The Fundamentals of Intra and Interstate Conflict Resolution


To a large extent, the mechanisms for resolving conflict can only be effective if they address the causes. In regards to interstate conflicts, effective mechanisms for resolving conflict largely focus on attempts to regulate the anarchical nature of the international sphere, whereas more temporary and less effective methods attempt to “alleviate the symptoms” of such a system. In regards to intrastate conflicts, truly effective mechanisms of conflict resolution must focus on dealing with the root causes of civil conflict as methods of conflict resolution that do not do so usually leave long term discontent that has and will fester within a civilian population. It is as such that in general, methods of conflict resolution must address the root causes of conflict if they aim to be truly effective.

Causes of and solutions to interstate conflicts

To first attempt to resolve interstate conflicts the causes of interstate conflict must be understood. Theories about the causes of interstate conflict are derived from two key principles, one being that the nature of the international system is anarchical and another being that all states will attempt to preserve their own sovereignty. As a result of these two principles, we notice that states will either act in an offensive or defensive manner. When acting offensively a state will attempt to maintain their own security through hegemony and domination. This perspective on interstate relations is known as “offensive neorealism” and was first postulated by John A. J. Mearsheimer.[1] An opposing theory known as “defensive neorealism” argues that it is in the best interests of a state to increase and maintain their own security by bolstering their military and forming alliances. The main proponent of this structural theory is Kenneth Waltz.[2] Both of these methods can and usually do result in conflict, especially when states conform to offensive neorealism, but also when states employ defensive neorealism and create what is known as the “security dilemma” wherein each state continues to bolster their military power to protect themselves from the other. The fact that there is no establishment that can control or restrict states, thus the nature of international system being anarchical, implies that all states will never have perfect knowledge of the intentions of other states and as such they will always act to preserve and increase their own power whether by aggressive or defensive methods.

Another important cause of interstate conflicts is the existence of what Johan Galtung, the founder of Peace and Conflict studies, calls “negative peace.”[3] Negative peace can be defined as the resolution of violent conflict, without the resolution of the underlying cause of conflict. Galtung argues that negative peace was an incomplete form of peace with actual peace being the restoration of positive relations between parties to conflict, also known as “positive peace.” When parties to conflict fail to establish positive peace it becomes more likely that, as a result of increased negative skepticism about the intentions of conflicting states, parties to conflict will eventually re-engage in violent conflict.

Effective methods of resolving interstate conflicts largely attempt to focus on causes of interstate conflicts by avoiding the “security dilemma”, establishing positive peace between previously conflicting states and creating situations where conflict is not in the interests of states, whereas methods of resolving conflict that avoid focusing on the causes of conflict and instead focus on the conflict itself are largely ineffective. One example of the effectiveness of methods of conflict resolution that target the causes of interstate conflict is the establishment of the European Union. By focusing on providing order to the anarchical international system and promoting the sharing of resources and weaponry by European states, the European Union has effectively been able to prevent any interstate conflicts between EU member states since the formation of the EU in 1992. Another example of this is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The NATO alliance, beginning in 1949, has been effective in preventing any conflict by NATO member states due the fact that it alleviates aspects of the anarchical nature of the international system by sharing the military resources of member states thereby preventing the “security dilemma.” It is also in the best interests of member states to cooperate with each other thereby strengthening their military and diplomatic power as an international bloc. The resolution of underlying causes of conflicts and establishment of positive peace between states is also an effective method of interstate conflict resolution that targets the causes of interstate conflict. The cessation of negative peace is important as it reinforces and increases skepticism that already exists due the anarchical nature of the international system. It is as such that truly effective methods of conflict resolution must target the anarchical nature of the international system, negative peace and the “security dilemma.” An example of the ineffectiveness of conflict resolution methods that do not target the causes of interstate conflict would be the sanctioning of Russia by the EU for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 2014. These sanctions failed to target the causes of the Ukrainian conflict, that being the “security dilemma” from the approaching geographical NATO influence near Russia, and as such the sanctions failed to effectively cause Russia to leave Ukraine.[4] As demonstrated through these examples, any method of interstate conflict resolution must target underlying causes of the conflict, that being the anarchical nature of the international system, if it is to be effective.

Causes of and solutions to intrastate conflicts

To effectively resolve intrastate conflicts the causes of such conflicts must be understood. Unlike interstate conflicts, the possible causes of intrastate conflicts are numerous and nuanced. However, according to economist Paul Collier most civil conflicts are caused by a combination of civil discontent and wide-spread economic issues with economic problems being the main cause of such conflicts.[5] While civil discontent does play a part in causing and justifying civil conflict, economic issues are extremely effective motivators for intrastate conflict with conflict becoming necessary for the survival of citizens. One example of this is the Sierra Leone Civil War from 1991 to 2001. Due to the sudden discovery of rich natural resources within Sierra Leone, a civil war ensued between rebel groups and the Sierra Leone government for control of such economic resources. The cause of this intrastate conflict was the ambitions of rebel groups for control of economic resources. They were also aided by the fact that due to a deficiency of industry within Sierra Leone, the government lacked enough military resources to deal with such rebel groups. The presence of significant economic issues contributes greatly to civil discontent, especially when there is a lack of military power to suppress such discontent. When citizens are economically satisfied, they are much less inclined to effectively lower their own economic status by engaging in civil conflict. One example of this is the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt. Despite there existing a large amount of Turkish anti-Erdoğan Kemalists, the coup d’état attempt failed to gain support from both civilian and military populations. This was in part due the fact that the Turkish government is relatively stable in comparison to bordering states and is also experiencing significant economic development under Erdoğan.[6] It is as such that the presence of economic issues, or lack thereof, can have a great impact on whether intrastate conflict will occur within a state.

Another important cause of civil conflict is the existence of negative peace and what Galtung calls “structural violence.”[7] While economic factors play a large role in causing conflict, in some cases intrastate conflict may be caused by the presence of structural violence and negative peace from previous conflicts. Galtung claims that structural violence is the violent oppression and restriction of a targeted group from access to basic necessities. The presence of structural violence greatly increases chances of civil conflict by creating groups of oppresses individuals that hold large amounts discontent for other groups within a society, thereby creating negative peace. Negative peace also plays a large role in creating civil conflict as it increases the likelihood of civil disobedience by oppressed groups towards their oppressors and creates rifts within societies, these rifts can then be monetized upon to encourage civil conflict usually to the economic benefit of one party. One example of this would be the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This genocide was a result of pre-existing negative peace between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans that existed due to the historical oppression of Hutus by a Tutsi government regime. While the Tutsi regime eventually ended and a Hutu majority government was elected, the underlying social rifts between Hutus and Tutsis had not disappeared. The Hutu dominated government slowly began to create structural violence by requiring special identification cards for Tutsis and attempting to prevent the intermarriage of Hutus and Tutsis. This eventually deteriorated into the outright massacre of Tutsis by the government and Hutu militias. Due to the failure of the government to effectively create positive peace between the two pseudo-ethnic groups and remove structural violence from Rwandan society, civil conflict ensued. It is ass such the existence of negative peace and structural violence in a society can greatly contribute to the presence of civil conflict by justifying its existence and creating large amounts of civil dissatisfaction.

For solutions to intrastate conflicts to be effective they must target the root causes of such conflicts. One example of the efficacy of solutions that target the causes of conflict, specifically targeting the economic issues that lead to civil conflict, is the Second Liberian Civil War from 1999 to 2003. The resolution of this conflict involved the recollection and distribution of wealth taken by the warlord Charles Taylor, large amounts of humanitarian aid being provided to the Liberian people and it also dealt with the granting of rights to women within Liberian society. By specifically targeting the causes of the conflict, that being widespread poverty, the resolution of the Liberian conflict was effective in creating a form of “positive peace” between the parties to conflict (that being the Government and numerous rebel groups) and in removing justifications for conflict. Another example of the effectiveness of solutions to intrastate conflicts that target the causes of such conflicts, specifically targeting the existence of negative peace and structural violence, is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Following the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established and measures were put in place to protect against the discrimination of races in the workforce and in education. Such measures were effective at ending the structural violence that had been rampant throughout South African society and had been endorsed by the Apartheid polices of the South African government. The establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also dealt with the issue of “negative peace” by granting amnesty to certain perpetrators of structural violence thereby encouraging such perpetrators to come forward and admit their wrongdoings to their victims. This process involved the investigation of both “white” and “black” individuals that had committed crimes and was effective in creating positive peace by humanizing both the victims and perpetrators of such crimes. The process of conflict resolution adopted by the South African government was extremely effective at targeting the causes of intrastate conflict, thereby successfully resolving the oppression that had occurred under Apartheid. It is as such that effective resolutions of intrastate conflicts must target the causes of such conflicts by attempting to repair the economic issues that caused such conflicts, creating positive peace between conflicting parties and dealing with the existence of societal rifts and the structural violence that may oppress one of the conflicting parties.


The most important requirement of any solution to inter or intrastate conflict is that such a solution be able to effectively target the causes of the conflict. In the context of intrastate conflicts this means that for a method of conflict resolution to be effective, such as the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, it must deal with the economic issues present within a state and attempt to prevent societal rifts by creating positive peace and eradicating structural violence. In the context of interstate conflicts this means that for a method of conflict resolution to be effective it must alleviate the “security dilemma”, it must bring some aspect of responsibility and order to anarchical international system and it must also prevent the existence of negative peace between states which can increase tension and mistrust between conflicting states. These requirements are crucial to any successful resolution of either inter or intrastate conflict.

[1] Mearsheimer, John. 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company.

[2] Waltz, Kenneth, Hedley Bull, and Herbert Butterfield. 1979. Theory of International Politics. New York City: McGraw-Hill.

[3] Galtung, Johan. 1996. Peace By Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. New York City: SAGE Publications.

[4] Francis, David, and Lara Jakes. 2016. Foreign Policy – ‘Sanctions Are a Failure…Let’s Admit That’. 28 April. Accessed November 30, 2016.

[5] Collier, Paul. 2006. “Economic Causes of Civil War and Their Implications for Policy.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, April.

[6] Economist, The. 2016. Erdogan’s new sultanate. 6 February. Accessed November 2016, 30.

[7] Galtung, Johan. 1969. Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Oslo: International Peace Research Institute.