The Adversarial Life | Feb 1999

FMBR Editorial: Feb, 1999

The Adversarial Life

Marshall Pease

It is astonishing how much of human life is adversarial despite all the professed ideals of cooperation, negotiation and peace. It is the basis of international relations despite the way all leaders claim to seek only peace. On the political level we expect candidates to strive as adversaries at election time, but to act bipartisan at other times – and once in a while they do, but not often. On the industrial level, we accept that each company will push its own products and, as the opportunity offers, denigrate those of its competitors. Even in our individual lives, any competitiveness has an adversarial component which can too easily become obsessive. The result on any of these levels can be disastrous.

On the international level, the worst case result is war. In any conflict, each nation is more or less compelled by its own internal politics to define peace as giving it everything it desires. Otherwise the leaders will be accused of weakness, of “giving away” too much for the sake of an empty peace. Too often this becomes an uncompromising demand for what the opposing side can only see as unconditional surrender. When such attitudes harden into policy, the conflict can remain corrosive – and dangerous – indefinitely.

On other levels, there are mechanisms for the resolution of adversarial conflicts. In politics, the intrinsically adversarial positions of the parties is ultimately resolved by elections or, if a country does not allow open elections, by revolution. On the industrial level, an overly aggressive company risks an anti-trust action or a punitive civil suit. In the legal system there are trials which, in this country, are explicitly adversarial but mediated by the judge, jury and the opportunity to appeal to higher courts. On the level of the individual there is the threat of social ostracism or, if the aggression becomes too violent, police intervention. At all these levels there are controls in society and the culture which impose limits and seek to enforce a resolution.

Unfortunately, there are no effective controls in the international arena. Nations can and do cooperate at times, and even sometimes claim a “special” relation of friendship. That is not the normal case, however. When, and to the extent it is real, cooperation between nations exists, it is based on some perceived need such as a joint defense or for goals neither nation can handle alone. Even then, when one of the cooperating nations sees the other challenging what it sees as its own interest, the situation reverts to adversarial. Then the argument can escalate into real danger. There is in fact no overriding authority to enforce a resolution between nations. The United Nations and the World Court attempt to play such a role but can do so only when the dominant members permit it. What is worse, by trying to function as a mediator, these institutions inadvertently offer a new strategy for adversarial advantage. By escalating a conflict, a nation can seek to force the UN to intervene. This creates new possibilities for confusion and division. As we have seen, nations have learned all too well how to play that game!

What is the solution? Clearly what is needed is a recognition that there are better ways to resolve differences. We know that negotiation can often produce far better results than confrontation. We know everyone is better off when we are able to base our lives and actions on the acceptance of the a common humanity. How do we get there from here? I don’t know, but I think maybe we had better find the way!

Marshall Pease