In need of the wisdom of de-escalation

In need of the wisdom of de-escalation

To prevent a global disaster we badly need to stop the escalation of international conflicts, like the one between North Korea and the US. But how can we open the way to de-escalation? And can law or mediation contribute anything here?

In the recent political conflict between the US and North Korea we are witnessing once again that the ingredients for escalation are very simple: just react to threatening words with a more powerful counter threat, to which the other party subsequently reacts with an even bigger threat, and so on. When ‘world leaders’ allow themselves to be dictated by whatever their anger tells them, I (and many people with me I’m sure) wonder what kind of example are they to the millions of inhabitants of their country? And have they really no idea what is at stake here?

No glorious victories anymore

It’s a well-known psychological fact that anger and broadminded viewpoints do not go well together. It is truly amazing that some ‘world leaders’ today can still believe that war can result in a glorious victory. The reality is of course that warfare usually results (particularly in ‘modern times’) in countless innocent victims, in massive destruction of houses and of the whole infrastructure, and in immense suffering, which will continue for decades after the war has ended. And this also tends to happen to the very people the leaders are supposed to have represented and served. On top of that, the use of nuclear weapons will unavoidably result in an ecological disaster of an as yet unknown scope, but definitely affecting all life on the planet. Where is the glory in all of this? Enough reason, I think – and truly in the interest of everyone! – to give de-escalation of these kinds of conflicts an absolute priority. But what can we do?

Small-scale conflicts

To get an idea about the actual difficulty of de-escalation, it is best to start close to home, for instance with understanding and trying to stop a small-scale conflict with our neighbours. In a previous blog I wrote about these kinds of conflicts, which usually begin with something quite insignificant like overhanging branches, but often need legal intervention or mediation by a third party to bring both opponents to their senses again. They might start realizing how in time they unwarily have let the imaginary wall between them become ever bigger and harder to break down. If it is already so difficult to deal with conflicts on a small scale, how can we expect to be able to deal effectively with conflicts between countries?

An attempt to understand (de-)escalation

Interesting in this regard is the research of anthropologist Gregory Bateson (in Steps to an Ecology of Mind). He argued that escalation of the kind of conflict we are talking about is caused by the fact that it is an exclusive symmetrical relationship – a relationship in which two parties are equal competitors and always respond with similar behaviour. To avoid this escalation an additional complementary relationship is needed – a relationship characterized by dominance-submission, by yielding to or supporting the other. A referee in a soccer game is a good example of this additional complementary relationship. Bateson believed a relationship was only balanced when it contained both symmetrical and complementary elements. Of course on a small scale law offers important means to make complementary intervention by a third party possible (e.g. police, lawyers or judges), but it has limited means to stop escalation in international conflicts.

Unconventional mediation

More hope is coming from the field of mediation, but for this complementary intervention to work well I think we must go beyond the conventional kind of diplomacy. In this respect I was inspired by a Dutch television programme called ‘The family dinner’ (Het familiediner), which deals with solving long-lasting family conflicts in an original way. Initiated by one particular family member the presenter of the programme, in his role as a mediator, pays a separate visit to both conflict-ridden parties and starts off by offering them some little present which touches on the essence of the conflict and opens up their closed-off mind. After some additional talk he invites them to a family dinner later that night – often with wonderful results.
I wondered: would this kind of approach – in a slightly adapted version – not also work well between conflict-driven ‘world leaders’? I imagine that the best person for the role of the mediator would be an astronaut – someone who during his voyages has actually experienced earth as one beautiful whole. As a surprise present he could bring some pictures of our blue planet, and ask both ‘world leaders’ (separately of course) how they can fit their international conflict into the much larger planetary scale. Then he invites both to a dinner for two (somewhere on ‘neutral terrain’, without cameras), and hopefully their planetary awareness will have been raised enough to discover the benefits of cooperation…

Poetical wisdom

Of course I did not seriously think this was going to happen... Although I also doubt that poetry can transform the minds of politicians in a significant way, I am going to finish this blog by quoting a poem, by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. Primarily because at different times in my own life it has helped me – and still helps me – to stop an arising conflict from escalating:

Leave them alone

There is nothing happening that you hate
That’s really worthwhile slamming;
Be patient. If you only wait
You’ll see time gently damning

Newspaper bedlamites who raised
Each day the devil’s howl,
Versifiers who had seized
The poet’s begging bowl.

The whole hysterical passing show
The hour apotheosized
Into a cul-de-sac will go
And be not even despised.

Although probably nobody manages to realize this on a permanent basis and will keep on failing, we have to keep on trying: to try to understand and transcend our own inner conflicts and also avoid involvement in others’ conflicts the best we can. And at the same time, have full trust in the fact that in time all destructive intentions, whether manifesting on an international scale or in our own mind, will naturally evaporate of their own accord. This is the kind of wisdom of de-escalation that we badly need today.


The photo is made by my colleague Dagmar Bukuru


Wim Bonis

Dear Kevin,

Thanks for your appreciation and for supplying some additional imagery. Who knows, the complete change to weightlessly floating around the ISS - while simultaneously taking in the spectacular views - will leave no ' space' in their minds for aggression...

But indeed, you are right: there is more realism in the hope that - with or without poetical assistance - they might just leave each other alone for a while.

Kevin Walsh

A wonderfully imagined and complete article! I can't help imagining a macabre dinner between Trump and Kim Jong, a champion tweeter versus a reputedly handy man with poisons and machine guns! Perhaps the venue should be the ISS, orbiting the earth and out of range of their respective weapons of choice. In reality, we have to hope for a long, peaceful interlude in that particular conflict.

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