Coercion, cash and culture: how to resolve conflicts

Nicholas Whyte

1 April 2017

Those who have straddled both sides of the analyst/practitioner divide will be all too aware of the problems of applying theory to practice when it comes to conflict. It is a tough assignment to explain consociationalism or disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) to local actors who may have been locked in conflict for decades, and who may well be convinced that their local struggles are uniquely complex in the history of the world. I have also encountered the opposite circumstance – that of local actors who are so well-versed in international precedent that they can floor visiting international officials in debate (some in the Transnistrian leadership are unsurprisingly better informed about the status of the Åland Islands than, say, the average Finn).

Sometimes it’s better to abandon detail for a while and concentrate on the big picture. I contend that most of the elements of building a post-conflict settlement can be put into one of three baskets: coercion, cash and culture. For understandable reasons, international actors tend to obsess about one or other of the first two of these, though in fact it is the third that often proves the sticking point. To take them one by one…


Max Weber famously defined the state as having the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. During a conflict, by definition, no such monopoly exists among local actors. External intervention during or after the conflict will further confuse the picture. Those who control armed forces tend to be those seated at peace negotiations, and the future of those armed factions is sometimes left for another day; and sometimes even a topic of disastrous experimentation – does anyone remember the Sudanese Joint Integrated Units? In addition, the deployment of international forces is always a topic of obsessive interest in the deploying countries, sometimes to the exclusion of other considerations.

I also include policing and the judicial system in the coercion basket. Will the policeman who arrests you speak your language? Will you be able to get a fair hearing in your local court? Will the men who murdered your aunt twenty years ago ever be prosecuted? When will your uncle be released from jail? These matters are not only limited to post-war environments: the United States faces some of these issues too. But with our focus on post-war environments particularly, transitional justice may no longer be as trendy among us peaceniks as it was a few years ago, but it remains an important element.


In some ways, the control of money – whether raised from taxpayers, donors, or the sale of natural resources – is the easiest of the three baskets to manage. After all, it is only about numbers. But it is never as simple as that. Any post-conflict settlement will have multiple levels of governance. To what extent will they raise their own revenues? Do taxes paid locally stay where they are collected, or do they flow to the centre to then get divided up among the provinces? Who benefits from the mines – the local leaders, the national government, both, or neither?

And who sits in the meetings making decisions about expenditure? This is where the concept of power-sharing is really put to the test: is state largesse seen to be adequately distributed in minority and/or deprived areas? Not all minority areas are deprived, and not all deprived areas are inhabited by minorities, but all need to be able to feel ownership of state decisions. Again, this is not merely a post-war or post-conflict problem – for example, rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), the perception that British interests were being ignored by European Union decisions led directly to the Brexit referendum result.


Both analysts and practitioners are often (unwisely) reluctant to engage with cultural issues in the process of peacebuilding. This is mainly for two reasons:

  1. cultural disputes are usually difficult to understand, especially if (as is usually the case) there is a linguistic barrier; and
  2. they are not as measurable as soldiers, police officers, taxes or expenditure.

But they are crucial.

In my own home territory of Northern Ireland, the use of language, the flying of flags and the commemoration of anniversaries have all been sources of tension to the point of actual conflict. Should the British national anthem be played at university graduation ceremonies? How often should Belfast City Hall fly the British flag? What legal status should be given to the Irish language?

These are the issues which can particularly excite a formerly dominant community, whether majority or minority in the local population, as they are asked to accept the use of flags and emblems previously seen as subversive and threatening. It can be a more bitter pill to swallow than concessions on security and governance, or rather coercion and cash.

Often these issues have little objective basis, but a great deal of emotional resonance with the societies we are trying to heal. We may shake our heads and mutter that Benedict Anderson was right about imagined communities. But we ignore such questions at our own and others’ peril.

About the Author

Nicholas Whyte

Nicholas Whyte has more than two decades of experience in international affairs, advocacy and research, and is Senior Director, Global Solutions in APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office.

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