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The conflict in Ukraine took many people by surprise, including professionals in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It became inevitable that we must reimagine how we deal with our disputes. For this reason, I would like to share three reflections on how to start doing it: starting with how we perceive the context until moving forward to implementing some new strategies.

 

There is No Need to Eliminate Conflicts

Culturally we have become accustomed to considering conflicts as something negative because we link them to their potential consequences: violence and war. However, conflicts are neither positive nor negative; they are a neutral element of human existence.

In any interaction, there will be tension between individual and collective interests, which would not necessarily lead to violence. Moreover, life is a series of natural changes, and this constant variation in its balance would force us to maintain a lifelong dialogue with the people around us.

The primary problem with considering conflict as something negative is that, in many cases, we tend to ignore them as we try to avoid unpleasant situations and emotions. Conflicts will continue to escalate if we ignore them; this attitude is the real danger that may raise the risk of violence.

The primary problem with considering conflict as something negative is that, in many cases, we tend to ignore them as we try to avoid unpleasant situations and emotions. Conflicts will continue to escalate if we ignore them; this attitude is the real danger that may raise the risk of violence.

Such an attitude of avoiding conflicts also happened before the aggression against Ukraine started. There have been signs of a potential escalation in the region since 2008, after the Russo-Georgian war, but there was no decisive action to prevent the current scenario.

Therefore, the first step to preventing a new war is to change our way of seeing conflicts on a day-to-day basis. We must see the conflict as a neutral circumstance that, if utilized right, can generate positive changes, innovation, and development.[1]

If conflict is neutral, it is not something we should prevent or eliminate. We must attend to it from the beginning and give space for constructive dialogue. The effort to stop a conflict could even obstruct the opportunity to generate necessary changes. However, we must prevent violence in all its forms.

 

Peace Should be Built in Peaceful Times

The conflict ensuing in Ukraine teaches us that war is a risk found in all parts of the world, and one must not wait for violence to happen to seek peace and give it its much-needed importance. The main problem in conflict prevention is waiting until the conflict becomes violent to start working on it (a direct consequence of the previous point about considering conflict as something negative).

Violence originates from the loss of control due to the sensation of fear. Fear itself is not harmful; it is a self-stimulus that pushes us to satisfy our vital necessities. However, when fear is uncontrollable, violence occurs. The fear of not meeting our needs is fundamental to understanding violent conflicts like the one in Ukraine, since they all originate from the moment one of the parties decides that the other represents a threat. In other words, we should not only focus on the object of the dispute but on preventing violent conflicts before fear becomes uncontrollable.[2]

Postponing addressing conflicts happens both globally and individually.  In our experience, we have noticed that people usually do not turn to a mediator until the discord becomes unbearable; a mindset such as this reduces the chances of success for any mediation strategy.

Similarly, many public policies deal with conflicts until they come before a judge or administrative authority. Once again, we are missing the opportunity to work on them at the right time. The same applies to international conflicts, where we put them on the global agenda until they have escalated, and sometimes, they already have become intractable.

Peacebuilding efforts should be focused on the first spectrum called peace and not wait until the situation is unstable.

It is almost obvious, but the premise is quite simple: let us build peace in peaceful times when people are still in control of their emotions and rational faculties. There is no reason to wait.

 

A Holistic Approach to Peace

There is a debate about the ideal way to build peace. In psychology, many practitioners believe that the starting point should be in the mindset of human beings. Even the UNESCO states[3]"Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."

On the other hand, many governments and international organizations focus their work on the structural elements of violence, trying to reduce inequity, the lack of employment opportunities, and the wage gap between men and women, among many others.

On the other hand, many governments and international organizations focus their work on the structural elements of violence, trying to reduce inequity, the lack of employment opportunities, and the wage gap between men and women, among many others.

Which is the correct approach? They are simply two sides of the same coin; one is impossible without the other. John Paul Lederach called it a paradox of peacebuilding because structural changes are useless if the mutual perceptions among community members are not healthy and there are patterns of violent behavior[4].  It is equally ineffective to work on the mindset of human beings if they are emotionally affected by economic, social, and cultural elements that will not allow them to enjoy a peaceful life.

In this sense, the recommendation is to view peacebuilding processes from a holistic perspective that encompasses the structural elements based on individual perceptions and actions.

When we comprehend that peace requires these two elements, we can predict that we will not see peace in Ukraine soon. Even if there is a ceasefire or a peace agreement, it will not necessarily imply psychological stability to the affected Ukrainian citizens. We will have to wait many years and even generations until the emotional wounds heal, but the work should continue at both levels. 

 

Imagination is the Key

In our present context, where the risks of escalation of global conflicts are increasingly showing, we must resort to our intellectual tools and go beyond the techniques we use. For example, our imagination allows us to perceive reality differently; it helps us visualize the existent interconnections between all human beings more clearly, beyond whether we consider them allies or enemies. Imagination allows us to recognize that things are not simply good or bad, but rather a spectrum of nuances where its complexity is also an opportunity to work on conflicts from a different angle.[5]

Imagination is not synonymous with fantasy. Imagination implies a deep understanding of history and current affairs as a requirement to create something different. It suggests maintaining latent curiosity to give space to creative acts that can show us a new approach to perceiving reality and, ultimately, a way of behaving.

The requirement for the imagination to work is self-knowledge. Individual inner work is essential to recognize our fear; because fear is the primary obstruction to the creative act and a potential source of violent conflicts. Today, more than ever, we need the imagination to build global models that allow us to prevent violence worldwide and to design new mechanisms that address the structural and psychological elements behind international conflicts like the one in Ukraine.

 

Concluding Remarks 

The aggression against Ukraine should also be an invitation to create new models of conflict transformation that address violence from a structural and psychological perspective. To achieve this, we must act before normalizing these international conflicts. Our primary tool to build a different paradigm will be our imagination that, based on facts, can visualize a more empathetic way of coexisting globally.

 

 

[1] John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation: Clear Articulation of The Guiding Principles by a Pioneer in the Field  (Good Books, 2003).

[2] Eduard Vinyamata Camp. Conflictología: Curso de resolución de conflictos (Editorial Ariel, 2014).

[3] Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO.

[4] John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse University Press, 1995)

[5] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2010).

 
CONTRIBUTOR
Juan Lucero
Juan Lucero

* Juan Lucero is the Co-Founder of Magnolia and a Policy Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance (EUI).

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