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How Experts and Politicians Understand Conflict Differently

How Experts and Politicians Understand Conflict Differently

Photo credit: Coalition for the ICC

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Uluğ, Ö. M., & Cohrs, J. C. (2017). How do experts differ from politicians in understanding a conflict? A comparison of Track I and Track II actors. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 35(2), 147-172.

Talking Points

  • Non-governmental/professional experts have more of a shared perspective on the Kurdish conflict than politicians do.
  • Politicians and nongovernmental/professional experts agree that problems around Kurdish identity, socioeconomic status, and poor democratic representation are major factors in the Kurdish conflict.
  • Political divisions may lead to a greater number of viewpoints on the Kurdish conflict among government actors.
  • When there is general consensus on the cause(s) of a conflict, governmental and non-governmental actors can more accurately direct services and attention to resolve the conflict.


Conflict is viewed differently by all actors involved, especially by those at the various levels of diplomacy working to bring conflict to a peaceful resolution. This research identifies the conflict perspectives of Track I and Track II actors in the context of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and highlights the differences—but also some similarities—between their understandings to suggest possible steps towards conflict resolution.

The authors argue that each track holds different priorities and concerns, resulting in different conflict understandings. Track I actors are primarily concerned with official relationships between states and input from their constituencies. Track II actors are more involved in non-state activities within civil society (NGOs, academia, religious institutions, etc.) and are often more flexible in their approach to conflict resolution by being able to express their views more freely. The involvement of both official and unofficial actors during peace negotiations is known to raise the chances of successful conflict resolution, and creates longer lasting peace treaties.

In this article, the authors use the Kurdish conflict to analyze the understandings of Track I and II actors. In this context, Track I actors are members of parliament and Track II actors are scholars and journalists with proven knowledge and expertise of the Kurdish conflict. The authors build a study to compare Track II understandings against Track I understandings identified during earlier research by the same authors. In that study, the authors found Track I understandings to consist primarily of four viewpoints:

  1. Kurdish Rights: The problem stems from issues around Kurdish identity, rights, and freedom.
  2. Democracy, Rights, and Freedom: The problem stems from the Turkish government’s assimilation policies aimed at Kurds and the denial of Kurdish rights and culture.
  3. Conservative-Religious: The problem stems from the abandonment of unity under Islam and the adoption instead of a Turkish nation-state ideology, denying Kurdish national identity.
  4. Terror and Foreign Power: The problem stems from the militant wing of the Kurdish national movement (PKK) and the instigation of foreign powers.

Track II understandings were developed by questioning a group of 21 scholars from Turkish universities and 20 journalists of diverse backgrounds. The authors presented each participant with statements relating to the conflict cause, conflict definitions, moral judgments, and conflict solutions and asked them to sort them into categories based on how little or how much they agreed with each statement. As a result, two main Track II viewpoints emerged:

  1. Democracy and identity problems: In this viewpoint, the problem stems from issues over the identity, rights, and freedom of the Kurdish people. Turkey has historically made it hard for Kurds to assimilate and labeled Kurds as terrorists and outsiders, denying Kurdish culture and freedoms. These issues, as well as the lack of a fully implemented democracy and socioeconomic exploitation, contributed to identity problems within the Kursidsh community.
  2. Democracy and economy problems: In this viewpoint, the problem stems from an insufficiently implemented democracy that has denied rights, status, and representation to the Kurds. These democratic deficiencies have had economic consequences: relative to the rest of the country, the predominantly Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey is underdeveloped and has higher levels of unemployment.

The authors then compare the conflict understandings of Track I and Track II participants, highlighting the greater number of viewpoints among politicians (Track I) than among the conflict experts (Track II). The authors suggest that this may be due to more divisions among politicians when it comes to understanding the Kurdish conflict, while the expertise and concentrated analysis of Track II actors resulted in a common perspective on the conflict. The experts’ consensus already can be considered an important step towards conflict resolution.

Importantly, the results uncovered two shared viewpoints between the tracks: (1) democracy and identity and (2) democracy and economy. It is important to integrate the perspectives of many levels of society during the peace process. The identification of similarities and differences between Track I and Track II is important when considering paths towards conflict resolution. The more singular perspective among Track II actors represents a consensus on how to address the Kurdish conflict, which (compared to the incongruity among Track I actors) the authors believe can be interpreted as an import step towards peace. Ultimately politicians and nongovernment/professional experts complement each other in conflict resolution. Points of overlap in their perspectives need to be identified in the process of understanding conflict narratives and considering options for peaceful resolutions.

Multi-Track Diplomacy: A conceptual way to view the process of international peacemaking as a living system. It looks at the web of interconnected activities, individuals, institutions, and communities that operate together for a common goal: a world at peace.

Track I: Governmental or formal peacemaking processes. This is the world of official diplomacy, policymaking, and peacebuilding as expressed through formal aspects of the governmental process.

Track II: Nongovernmental/professional peacemaking through initiatives. This is the realm of professional nongovernmental action attempting to analyze, prevent, resolve, and manage international conflicts by non-state actors.

Source: Adjusted from Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy.

Contemporary Relevance

The Kurdish conflict mainly stems from a more than four-decades-long struggle between the Turkish government and various pro-Kurdish political parties, mainly the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).  The conflict involves 15 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. More recently, the conflict has evolved to include many Western powers and Russia, given the proximity to the Syrian Civil War and the arming of Kurdish personnel to assist in the fight against the Syrian government and ISIS, respectively. This changed context—the internationalization of the Kurdish conflict and the involvement of new conflict parties—needs to be understood in contemporary efforts to resolve the conflict. There have been various efforts to resolve the conflict over the years, with the latest resulting in a failed ceasefire in 2015. However, with insights offered in studies such as this, politicians and civil society members are better equipped to understand the drivers of the Kurdish conflict and identify specific policies and peacebuilding initiatives that will help address these issues.

Practical Implications

The results of this study show a wider range of conflict viewpoints found among Track I politicians than among Track II experts. The policy decisions and understandings of democratically elected representatives are often as diverse as the constituencies they serve. It is therefore understandable that politicians hold more diverse opinions than nongovernmental/professional experts. The latter are not distracted by constituents’ interests and have the focus and experience needed to become more familiar with the context of the conflict they are examining. In order to take advantage of the expertise and subject knowledge found in Track II actors, it is vital for government officials to give them a “seat at the table” during peace talks. Likewise, it is important for all tracks to work together to cover the broadest possible spectrum of a conflict and operate together for the common goal of constructively transforming a conflict and achieving peace. Based on the example of this study, conflict resolution researchers and practitioners should continue to identify similar conflict viewpoints between actors in all tracks so that they can better understand conflict narratives and advocate for more informed peacemaking and peacebuilding. The field of conflict resolution offers conflict analysis tools that help identify the causes of a conflict, a potential trajectory towards peace, and opportunities for managing, resolving, or transforming conflicts.

Continued Reading

Ambassador John McDonald (Video Series) GMU-TV

Conflict Analysis: A Quick-Guide to Structured Conflict Assessment Frameworks By War Prevention Initiative. 2017.

Keywords: conflict resolution, diplomacy, Kurdish conflict, Multi-Track Diplomacy, Track I, Track II, Turkey

This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest.


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