Conflict, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management and Beyond: A Conceptual Exploration

N. Swanström, M. Weissmann


What are the interpretational differences in conflict, conflict prevention and conflict management? How do we come to terms with the lack of consensus within the academic and policy community? This paper, published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, provides an overview of the conceptual terms. Traditional assumptions are challenged with the three concepts viewed as inter-related rather than as separate. An integrated, holistic approach is recommended.

Conflict management and conflict prevention can be seen to be different sides of the same coin, with both concepts intertwined. Preventative measures are designed to resolve, contain and manage, so conflicts do not crystallise. Thus conflict management is required to allow the initiation of preventative measures.

However the treatment of the three concepts as separate and distinct entities has led to diverging and opposing views. This leads to the risk of counterproductive measures when applied to practical situations. Key conceptual differences and definitions occur in regards to:

  • The traditional definition of conflict is of opposing interests over scarce resources, goal divergence and frustration. This does not take into account considerations outside the military sphere, such as behaviour.
  • Perception is recommended as the central defining concept with conflict defined as perceived differences in issue positions between two or more parties at the same moment in time.
  • Conflict prevention has no single agreed definition, with confusion over the divisions between preventive diplomacy and various preventative measures. Although, a broader more inclusive approach is now increasingly accepted by policy makers.
  • Conflict management can be seen to focus on the armed aspects of conflict, with others believing this can apply without militarisation. There is confusion between conflict management and resolution.
  • Non-Western scholars argue that conflict management is a successful tool over a longer term period as opposed to a short-term Western view. Both points are held to be accurate, albeit at different stages of a conflict.

Theory and practicality diverge as the actual differences between the three concepts are small and they are interlinked. Thus the separation of the terms has led to incoherence as scholars use their own definitions. This can cause policymakers and military staff to regard existing conflict models as mere academic exercises and be discouraged from using them due to operational impracticalities.

An integrated theoretical approach would have the potential to minimise conflicts. Therefore key to coming to terms with this lack of consensus is:

  • The adoption of a holistic and integrated approach. This is especially required due to the complexity of the conflict cycle.
  • The use of a multi-curve conflict model that takes into consideration sub-conflicts with individual conflict phases. Different measures need to be applied to maximise the ability to handle a conflict.
  • Improved analysis of the causes and dynamics of conflict and peace in order to implement a culture of prevention rather than reaction. This would prevent suffering and save economic capital.
  • Prevention management and resolution measures to be applied in a co-ordinated and integrated manner to minimise lost opportunities.


Swanström, N.L.P. and Weissmann, M. S., 2005, ‘Conflict, Conflict Prevention and Conflict Management and Beyond: A Conceptual Exploration’, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Programme, Washington, DC and Nacka, Sweden