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Constructive Conflict Applications in Obama’s Foreign Policies

President Barack Obama’s foreign policies have had important successes that demonstrate creative applications of the increasingly recognized constructive conflict approach. However, Obama is widely attacked as if he were responsible for the many ongoing terribly destructive foreign conflicts. Criticisms of Obama’s administration have usually come from the political right in the United States and others committed to opposing Obama. They attack him for being naïve and insufficiently tough. Even analysts sympathetic to Obama’s foreign policies are sometimes critical of his failure to rely more on coercion and military force.

Indeed, Obama appears to minimize U.S. resort to violence, while narrowing the targets and drawing upon multilateral support. Also, he has used diplomacy to restructure conflicts and taken into account how adversaries view a conflict so as to maximize the effectiveness of non-coercive inducements. These qualities are central to the constructive conflict approach, which synthesizes conflict resolution and peace studies, fields contributing empirically-grounded knowledge about ways to reduce destructive conflicts. Obama has had notable foreign policy successes by acting in accord with the constructive conflict approach. Furthermore, some seeming failures might well have been averted, not by more militancy, but by more prompt and consistent use of constructive conflict strategies.

Importantly, in accord with the constructive conflict approach, Obama recognizes that conflicts are rarely zero-sum, such that what one side wins is at the expense of the opposing sides. In constructively transforming conflicts, it is useful to recognize that both sides can make some gains, even if not equal ones. Furthermore, Obama understands the usefulness of considering the interests and concerns of opponents and their supporters in a conflict.

These and other considerations are applicable in Obama’s fresh break from the harsh U.S. policy toward Cuba. Certainly, with the end of the Cold War, Cuba posed no direct threats to U.S. interests. The U.S. policy of a trade embargo did not isolate Cuba from good relations with other countries and allowed Cuban officials to blame economic sanctions for their failures. The new policy enhances U.S. soft power, expanding the appeal of American values and practices. This new paradigm can be expected to increase U.S. influence in the world and be more effective in changing Cuba.

China’s growing economy and military power increases its competition with the United States, but not necessarily the likelihood of military conflict. Obama’s trade and investment policies enhance economic inter-dependence, a barrier to hostilities. The U.S. administration recognizes the great complexity of interlocked conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region, which generates tensions; but it also recognizes the opportunities that complexity provides for diplomatic tension reduction. Furthermore, the many confidence-building security measures and joint military exercises and exchanges can help prevent misunderstandings and accidents. Even cooperative and shared actions with mutual benefits have been achieved, as in the case of reaching agreements on countering global warming.

The nuclear agreement with Iran is another important achievement. Despite Iranian assistance in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush characterized Iran as one of the three countries constituting the “Axis of Evil.” In addition to threats and condemnations, some economic sanctions were imposed to force Iran to abandon its nuclear development efforts. This policy clearly was unsuccessful.

President Obama’s administration undertook a different strategy. It recognized Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, engaged with Iranian officials with civility and respect, and explored possible arrangements that might preclude Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons. With the prospect of an agreement, the Obama administration was able to expand UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for failing to cooperate on earlier resolutions and its continued nuclear activities. The negotiations were consistent with the constructive conflict approach. They focused on a single element in the conflict. As in most successful negotiations, a blend of carrots and sticks proved effective.

The current destructive conflicts in Syria and Iraq and regarding Russia in the Ukraine are outgrowths of local grievances. Unfortunately, these conflicts were exacerbated by overly ambitious and militant U.S. interventions over a period of several years. To explain this interpretation would extend beyond the confines of this space. Certainly, more constructive alternatives were not pursued by a wide range of actors to the detriment of all.

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Louis Kriesberg is a Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies at Syracuse University. He is also the author of “Realizing Peace: A Constructive Conflict Approach.”

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