A Review Essay
For a printer-friendly PDF,
Bernard Mayer, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis
in Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. pp.
Events are forcing those of us who have been in the conflict resolution field a
long time to reconsider what we do and why we do it. Some of those events are
global in scopethe two wars the United States has initiated in the last
three years, the continuing violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the
ongoing carnage in Chechnya, and more. Some of the events are specific to us,
most notably the Hewlett Foundations decision to end their funding of our
So, Bernard Mayers
Beyond Neutrality could not have been published at a more opportune
time. Mayer calls the book a loving critique of our work. Loving because he has
been a practitioner for more than a quarter century. Critique because he thinks
the field is at a crossroads at which we could either stagnate or make a huge
leap forward in the quantity and quality of what we do.
What I have therefore tried to
do here is to write a review essay that starts by assessing Mayers
argument. Then, actually takes it farther and, I hope, deepens the importance
of what he has to say.
But first, some truth in
advertising. Bernie and I have known each other since we were
undergraduates at Oberlin in the late 1960s. Our professional relationship
began when I became engaged in the conflict resolution field in the 1980s not
long after he and his colleagues formed CDR. It intensified after I joined the
staff of Search for Common Ground four years ago.
At first, I did not want to
write this essay because I was concerned about conflict of interest issues. But
I quickly realized that we shared different avenues to getting beyond
neutrality, both of which should illuminate why his book is one of the few
must reads in our field. I will use the work of organizations like
Search that have already addressed each of Mayers most important
critiques to a degree to illustrate the power of his argument.
Mayers overarching claim
is that colleagues whose roots lie in mediation and related practices miss many
aspects of conflict engagement where we could and should be engaged. By
contrast, because of the way it was founded, Search for Common Ground does very
little formal mediation and, without often being conscious of theoretical
underpinnings of what we do, have at least intermittently acted in ways
consistent what I take to be Mayers four most important specific
Much of the conceptual core of conflict resolution practice
comes from work on mediation and arbitration. Colleagues who start from that
part of the field focus on finding alternative forms of dispute resolution
through which a win/win agreement can be struck about disputes, ranging from
divorces to the Oslo peace process of 1993.
Mayer and I come to the field
from a very different starting point. As I jokingly put it, we majored in
ending the war in Vietnam. Political issues have always been high on our
professional agendas ever since. Bernie and his colleagues formed CDR in part
as they struggled to figure out how to fit into the anti nuclear movement in
That said, CDRs practice
has been largely in the traditional mediation and training field. Their
practice has expanded to include public policy and international dispute
resolution, but it is still one someone trained as a classical mediator would
I entered the field through the
Beyond War movement in the 1980s. Beyond War was an educational effort to help
people see how they could take personal responsibility for an increasingly
interdependent world with nuclear weapons and a host of other unresolved
conflicts. So, for me as a political scientist, conflict resolution has always
been political. That belief has only been strengthened by my work at Search for
Common Ground and in the Washington national security community since 9/11.
From my experience, when you
move from mediating a divorce (which I will gladly acknowledge can be very
difficult) to brokering a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, the
power of the conceptual models underlying our field begins to fall
We need to think bigger. We
need to think bolder.
That is why Beyond
Neutrality is a book everyone in our field needs to not only read but to
think long and hard about.
Mayer makes four overarching points, which are of value to us
all as well as others of narrower appeal that Ill leave you to read
The first is to try to break
the equation many of us make between conflict resolution and mediation. One of
the consequences of that often unspoken assumption is our focus on making
the deal that leads to a win/win outcomeor at least not a win/lose
one. It also leads us to underplay the role of power, values, and other factors
in our efforts to reach agreements.
In fact, Mayer comes close to
saying that having such a strong home in mediation is a liability for our field
now that it has to tackle his other three points. Those of us who work on
intractable political conflicts understand this. Search for Common Ground, for
instance, has very few mediators on its staff and none in its senior
leadership. Little of its work involves mediation. In none of our work can we
avoid the inequalities that are at the heart of every conflict we work on from
either a practical political or ethical point of view.
Indeed, ours would be a very
different field if its main origins lay elsewhere. For instance, the few
political scientists who work in the field have a more complex and nuanced view
of what conflict is like, a more realistic and often skeptical opinion of what
can be accomplished, and understand that disputes that can take people to war
require long-term processes of reconciliation. Im not saying the field
would be better. We would be less interested in win/win outcomes for instance.
But it would be different.
The second and related lesson
is conveyed by the books title. Another unintended consequence of our
reliance on mediation is our normally cherished role as third party neutrals.
In some instances of conflict, we can be neutral and it is important for us to
be so. There are certainly divorces, labor management disputes, or even
conflicts in far away countries in which we or our colleagues have no
preexisting beliefs or vested interests.
But, Mayer warns us that even
that neutrality is problematic on two levels.
To begin with, as I tried to
convince my political science professors thirty years ago, there really is no
way we can be neutral or objective except under very unusual circumstances. In
other words our self-definition as third party neutrals is a myth. Can we truly
be neutral if one of the parties to a divorce physically abuses the other? Can
we be neutral were we asked to mediate the looming conflict between the
National Hockey League and its players? Can we be neutral were we asked to help
the truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro. North Carolina, which is
trying to help people in that city come to grips with a Ku Klux Klan attack
which killed five people twenty five years ago?
We need to be fair as we try to
facilitate conflict resolution processes. But that is by no means the same
thing as being neutral
In addition, neutrality is
never a viable option in the kind of political work that Search for Common
Ground does. Most obviously, we do not become political eunuchs who have to
give up our own views when we enter this field. My opposition to the war in
Iraq and racial profiling and my support for school vouchers and aid to faith
and community based organizations invariably color the way I work as a conflict
resolution professional on such issues (also see point four below). Even when I
dont have firm views, I cant be truly neutral from the very first
stages of a project. I have to determine who gets to sit and the
table and who does not. Thus, in our work on the Faith Based Initiative,
we did not include representatives from Latter Day Saints and other
denominations, which were so opposed to the proposal that they would not
consider taking federal money if it were offered.
Third, Mayer is convinced that
our expertise is such that we should be engaged (his term) in all aspects and
phases of conflict. In his book, Managing Violent Conflict, Michael Lund
drew a curve of the life cycle of a conflict, starting with stable peace,
moving on the creation and deepening of a crisis, the outbreak of violence, the
end of the fighting, and the beginning of reconciliation which can lead to
stable peace in the end. The conflict-resolution-as-mediation mindset leads to
concentrate on only one of those periodswhen we try to bring a heated
dispute to an end. In fact, we have skills needed at all those
Very few conflict resolution
groups that do political work have much to do with the end-the-fighting-stage
for a simple reason. More often than not, peace negotiations require
governments, traditional diplomacy, and other forms of intervention that are
outside any of our toolkits. And when we do, as in the Aria Groups work
on the racial profiling law suit in Cincinnati, what we do has to be far more
extensive than anything that looks like traditional mediation.
But it is not hard to see how
we could and should be engaged in all aspects of conflict. Thus, political
scientists talk about preventive diplomacy which is our equivalent of
preventive medicine. The most recent visible instance of how we can defuse
conflicts before they escalate was the international pressure that successful
led Libya to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program. Consensus
building and Track II diplomatic efforts can similar do things that formal
government officials cannot. These require facilitation, but rarely formal
mediation. Finally, almost everything Search for Common Ground and similar
organizations do concentrates on reconciliation and other post-violent tasks
when we often have to play a rather active role to bring long-time adversaries
Fourth, Mayer says we also have
to become advocates, which is perhaps the opposite of being a neutral. Like an
attorney, there are times when we could and should advise clients on how to
proceed. If Mayer is right, that may sometimes require us to escalate a
conflict or at least threaten to do so using such forms of coercion as a strike
or a suit. In short, Mayer is arguing that our expertise in analyzing as well
as resolving conflict is part of what we offer to individuals, organizations,
and governments suffering from disputes they can not settle on their
I actually think we have to go
To begin with, there are times
when we are morally obliged to take a stand. Conflict resolution professionals
in South Africa during the often violent transition to democratic rule after
Nelson Mandelas release made it clear that their professional job was to
reduce tensions but that could only be done as part of their equally clear
commitment to ending apartheid. Search for Common Ground has put much of its
conflict resolution work on hold in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in an
attempt to build support for nonviolence since the second Intifada broke out
almost four years ago.
There is another way we could
be of service, which is more generally to create environments in which people
could both take strong stands on issues and do so in a way that welcomes those
they disagree with into cooperative and constructive dialogue. Thus, we have
been particularly interested in the work of consensus councils and similar
bodies at the state level which use trained facilitators to help stakeholders
reach agreements on contentious policy issues that then are referred to the
official legislative or regulatory institutions where they often pass easily
because they stakeholders are already on board. We are trying to create such a
body at the federal level and experimenting with such processes on individual
issues such as the faith based initiative and prisoner reentry. There are
likely also to be opportunities for us to serve as consultants to interest
groups and others who would like to be advocates and do so in a way that
encourages cooperative problem solving.
I agree with Mayer that no one
of us is likely to play all of these roles. I, for instance, never expect to
take on the mantle of a mediator, but Im not particularly interested in
those conflicts. It would difficultat bestfor a single organization
to both be a reasonably neutral convener of policy consensus processes and
advise advocates on how to do their job in a more cooperative way.
And, I agree with him that we
would be foolish to abandon the mediation-based work we have been doing for a
quarter century or more. It is our intellectual (and for many of us, our
financial) bread and butter. It is what we are known for. And, frankly it is
what most of us do best.
But change we should. Change we must.
Beyond Beyond Neutrality
If I have a critique Mayers book is that it doesnt go
far enough in at least two ways. First, we need to grow up
professionally. A group of senior colleagues (including Mayer) have been
talking about making our field more professional, especially as lawyers, state
agencies, and others talk ever more seriously about accreditation.
Neither of us thinks
thats where professionalization should go. After all, how can you set up
a single set of credentials if our field diversifies in the way Mayer
I think a better model would be the
American Political Science Association of which I am an active member. To be
sure, I dont want Association of Conflict Resolution conferences to
become like APSA annual meetings at which men and women in suits primp and
preen and try to impress each other with how brilliant they are.
But there is one way in which
APSA could be a role model for us as we try to develop organizations like ACR.
In its century of existence, APSA has helped develop a degree of credibility
and gravitas for our community of scholars, activists, and civil servants. I
could see that in recent years when ACR rented space in the APSA building and I
was probably the only person who worked with people on all of its floors. The
difference was palpable. It wasnt that there were more suits and ties at
APSA but that it just seemed to have a more substantial presence that seemed
more consistent with the contexts of Washington and Dupont Circle.
The most tangible way I can
express our lack of professional credibility is in the way we are paid. For
those of us on salaries, they should be roughly equivalent to that of an
academic, NGO official, or civil servant at our level. Search does very little
fee for service work, but in general we should be paid consulting fees that
would lead to the equivalent of such a salary. Thus, I wont spend a day
on a college campus unless Im paid at least $750 plus reasonable
Dont get me wrong, I
shudder to think of our moving into the world of the billable hour. I
dont think we should give up doing low cost or pro bono work of which I
do plenty. But, we need to find other sources of income, perhaps from more
affluent clients, to pay the freight.
Second and more importantly,
Mayer only touches on what may be our biggest political liability. At a
national conference of a sibling association two years ago, America Speaks ran
a straw poll of the attendees and found that two thirds had voted for Vice
President Al Gore, 22 percent for Ralph Nader, and only 5 percent for Governor
George W. Bush. I was one of the few people in the audience who found that
unusual, let alone unacceptable.
We are, in short, a profession
that attracts colleagues primarily from the left. There is nothing wrong with
having lots of leftists on board; Mayer and I both are, of course.
However, unless we are perceived as serious by conservatives, we can only go so
far in the direction(s) Mayer proposes. That can probably only happen if we
bring conservatives into our midst.
One way to do that is to
proactively build relationships with moderates and conservatives. We know we
can do itthe success of consensus councils and consensus problem solving
on regulatory issues shows that. There are also people in the faith based world
who do conflict resolution work similar to what we do, and for the most part we
do not know each other because we move in different circles. World Vision
spends more on conflict resolution that we do at Search. The Institute for
Global Engagement is about the same size as CDR. Miroslav Volf of Yales
divinity school is one of the two or three leading experts on reconciliation.
Ken Sande (www.hispeace.org) has trained
hundreds of conflict resolution specialists who based their work on Christian
scripture. Most individual denominations and the Alban Institute which works in
most denominations have services that help divided congregations overcome their
problems. Finally, there are hundreds of organizational development specialists
in the public and private sector who incorporate conflict resolution principles
into their practices.
Another way is to change the
way we train and place our students. Very few of the students who attend our
graduate programs in conflict resolution enter either the private sector or
government service. Some of my colleagues are flat out opposed to their doing
so. Most seem not to see it as a viable or important avenue for students to
consider. USIP recently held a conference on the role our students could play
in mainstream foreign policy making institutions. Four recent George Mason and
American University graduates were on the panel. I could not think of any
others who have gone into national security work (where there is definite
interest in hiring people with conflict resolution backgrounds) or any who have
gone into the corporate or consulting worlds.
In short, Beyond
Neutrality is one of those books that come along way too rarely that has
the potential of reshaping the way a profession thinks of itself. In political
science, the only book that has come close to doing that in recent years is
Robert Putnams Bowling Alone which should also be must reading for
conflict resolution professionals.
Like Putnam, Mayer could only
write what he did because of who he is. Both have spent almost an entire career
learning from others as well as doing their own work. Both are men who can
synthesize amazingly broad bodies of material. Both are men who are more than
willing to question the conventional wisdom, including the parts of it they
helped create. And finally, both are men of intense personal
Chip (Charles) Hauss is Director of Policy
and Research at Search for Common Ground USA and teaches political science in
the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University.
He is the author of eight books, including six on comparative politics and two
on conflict resolution.