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Last Updated: 09/19/2008
The state of the field: an interview with Christopher Mitchell
Ross Ryan

Key words: peace and conflict studies,track two negotiation, conflict resolution, advice for students, theory and practice, Georgia, peace zones, progress, intervention, peacekeeping

Christopher Mitchell is currently Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, Virginia, where he was the Drucie French Cumbie Professor of Conflict Analysis for fifteen years. Previously, he held appointments at the Centre for the Analysis of Conflict, University College, London; at the London School of Economics; at the Universities of Surrey and Southhampton; and at City University, London, where he became Professor of International Relations in 1985. He was Director of the Institute between 1991 and 1994.

As a consultant and facilitator he has worked on conflicts in Northern Ireland, Spain, Cyprus, Transcaucasia, the Middle East, and Africa. His most recent books are: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Frances Pinter 1996); Gestures of Conciliation (Macmillan/St Martins Press, 2000); and, with Landon Hancock, Zones of Peace (Kumarian Press, 2007).

I got a chance to speak with Dr Mitchell in his office at the University for Peace, where he is currently lecturing in the department of international peace studies.

RR: You’ve done a lot of work with track 2 negotiations – are you following any of the current negotiations around the Georgian conflict?

CM: I don’t know of any track 2 processes that are definitely going on, but I do know that there are a couple of non-governmental conflict resolution organizations that are working in Georgia and on the Ossetian conflict. There is one organization called Conciliation Resources, in London, and they’ve been having dialogues between parties [in Georgia] for quite a while now. And the other one is actually a locally based organization called Link that has been trying for a number of years to deal with the South Ossetian problem – as far as I know they haven’t made any headway, or very little headway, anyway.

I have a colleague back in Washington who was proposing that one way to reduce tension would be to set up a couple of parallel peace zones – one on the Georgian side of the border and one on the Ossetian side of the border – as a couple of matched peace villages, as a sort of symbol of what might be achieved. I imagine that scheme has sort of gone out the window over the last few weeks.

Who do you think should be sitting down at the table and talking about this?

I think what you have to do in the Georgian case is to start low key, and have some informal conversations, not between officials, but people who are close to officials, people who can speak freely and speculate about possible solutions. And then you can go to the second stage, and you might be able to do what negotiators at the Oslo talks did, which was to bring in official people once the first cohort had managed to agree – if the parties do manage to agree – on what the agenda might be, and what the problem really is. And then I think you’re always going to have to bring in other officials and interest groups, in a sort of cascading process, starting with those who are immediately involved: those from Georgia and Russia.

What about NATO, or the US and the EU – do you see a role for them?

No, it would be best for them to stay out. The Russians have had a lot of bad press about this, but if you actually think about how we, as Americans, would feel about something like this going on at our southern borders with Mexico, we couldn’t possibly say that we don’t have an interest there. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Russians really have no interest at all in what’s going on in their immediate neighbourhood – in what they call “the near abroad”. So I think they’ve got to be there.

What about the argument that the EU and North America have a duty to protect young, transitioning democracies like Georgia, especially in Eastern Europe?

Who gave us that responsibility? Do they want our “protection”? I mean, who appointed us world police?

You brought up the idea of “peace zones” earlier, and it’s an interesting concept. Maybe you could clarify it a bit for me – what does a peace zone actually look like?

It could look like all sorts of things! I mean, to some extent, what it looks like depends upon the kinds of peace that you’re talking about within the zone. For example, if you’re talking about nuclear free zones – there’s that kind of a peace zone – that could look like an ocean or that could look like a continent. If you’re talking about local communities that declare themselves to be neutral and violence free, that could look like a church or a hospital, it could look like a village in the countryside, or it could look like a whole province where a lot of these villages have banded together into an association of peace zones.

Or it can look like a community. This is one thing: we started out thinking about peace zones as territorial entities, and we very rapidly found out, in various places, that these peace zones are people, you know, people declare themselves a community of peace and wherever they go, that becomes a peace zone. So it could be in one place, or it could be a moving community – or a community that has had to move.

In some circumstances, a peace zone can look like a long, thin corridor. You know, people have actually set up peace zones to deliver relief supplies to people in areas which are in toil – so, it could be a kind of channel through which you can send food and supplies.

Peace zones can be short or fat, long or thin – it depends on the function!

I see – so we’re talking about a broad theoretical concept with plenty of practical applications – which is something else I wanted to ask you about: the tension between the theoretical and the practical in peace studies.

I think there is certainly a balance to be struck between creating theory and involving oneself in practice. I was taught, when I was in undergraduate, by a professor who was interested in theory but had been a diplomat in a previous career, and he always argued that what we need is practice which is informed by theory, and which is used to test theory. Because if theory doesn’t work in the real world, it’s no good.

So that’s why I’ve always tried to get out into the field and find out whether my ideas are at all relevant, or whether they’re a load of nonsense. You know, getting out into the actual conflict areas is a very good way of checking your tendencies to over-theorize. There’s nothing like coming up against the realities of conflict to make you realize what a load of over-generalized stuff your theories are.

Is there a healthy balance in the field? I mean, are we seeing the same growth of peace workers in the field that we are seeing of peace scholars in the universities?

I think what’s happening in the field of peace and conflict is a sort of parallel development of the universities and departments interested in theory – conflict analysis, conflict management, conflict resolution, etc – and the growth of actual organizations which practice these things, which take the theory and use them. So there are theory producers and theory users.

I mentioned Conciliation Resources, and there are a whole set of organizations now which involve themselves in practice: developing community radio, setting up workshops, and training working groups of people in conflict zones. In fact, I think one of the vast things that has happened over the last 7 or 8 years, is that governments have actually started to use these ideas, and require them in several departments. About 10 years ago, the United States government passed legislation that every single federal government department had to have a specialized unit for dispute resolution, within the structure of that department. That seems to me to be something which, 30 years ago, would have been inconceivable.

So, the two are moving forward together, but I think probably the practice has outstripped the theory – and we are desperately in need of another look at the theories we’ve got.

What advice do you have for students who are just beginning their studies of peace and conflict? How can they find that balance between theory and practice?

Join a programme that has an internship requirement, or that, at some stage during your academic career, you join a working group that has a task of involving itself with practical conflict analysis and resolution activities – which don’t have to be high profile, distant, and violent.

One of the working groups I’m involved with at George Mason University has a project which is trying to get a conversation going between local government organizations and the representatives of local immigrant communities, mainly Hispanic, that are basically their voters and conditional supporters. They [the government] are clamouring for an end to illegal immigration, clamouring for an end to people standing on the street corner waiting to be picked up on a daily basis for casual work, so this [project] is a way of trying to avoid the coming legislation to, you know, pack these guys up and send them home.

So, that’s an intensely practical thing for students to be involved in, and it’s one way to get people out of their bubble and into the world where conflict is real and people are furious. The situation is not necessarily violent, but that may come.   

I wanted to ask you about the text book you’ve been working on, since you've been thinking about the state of the field and sort of summarizing the knowledge that we’ve come to so far – so, I’ll just ask: where are we in peace and conflict studies? And where are we going?

I don’t know about where we are, but I know where I am. I’m at the point where I’m trying to balance hopes and aspirations for the study with realism about what we will be able to achieve. To some extent, I’m trying to deal with the question that a friend of mine asked a couple of months ago: “with all of the resources and efforts that have been poured into peace studies, why hasn’t there been more of an impact?” And my immediate reaction was: all what resources have been poured into peace and conflict studies?

OK, there’s more than there was a few years ago, but compared to the amounts that have been poured into war studies – which are usually called by the polite euphemisms of strategic studies, international studies, security studies, etc. – it’s a drop in the ocean. And compared with the amount of resources that have been poured into the ability to make war, rather than peace, it isn’t even a drop in the ocean.

That said, I do think that we’re making some slow inroads into the way in which political leaders speak about the world. It hasn’t made much impact on some leaders, whose reaction to a problem is still to use threat, coercion, and force to get what they want.

But in a lot of other places, we have made an impact on leaders – for example, the whole field of conflict prevention, which didn’t exist 20 years ago; the idea that you really need to get some system set up to give you an early warning of where there’s going to be trouble, early enough for you to actually do something about it, and not sort of fall back on the whole “Oh my God, we’re in the middle of violence, lets send the peacekeepers in”.

This will take decades to correct, of course, and we really need some good ideas beyond “stop what you’re doing or we’ll hurt you”. But once we can get to that point, and get people thinking creatively, I think we can call it progress. So, a little bit of progress, but we’re not there yet.

Are you optimistic that we’ll get there though?

I’m hopeful... not optimistic. [laughs]


Ross Ryan is editor-in-chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.