PEACE 2010. A global conflict management system, step by step

In his scenario, Mr. Fehsenfeld depicts not a major peace agreement but the development of a conflict management system, in which even small areas of common interest are used as the base on which to build trust. Wide access to a computer networking system plays an integral role in the feasibility of his plan. We were working backward. Our government was working very hard to make agreements with a government we didn't like or trust. This was bound to fail.

It was fascinating to watch the ideas develop -- it workesd almost as a group mind. It turned out that by using the computer network ideas were detached from ego.

Last September The Christian Science Monitor invited its readers to enter a contest -- Peace 2010. The invitation was to write an essay from the point of view of someone in the year 2010, telling how a lasting peace had been established among the nations of the world. By looking back from the year 2010, we hoped to show how a better world could evolve from a succession of events, not from a single conference. We also hoped to aid that process by engaging the thinking of intelligent persons on the side of a positive process. We chose four eminent outside judges to pick the three winners, whose essays have run Monday, Tuesday, and today on this page. The judges chose essays which, from their point of view, are both realistic and at least partially feasible scenarios for peace. Tomorrow and Friday we shall present two additional pages of excerpts from essays which further round out the approaches to peace most often suggested by the entrants.

Thomas Fehsenfeld runs an oil products service company in Michigan. He received an MBA from the University of Michigan in 1974. He has had an active interest in conflict resolution groups for several years, particularly in how the West could adapt the nonviolence principles of Gandhi. Although he has not written for publication before, the Peace 2010 announcement spurred him on to write one of the three winning entries.

The following is an excerpt from the online conference ``Peace in Our Time,'' which was held on the MacroNet Educational Network, May 17, 2010.

MN: There has been a great transformation in international relations during the past 25 years. During most of the 20th century, nations looked upon war as a terrible but necessary part of international relations. War and threats of war were their final resort when diplomacy had broken down.

In the short span of 25 years, this view has almost disappeared from the world. Military budgets worldwide have dropped to one-tenth their 20th-century levels (figures adjusted for deflation). The incidence of war has dropped to .25 wars per year from the 20th-century level of 1.5 per year.

Another measure of this change is that wars, when they do occur, have become less deadly. The last war to claim 100,000 victims was the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. Most wars today are settled quickly with the loss of less than 1,000 lives.

To help us understand this great change, we have invited Dr. John McConnell to join our conference. Welcome Dr. McConnell. McC: Thank you. MN: You played an important part in the changes that helped establish our current ``peace system.'' Could you explain how the McConnell network was established? McC: First, I have to disagree with your statement that what we now have is a ``peace system.'' We have as many conflicts as ever between nations -- it might be more accurate to say that we have a ``conflict management system.'' Peace, after all, is not something that humanity naturally seeks. MN: It would seem that everyone seeks peace -- statesmen are continually talking about it. McC: Of course they talk about it, but peace has very little to do with life, which is full of conflict. Nations seek prestige, wealth, power, and security. They look for peace only when the wolf is at the door and usually find that the wolf is not very interested in peace. MN: Isn't this merely a semantic quibble? McC: No. Peace is a transitory condition. It is a (usually short) ``era of good feelings'' between nations. Continual peace is neither possible nor desirable because it is through conflict that ideals are tested and either reaffirmed or changed.

Conflict management, on the other hand, is a very realistic goal. It allows conflicts to develop and find resolution, but directs them away from violence.

Our goal with the so-called McConnell network was to find strategies that would allow for conflicts of national interests, but keep them from erupting into violence. In certain instances, we found that conflicts had to be encouraged in the short run to keep them from festering into total conflicts. MN: What is the meaning of ``total conflict''? McC: It was a phrase we coined to describe those conflicts in which the only perceived solution is the destruction of the opponent. One of the most famous total conflicts were the many wars between Rome and Carthage which ended in the total destruction of Carthage. Our conflicts with the Soviets were at one time seen as total. MN: Returning to the McConnell network, please describe how it was formed, how it functioned, and some of the ideas it developed. McC: It began during the mid-1980s when there were serious questions about humanity's survival. I had been working for several years at the Russian Studies Institute of the University of Michigan and had published an article questioning our approach to relations with the Soviets.

It seemed to me that we were working backward. Our government was working very hard to make agreements with a government we didn't like or trust. This was bound to fail. MN: This is what you called the ``fallacy of legality.'' McC: Yes. I had begun to look at the US and the USSR as partners in the survival of the world. When you have a partner you trust and respect, you can carry on your business on a handshake. On the other hand, when two partners have a poor relationship, when they are continually jockeying for advantage, then no contract is sufficient. Any agreement devised by the mind of man can be circumvented by the mind of man.

I suggested that we had to find ways to improve the underlying relationship between us. If we did this, agreements would be much easier to conclude -- in fact, such an improvement would make many agreements unnecessary. MN: How would it make agreements unnecessary? McC: Well, for instance, we did not need agreements with France to limit their nuclear stockpiles because we were confident that they had no intention of aiming their missiles at us.

Our underlying relationship with France was one of sympathy and respect (although they often frustrated us). War between us was ``unthinkable'' in spite of frequent conflicts. MN: What specific proposals did you make? McC: The article contained about a dozen low cost steps we could take to improve our underlying relations. I listed them not because they were great ideas, but simply to illustrate that once you focused on the underlying relationship instead of the legalities, it was easy to find ways.

Some of the things suggested were the establishment of a joint US/USSR trade center with a database to aid in matching products and markets, a jointly financed and operated space station, diplomatic restraint when we were not directly involved in a problem created by the Soviets (we had a tendency at the time to take over other nations problems with the Soviets and make them our own). MN: What happened next? McC: In spite of being a simple idea, the article was a success. It happened to get picked up by a couple of liberal senators looking for a new idea. Liberals were on the run at the time and fresh out of new ideas.

They liked it because it gave them an approach to the USSR which was not belligerent, nor did it suggest sacrificing our national interest just to nail down formal agreements -- something the conservatives had accused them of.

As a result of the article, I was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and got some publicity. This helped me to make contacts which led to the formation of the New Relations Working Group, which the media called the McConnell network. MN: How was it organized? McC: I had some initial meetings with members of Congress and people in the administration who were interested in further discussions on our relations with the Soviets, but being busy people, no one had time for meetings so we formed a computer network to exchange views. That was not so common then as it is today. MN: Did that mode work well for you? McC: Yes. It was fascinating to watch the ideas develop -- it worked almost as a group mind. It turned out that by using the computer network ideas were detached from ego. They were thrown into the database without anyone caring if they survived or not.

Ideas would build into theories almost effortlessly. Participants would come and go, adding their perspectives and experience. A kind of natural selection took place until we began to distill an approach to conflict which was unique, and which worked. MN: Please describe some of your conclusions. McC: We began with Soviet/American relations because almost every national conflict at that time was cast in the light of the overall East/West conflict.

If Somalia was being armed by the Soviets, we would send arms to Ethiopia -- if Ethiopia had a revolution and jumped into the Soviet camp, we would begin arming the Somalis. It was crazy.

Many leaders of third-world nations understood this, of course. They played off the superpowers to enrich themselves and were showered with an incredible amount of sophisticated weaponry. Our weapons and the Soviets' fueled every war during the last half of the 20th century.

Moreover, every strategy tried since World War II to control this mounting conflict had failed. The United Nations failed -- it became a forum that created and intensified conflicts, the arms-control process had failed -- each new agreement left us with higher levels of armaments, d'etente had failed -- each side was left feeling betrayed because there was never a common understanding of what d'etente meant. Nothing seemed to work. MN: And yet, solutions were there. McC: Yes, they were. But at the time, the people who wanted a better relationship with the Soviets kept pushing the same failed solutions. They wanted a United Nations that ``worked,'' or another arms agreement which would be obsolete with the next breakthrough, or a freeze of nuclear weapons at ridiculously high levels.

Our group took a different tack. A consensus emerged that we should focus on measures that would improve the underlying relationship (as my initial article had), a second point was that America could take many steps without any formal agreement that would improve this relationship. We developed a strategy of ``irresistible opportunity.'' MN: What did you mean by that? McC: We looked at actions we could take which would draw the Soviets into the world economy and world culture exchange without threatening their identity. Ways were explored in which the ruble could be turned into a hard currency, for instance, to facilitate their entry into world trade on an equal basis with other countries. We thought that this would be an irresistible opportunity for them because their economy was ailing.

We also looked at our own defense policy to find ways of improving our relationship. We suggested many actions which might make our defense posture less threatening to them without endangering our own security. There were a whole range of actions which we called by the name of ``minimum assured deterrence.'' The basic idea was that we should have the minimum amount of force available to protect ourselves. Holding excess force in reserve tends to look threatening from the other side and draws a response which leads to escalation. We sought actions that we could take unilaterally to deescalate the arms race.

Eventually, as some of these proposals were adopted, they created an irresistible opportunity for the Soviets to lower their own spending on arms. MN: What made your approach different from other groups that were making these types of proposals at the time? Why did your group receive a hearing and eventually have some of its ideas adopted? McC: There were two ways in which we were different. First, we were an open group in which anyone who had access to a computer terminal could participate. All earlier attempts had been made by narrow, usually elite groups which did not build widespread support.

Secondly, we decided early in our endeavor that it was not enough to think up new ideas and make logical arguments for them. There was a wise old politician who joined our group, George Winslow. He continually asked of each idea, ``Who has the power to implement this? How could they be motivated to do so?'' It was fine to argue about what should be, but if no one could find an answer to George's questions, the idea was dropped. MN: Was it Mr. Winslow who came up with the idea of ``a program, a constituency, a coalition?'' McC: Yes. After we had answered his questions about who had the power to implement the idea or program, we could ask what groups in our society would benefit by its implementation and what groups could influence the policymaker. We then searched for a way to create a coalition between them to get the job done. This approach worked very well.

We had to carry it one step further, of course, and ask which groups would be opposed to such a change and how their opposition could be dealt with. MN: Especially the armed forces and their suppliers? McC: The military-industrial complex is what we called it then. They had to be dealt with. In a pluralistic society such as ours, you could not simply advocate ideas which would put many hundreds of thousands out of a job. New missions had to be found for them. Luckily, there were many missions available for brave and dedicated people.

When you said that military budgets have dropped to one-tenth their 20th-century level, you were technically correct. But as everyone knows, we still have a very large army. They are simply performing nonmilitary missions. Every school kid knows about President Andrews' West Point speech of 1993 in which he said, ``For 200 years, you have defended the republic and the Constitution. Now you must defend the Earth itself.''

The ecological disasters of the late 1980s were the main motivation in this change. And the reforestation of Sahara by the American Army was one of its finest hours.

Today, the American services are widely respected and welcomed around the world for their contributions to preserving the ecosystem and aiding in the construction of transportation and communication systems. Their scientific work on the seas and in space is providing us with greater understanding of our world and our place in it. MN: How could a simple computer network gain so much influence? McC: Numbers. We simply recruited and recruited. At its height in the early 1990s, we had almost 20,000 active members who participated in discussions and the building of a database on conflict management. This in itself was a powerful forum for new ideas.

Equally important were the many groups which used the network. Many politicians (both liberals and conservatives) mined our database to find ideas and new directions. President Andrews' campaign statement that, ``The Republicans have thrown money at our security problems, but have not made us more secure,'' was picked up on one of our online conferences.

Politicians are in the business of winning elections -- maximizing their votes. When they joined our network, they had an important resource that they could use to find the facts they needed or test ideas (sometimes anonomously). Quite often they put out appeals for money on the network as well.

It also spawned many businesses. The conflict management industry did not exist 25 years ago. Now, of course, there are thousands of firms offering conflict management services and many of them began with conversations on our network. Now there are many conflict management databases available, expert systems programs, consulting groups, conflict resolution centers. They deal with anything from family disputes to labor/management problems, to international relations. Even the socialist countries have established similar institutions. MN: Didn't the commercial nature of the network cause a split during the 1990s? McC: Yes. Many of those who were grounded in the old peace movement felt that there was something immoral about making money on conflict management. I and many others argued that it was important for people to be able to earn a living in this line of work. After all, people had been earning a living on war for thousands of years. Why not on peace?

The dominant culture of America is business. It has been since the Civil War. We had to turn conflict management into a business or it would have remained forever on the sidelines.

Those who disagree formed the Satyagraha network which deals mainly with philosophical and religious approaches to peace. They perform a valuable function and most competent conflict managers keep in touch with their ideas. MN: Where does the conflict management movement go from here? McC: There is a growing awareness that we must move beyond conflict management. The companies which specialize only in conflict management are facing a shrinking market because their techniques are now so widely known and applied. People are becoming better managers of their own conflicts.

The most progressive companies are developing approaches to emphasize the constructive uses of conflict. After all, once the connection between conflict and violence is broken, it can be a very creative experience. MN: Thank you, Dr. McConnell. McC: Thank you.

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