An anthropologist and expert on negotiation takes a look at violent conflict, both interpersonal and international, and optimistically describes what we can do to prevent, resolve, and contain it. The book is divided into three parts:
1. a description of the importance of the "third side" in a conflict
2. an examination of the history of violent conflict and speculations about its future
3. explanations of ten ways the third side can help to avert violence
Ury argues for the importance of what he calls the third side in a dispute, separate from the two conflicting parties but active in resolving conflict. He writes that violence is the ultimate arbiter when there is no other authority to decide an issue between people or groups. When left only to themselves, therefore, disputants tend to spiral into violent conflict to resolve their disagreements. The presence of a third party, however, changes the nature of an argument. Ury contends that a strong third side can go far toward keeping quarrels from becoming battles.
One of the book's big ideas is that, although conflict is inevitable (and even helpful), war and violence are not. By taking a historical and anthropological perspective, Ury questions the widely held assumption that war is an inherent part of human nature. He examines the archaeological evidence formerly used to "prove" our violent nature and argues that peace was the norm for the overwhelming majority of the time humans have existed. Ury contends that it was only with the shift from being hunter-gatherers to a settled agricultural and then industrial existence that war became feasible. He then holds out the hope that with the increasingly horizontal relationships and "expanding pie" of the knowledge age, we can return to peaceful coexistence.
Finally, the book describes ten different roles that the third side plays to prevent conflict from going out of control, resolve disputes that threaten to escalate, and contain fights that do break out. Ury uses numerous examples to illustrate these roles and show how individuals, organizations, and nations can fill them.
The book includes a "road map" outline of the main ideas and an extensive index, both of which help greatly in reviewing its contents.
I was impressed by the breadth of Ury's understanding. He brings not only a great deal of academic knowledge but practical experience ranging from resolving union-labor disputes to improving U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War to studying how African hunter-gatherer tribes resolve conflict. His optimism about the feasibility of conflict without violence caused me to reevaluate my notions about war and peace.
Getting to Peace was published in 1999, before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and America's subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I found it interesting to interpret these events using Ury's framework and to see how the conflict in Iraq might have been handled differently. If the European nations that had objected so vociferously had sent peacekeeping troops to Baghdad, would the U.S. still have invaded? If there had been more bridge building between the Islamic world and the U.S. and a more equalized distribution of power, would the terrorist attacks even have occurred?
My questions and reservations about Ury's ideas revolve primarily around his hopes for a peaceful future through the knowledge economy. While it is true that most of the value of products created today comes from scientific knowledge, the way it is currently being applied is ecologically unsustainable. Will the pie continue to expand if the life support mechanisms of the planet begin to fail or if key resources become even scarcer? Despite these doubts, I found Getting to Peace thought provoking and readable, with both a comprehensive philosophical/historical framework and numerous down-to-earth examples and suggestions.