Understanding International Conflict

Presentation by Professor Dr. Qin Yaqing, President of China Foreign Affairs University and Chancellor of the Diplomatic Academy, delivered at the International conference “Mediation, Conflict Prevention And Resolution In The Emerging Paradigm”, organized by Conflux Center in Belgrade, 24.-25. February 2018


It is so common to see conflict in the world. It occurs almost every moment and everywhere. How to resolve conflict and promote cooperation has become a major topic in world politics. However, before we seek solutions, it is necessary to clarify how we understand conflict. I would like to discuss today two approaches in terms of understanding international conflict. One is provided by the mainstream international relations discourse and the other by the traditional Chinese dialectics. I think a comparative analysis will contribute to intercultural dialogue for conflict resolution.

The “conflict-as-normal” approach

The first view is that conflict is ontologically significant. Mainstream IR theories, realism, liberal institutionalism, and new leftism for example, tend to understand conflict as normal. It is normal in human life, in social settings, and in international relations.

This important assumption is rooted in the Kantian-Hegelian framing of the self-other relationship, which argues that the self always needs a hostile other to construct her identity. The Hegelian dialectic helps further develop this fundamental assumption and holds that the interaction of the opposite poles, that is, thesis and anti-thesis, constitutes the dynamics of life. It sees social progress in the conflictual interaction of the contradictory forces in a thesis-versus-antithesis competition.

In international relations, conflict is more conspicuous and serious due to the deep-rooted understanding of international society as an anarchic Hobbesian jungle where everyone fights against everyone else because of the absence of a Leviathan. The mainstream IR theories, for example, argues that conflict is the state of nature of international life. Realism argues that struggle for power has always been the central theme of international relations. Liberal institutionalism also believes that conflict exists as something normal, though it is more optimistic about conflict resolution through international institutions. New leftist scholars using the Hegelian dialectics have always placed special emphasis on conflict between different socio-economic classes and tried to identify the key contradiction in world political economy. These interpretations of international life share a common Kantian-Hegelian tradition concerning the nature of conflict in human and social life: It is normal, for it constitutes the state of nature.

A related important assumption of this approach is that conflict comes from difference. Once two actors, whether they are individuals, groups, or nation-sates, are different, they tend to conflict with each other. In other words, difference causes conflict. This logic of reasoning is reflected in many well-known international thoughts.

Think about two important theories, one at the beginning of the Cold War and the other at the end of it. Everyone studying international relations knows well the long telegram by George Kennan, which argues that a conflictual relationship would be formed after the Second World War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two countries that had risen as the superpowers out of the war. After a detailed analysis of the Soviet Union, Kennan concluded that it was the ideological difference between the two major players that would eventually lead to the inevitable conflict between the two giants.

At the end of the Cold War, when the world witnessed a collapse of the conflictual bipolarity, the argument of “clash of civilizations” was put forward. It divided the world into several major civilizations and discussed the differences among them. It holds that different civilizations tend to conflict with each other and the world of different political ideologies which had characterized the Cold War years would be replaced by a world of different civilizations or civilization-states, both leading inevitably to conflict. With the same line of thinking, Huntington’s theory supports the argument that difference leads to conflict.

By this reasoning, we have the third assumption that conflict resolution is fundamentally based on the elimination of difference. The other, which the self needs for her identity formation, differs from the self and thus constitutes the source of conflict. By eliminating the other, the potential for conflict between the self and other is removed, though temporally perhaps.

Quite often the strategy is to resort to force. By eliminating the enemy we solve the conflict. The importance for hard, material power has been stressed, for it is considered the most effective means to elimination of the hostile other. To solve a potential serious conflict, for example, we may compare whose nuclear button is bigger. Soft power, however, is equally or even more effective for the same purpose, because it is to co-opt the other, making the other become the same as the self. Once the other wants to do what you want them to do, she is no longer different and the possibility for conflict largely disappears.

It is similar about identity politics discourse, which argues that different identities cause conflict. Islamic and Christian peoples differ and they tend to have conflict; Christian and Confucian peoples differ and therefore they tend to have conflict. Most of the security community literature sets a precondition for the establishment of such a community: they must have shared values. Otherwise, it is impossible for such a community to exist.

The “conflict-as-abnormal” approach

The traditional Chinese understanding of conflict differs. For Daoism and Confucianism alike, the state of nature is harmony, both harmony between humans and nature and perhaps especially among humans. The Chinese dialectics, for example, also sees the world in polar terms and the interaction of the polar forces as the prime mover for progress. But unlike the Hegelian dialectics, it sees the polar forces as mutually related in complementary interaction and inclusive harmony. They complement, empower, and give life to each other. In other words, they are not thesis and antithesis. They are co-theses, depending on each other for life.

Thus, conflict is abnormal. It goes with the worldview that the self-other relationship is harmonious in the very beginning. Harmony, therefore, is the state of nature. Such an understanding, as well as the worldview behind it, constitutes a contrast with the theory that conflict is normal.

First, it denies conflict the ontological significance. Since harmony is the state of nature and enjoys the significant ontological status, conflict is no longer normal. Rather, it is abnormal in life. It is true that we see conflict everywhere, but it does not mean that it is natural. Conflict is understood as deviation from the normal and as an artificial construct of the humans. The Chinese dialectics interprets the self-other relationship in terms of the yin-yang relationship. Yin and yang are the two opposite forces and somewhat similar to the Hegelian thesis and antithesis. But the key difference between the Chinese tradition from the Hegelian model is about the relationship between the opposites. For the latter, it is conflictual in nature, while for the former it is essentially harmonious. Any two opposite terms are by definition complementary and inclusive of each other. Together they create life and generate dynamics for progress. There is conflict of interests, of desires, of preferences, and of values, but such conflict does not enjoy the same status as harmony. Only when people deviate from the right way, conflict emerges. Since any opposite forces are potentially complementary, common grounds are always potentially possible. Therefore conflict is resolvable.

Second, it denies the argument that conflict is caused by difference. Rather, it takes difference as the foundation and the necessary condition for harmony, just as different notes make beautiful music and different gradients make delicious food. In other words, it sees beauty in difference, in heterogeneity, and in plurality. Yin and yang are very different, for example, representing the male and female forces. But exactly because they differ, they make life together. Similarly, the world is meaningful because it is plural with different cultures, civilizations, and lifestyles. Fundamentally, they should not be taken as sources of conflict.

From this logic, conflict resolution is not about elimination of difference. Rather it is to seek ways for different elements to work cooperatively together. How to orchestrate them to work together then is the fundamental principle for conflict resolution, which relies on three related measures.

The first is to seek common grounds. This logic never believes that there is no common ground for any two opposite forces. Ontologically, such forces are inclusive of and complementary to each other and therefore there must be shared interests between them. Any two social beings tend to share something. If we see no common ground at all, it is simply we have not yet found it. Thus, to solve conflict, the first step is usually to carefully and accurately find where the common ground is. Even for the deadly enemies like the United States and the Soviet Union, for example, they shared a common ground for self-survival in a nuclear era.

The second is to encourage complementary differences. It means that solutions to conflict depend on difference rather than on elimination of difference. It is exactly because of difference that mutual complementarity is possible. In terms of regional integration, for example, there are the European model and the ASEAN way. They differ. However, they should not been seen as rival models or as alternatives to each other. In fact, there are a lot they can complement each other through learning those differences that can make up for their own weaknesses. The high degree of flexibility of ASEAN may reduce the rigidity of the European Union while the adherence to rule-based institutionalism of the latter may make ASEAN more effective.

Third, mediation provides a more sustainable way to conflict resolution. The Chinese way values mediation. Elimination of difference should not be the main choice for conflict resolution simply because it is impossible. Difference exists. It is normal and natural. Nobody can eliminate difference. Elimination through assimilation by soft power is also impossible. In our world, nobody can change the other into something like or of the self. Practical conflict resolution requires both the conflicting parties to move towards each other and towards the appropriate middle which is usually their shared common ground. Mediation encourages them to take such moves and therefore constitutes a useful way to conflict resolution.

This is a belief in that there are always common grounds to be found, that skillful orchestration of difference can make it become positive and complementary elements for cooperation, and that mediation is often more sustainable than elimination as solutions to conflict.

Conflict resolution

The two understandings of conflict lead to two approaches to its resolution. If we understand conflict as caused by difference, then we tend to solve conflict by eliminating the difference that has caused it. However, if we believe that conflict is not necessarily caused by difference and that difference constitutes a necessary condition for harmony, then we may encourage difference, especially the difference that is complementary. By this latter logic, we need to encourage through mediation the conflicting sides both to change and to move toward each other so that the conflict may be better solved without eliminating either.

These are two ideal models. Reality is much more complex. It is unrealistic to replace one completely with the other in actual conflict prevention and resolution. But an intercultural dialogue and the appreciation of different ways may provide more sustainable resolution of conflict. In this respect, this conference is highly valuable, meaningful, and inspiring.