Since the end of the Cold War, conflict has taken on a characteristic typified in protracted identity-based fighting within a country. Conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction activities before the end of the Cold War are typical of large nation-building programs focused on military force and importing western models of state structure. Traditional nation-building does not work in intrastate conflict as defended above. This presents numerous challenges to international actors in addressing the needs of a conflict-torn country. Security, law, social and economic well-being, along with political participation must happen in connection with each other, or lasting resolutions will not hold. This is expressly challenging at resolving when protracted identity-based fighting will hamper all four processes. Looking at conflict through new lens aimed at deeper understanding, richer coordination, sensitivity to identity issues, and a reconfiguration of tradition state models provides a way to reduce but not eliminate the challenges in mitigating conflict in the 21st century.


Bercovitch, J., & Jackson, R. D. W. (2012). Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods, and Approaches. Ann Arbor, US: University of Michigan Press.

Feil, S. (2002). Building Better Foundations: Security in Postconflict Reconstruction. Washington Quarterly, 25(4), 97109.

Hamre, J. J., & Sullivan, G. R. (2002). Toward Postconflict Reconstruction. Washington Quarterly, 25(4), 8596.

Kaplan, S. (2010). Rethinking Statebuilding in a Failed State. Washington Quarterly, 33(1), 8197.

Kunz, D. B. (1997). The Marshall Plan Reconsidered. Foreign Affairs, 76(3), 162170.

Yilmaz, M. E. (2007). Intra-State Conflicts In The Post-Cold War Era. International Journal On World Peace, 24(4), 11­33.

You may also like

Leave a Reply