The Constant Mediation of Resentment and Retaliation
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, School of Law, Emory University, USA 1 June 2013

The dual premise of this paper is that the ability of people and communities to mediate resentment and preempt retaliation is as integral to the human condition as the impulse to dominate and exploit others. I also see clear evidence of the duality of aggression and resistance, of domination and liberation, throughout human history. Frequent tensions in inter-personal, intra communal and inter-communal relations are bound to bread resentments which tend to accelerate into open confrontation and even violent retaliation unless effectively mediated. This duality is not always obvious and the resistance and liberation aspects of the sequence may not always be immediate or successful, but I believe there are enough historical examples to make the point, including recent developments in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the Arab region in 2011. I am also referring here to familiar strategies we frequently deploy to facilitate peaceful competition and contestations among social movements and political parties within the national societies of the modern state. The required constant mediation should be cultural and contextual, based on a clear understanding of the history, demographics, power relations, and so forth, and drawing on deeply embedded and legitimate normative and institutional resources.

The position I want to advance in this paper is that conflict is a permanent feature of human relationships, while violence is not only unproductive in resolving conflict, but should also be rendered unnecessary. Violence is unproductive because of the above-noted duality of resentment and retaliation. Yet, people will continue to see it as necessary until there is a peaceful alternative. I will argue that we can and should develop appropriate normative resources and pragmatic institutional mechanisms for mediating conflict in order to render violence widely accepted as unnecessary, in local, national regional as well as global level. In the rest of this brief introduction I will first highlight the main elements of an approach to cultural mediation of the duality of resentment and retaliation.

The first step in the process must surely be to acknowledge the reality that resentment and retaliation can become a vicious cycle, a trap, unless those concerned act to escape what this this Seminar calls “the trap” of resentment and retaliation. Next, should be an include exploration of imaginative strategies for deconstructing perceptions of the underlying causes of resentment and motivation for retaliation among all parties to the dispute. Imaginative strategies are also needed for drawing on existing legitimate mediation resources and striving to develop new ones, as and when needed. As I will emphasize later, this calls for a combination of moral choice and political action to address local as well as global risks to what I call our shared human vulnerability. All human beings share vulnerabilities to disease, arbitrary violence and environmental degradation. While it may not always be possible for all or some of us to influence the causes or course of such threats to our lives and wellbeing, we must all strive to do the best we can for our own benefit as well of as others.

I would also emphasize the mutuality of these processes because the Golden Rule is the constant, simple yet totally comprehensive standard. In particular, this mutuality also indicated that we should honor the perceptions of other human beings of the “factual basis” of their resentment as we would want them to honor ours. From this perspective, protagonists like Islamists and secularists in Turkey, indigenous populations and immigrant communities in Europe, Copts and Muslims in Egypt, should honor each other’s concerns in order to be able to mediate their conflicts. I would also urge policy makers and opinion leaders to resist the chauvinistic impulse to seek short term so-called “solutions,” like the idea of “fortress Europe” that can keep out immigrants and refugees. We must move away from simplistic duality of aggressor and victim to realize that we are all potential victims to the extent of our failure to oppose the victimization of others.

Another dimension of the context of cultural mediation is that it cannot be exclusively local because the recent acceleration of globalization intensifies the dynamics of local and global developments, diminishing distance and time without mitigating the realities of human difference and risks of cultural misunderstanding. The same technological and other advances that can improve the quality of our lives can also be means of violence and destruction. On the one hand, the imperatives of economic exchange and trade, security interdependence and human relations, mean that no community can insulate itself against cross-border risks of pandemic disease or the negative consequences of military conflict in other parts of the world. On the other hand, we must somehow act in concert despite our permanent and profound cultural and contextual differences. This is not only about reducing the causes of resentment to minimize the risks of retaliation, but also for the urgency of collaborative response to preempt mounting risks to the lives and wellbeing of people everywhere. As I will try to explain, the imperial impulse to dominate is simply untenable in this age of expansive self-determination of persons and communities and their ability to resist and retaliate, even against the most powerful protagonist, as we have Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and now the United States and its allies. The wisdom to Act on this realization that the imperial impulse is untenable is what I call the true realpolitik of the twenty first century. Conceptions of realism which are premised on so-called amoral rationality or seek to realize self-interest at the expense of collective needs are totally untenable in this age of robust and dynamic self-determination. Whatever may have been possible to achieve in the name of imperial (colonial) realpolitik in the past can neither be realized nor maintained today.

Moral Choice and Political Action

The term realpolitik in German means “the politics of reality,” which should seek to promote the security of the state, instead of attempting to promote some religious or humanitarian objectives. The negative connotations of the term realpolitik are due to some of the ways in which its legitimate purpose is defined, rather than inherent to the concept. Instead of encouraging war and expansion, realpolitik promotes pragmatism and moderation, and cautions against grand designs of power that can easily become counter-productive. Even in its traditional sense, the idea of realpolitik is to serve the true security of the state by adjusting goals and strategies, developing resources and seeking a balance of power with adversaries. Other factors that indicate the desirability of employing moderate means in pursuit of modest goals include structural and contextual limitations, inadequate or misleading information, concerns about bias and miscalculations by leaders and inefficient implementation by their subordinates (Carr 1946; Morgenthau 1973; Waltz 1979).

Granted that politics must be realistic, the question is what does that mean in the present context of duality of aggression and resistance, of domination and liberation in the interplay between the local and global? I would also add that we are making moral choices in addition to considering pragmatic factors in our conceptions of realistic politics and how it works in practice. The term “realpolitik” is commonly understood to refer to foreign policy that is based on practical rather than ethical or ideological considerations, which only begs the question of what is “practical”, who determines that and how. As I have argued elsewhere (An-Na’im 2011), an imperial conception of “realism” for realpolitik is shortsighted both temporally and ethically. It is shortsighted temporally in that it applies only to the immediate consequences of our actions and short term goals of gaining and retaining power and resources. It is also shortsighted ethically because it seeks to engage from and for the benefit of national, ethnic or other narrow political allegiance, to the exclusion of those we deem to be “our enemies.” Moreover, imperial realism is bound to invite retaliation from the proponents of similarly narrow and hostile conceptions. Imperial realpolitik is not realistic at all in this age of systemic and rigorous self-determination because more actors are now able to retaliate more effectively against aggressors than ever before in human history. This trend will probably grow in intensity and develop in sophistication and sustainability at every level, from the local to the national, regional and global. The point I am emphasizing is not only that realistic pragmatic politics need not be confrontational and aggressive, but that it should in fact be cooperative and conciliatory in view of the current implications of the duality of resentment and retaliation.

An interesting recent example of how statesmen can come to see things differently is the shift in the position on nuclear weapons by Henry George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn on nuclear*, who are now advocating the elimination of nuclear weapons (Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn, 2010). It may be said that these are aging statements “philosophizing” about this issue because have exhausted all their personal ambitions. I wouldn’t take this skeptical view seriously in view of the magnitude of the problem of nuclear weapons – men of that caliber and experience would not take such a position of nuclear weapon just to be philosophical in ambition-free old age. Even if accept an element of truth in that skeptical I would argue that still supports my argument in the sense that intelligent, experienced and highly capable people who are not pursuing their personal ambitions would tent to see realistic politics differently.

The paradigm shift in realpolitik I am urging is a difficult, complex and protracted process, but there is no alternative in my view. I also believe that a core question for any significant change is how to overcome the persistent failure of our imagination and weakness of political will through a moral choice for peace with justice at all levels of human experience. Working with old notions of power politics is increasingly unlikely to produce good outcomes under current global conditions. The recent drastic transformations in power relations among a fast expanding array of actors, who are now vastly empowered by technology, mobility of people and capital, decentralization of production and related factors are challenging the basic assumptions of old domestic and global power politics. It is no longer possible to insulate our domestic economies and human security by focusing on our national or local politics. On a global scale, the massive power and resources of non-state actors, like transnational corporations and global networks of insurgent groups and terrorist organizations, are diminishing the coherence and viability of state-centric domestic politics and international relations.

The key to the possibility of re-conceiving realpolitik, I suggest, is self-determination as a core human value that all human beings share. This premise leads me to acknowledge the moral choices of others, especially those who are different from me or disagree with me because those who are like me or agree with me probably wouldn’t need that acknowledgement. Another corollary of that basic idea is the realization that I must strive to be persuasive about my moral choices because that is necessary for developing solidarity with others who might help me live by my own moral choices. This vision is not idle utopia because it is realistic enough to be the political choice for most people and pragmatic enough because it can be supported by normative and institutional resources like constitutionalism and international rule of law for keeping the peace and protection of human rights. Moreover, what I am calling for not new or totally absent in human affairs today. We do have some degree of the vision, as well as the normative and institutional resources for its realization through constitutionalism and the rule of law at home, and international law and institutions abroad. What may be lacking is sufficiently strong moral choice for peaceful co-existence and cooperation to support the political will to use and promote the normative and institutional resources we have.

It is true that moral and political choices are often made in response or reaction to choices made by others, but there are also possibilities for making different choices, even when responding or reacting to choices made by others. I also appreciate, however, that is unrealistic to expect people to make the right moral choices without addressing their primary concerns for security and material well-being. But I also believe that some of us need to exercise moral leadership by taking some risks in order to promote the conditions under which others may need to feel sufficiently secure to join the process of mediation of the duality of resentment and retaliation I indicated earlier. The process of addressing our shared human vulnerabilities, I am suggesting, include how we define our objectives, and to what extent we appreciate the connection between those objectives and the means we use to realize them. For instance, our definition and pursuit of “national security” should not be at the expense of the security and human dignity of others. Failure to do so may undermine rather than enhance our security. The process of globalization and technological resources noted earlier indicate that none of us is able to protect our security acting alone. Even the most powerful and technologically advanced states need to work in concert with others by investing in the rule of law and safeguarding peace with justice at home and abroad.

To conclude this section on a positive note, let me briefly note the remarkable success of the international campaign for a global ban on landmines, an objective which would have been seen as near to impossible to achieve because of its presumed close association with state security and national sovereignty. Yet the international Mine Ban Treaty was adopted by 122 countries in December 1997 through the collaboration of a few states and civil society organizations (Williams and Goose 2008, 181-182). The achievements of the movement continued to inspire international cooperation among governments, landmine survivors, representatives of civil society and international organizations (Smith 2008, 71). The process also included the Nairobi Summit on a Mine Free World, the First Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty held in November 2004. It is also important to note that the treaty has actually achieved significant compliance in practice. The available evidence indicates impressive levels of compliance regarding production, use and transfer of antipersonnel mines by States Parties to the treaty. It is true that the success of all aspects of the landmine ban would have been impossible without the cooperation of governments at every stage of the process, including monitoring and verification (Kmentt 2008, 19, 20, 28; Williams and D. Goose 2008, 195, 196). But it is also true that civil society organizations have succeeded in influencing the behavior of their own governments in adopting and then ratifying the treaty, and into greater compliance after ratification.

Coping with Shared Human Vulnerabilities: The Case of Darfur

I will now turn to the recent severe humanitarian crisis in Dar Fur, Sudan to illustrate the cultural, contextual approach to mediation of resentment and retaliation I am proposing. The tragedy in Dar Fur has attracted increasing media attention and global human sympathy and concern since 2003, but an appropriate response requires attention to the underlying causes in broader historical and regional perspectives. Farming and nomadic communities of the Sahel region of Africa, from Ethiopia to Senegal, have always had conflicts over land and water resources, but whenever those conflicts developed into violence, tribal leaders were able to convene “peace conferences” to adjudicate differences, agree on compensation for loss of life and property and allocation of resources. What is new in the recent crisis since the 1980s is fast intensification of competition as water and land became more scare due to repeated draughts and increasing environmental changes causing the desert to spread (desertification).

Another complication has been the growing militarization of the region as a result of protracted civil war in Chad including the invasion of the country by Libya under Ghadafi rule in the 1980s. As more arms and military training became available to tribal militia and bandits in the region, traditional clashes became more violent and harder to contain, and the ability of tribal elders to mediate declined due to economic and social changes within their own communities. In short, the humanitarian crisis in Dar Fur has been rising in proportion to the intensification and mounting militarization of traditional tribal conflict over land and water, coupled with the declining ability of tribal elders to mediate and control the violence. The level of violence was growing throughout the 1990s, but reached national and international proportions in the early 2000s, perhaps partly due to the emergence of political/military groups claiming to speak in the name of various communities in Dar Fur, calling for more political autonomy from Sudan central government in Khartoum, and a greater share in economic development for Dar Fur. One of these factions, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), was allied with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) of Southern Sudan. As the South began to negotiate with the Khartoum government a peaceful end of the civil war there, the SLA felt betrayed and left out. At the same time, the concessions the Khartoum government was making for the South made the regime worried about having to make similar concessions for Dar Fur, which will encourage other regions to make similar demands.

The present crisis in Dar Far is a result of decades of neglect and manipulation by successive governments in Khartoum, both civilian and military, since the independence of Sudan in 1956. In this respect, Dar Fur is not alone, as other marginalized region in the South, East and West suffered from the same policies of the central government. What is new for Dar Fur is the rise of military and political resistance resulting in more violent clashes, which were aggravated by the regional factors noted above. As the level of military activities in Dar Fur increased, the central government tried to suppress rebel factions, but because it lacked the necessary troops, it resorted to arming and using tribal militia, exploiting ancient suspicion and hostility among Dar Far tribes. When the civil war in the South of Sudan ended with the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2005, more of the tribal militia used by the government in the South the SLPA returned to their traditional tribal regions in western Sudan, adding to the militarization of the region.

We should also realize that major global powers, France, United State, China, Russia, United Kingdom, as well as regional powers like Egypt and Nigeria, tend to act and interact in situation like Dar Fur in pursuit of their own view of their national interests. This is to be expected, but what is misleading and can be dangerous is to pretend that that the policy of any government, domestic or foreign, can be primarily driven by “humanitarian” concerns, as is often proclaimed. In the case of Dar Fur, for instance, France is the former colonial power in the whole region of Sahara West Africa, and continues to regard it as its “sphere of influence”, where it can intervene militarily, supply arms to any side in regional conflicts, protect or undermine regimes, and manipulate governments at will. The United States is apparently seeking to promote its own economic interests (oil in both Sudan and Chad), while respecting French dominance. Russia is a big supplier of arms to the Sudan government, and China is the main developer of Sudanese oil. Such geopolitical factors should be investigated and considered seriously in any analysis of the nature and dynamics of the humanitarian crisis in Dar Fur.

Assuming such analysis to be valid, I would suggest that the duality of resentment and retaliation in Dar Fur can be mediated through multilayered strategies from immediate, short to long term, by local, regional and global actors. All strategies, I suggest, need to combine efficacy with legitimacy. In the short term, there is need for concerted action to stop the violence through collective institutional action by the United Nations, which should probably delegate actual intervention on the ground to the African Union. Necessary action can be taken immediately through a range of measures, from the imposition of sanctions on the Sudan Government under Article 23 of the Constituent Act of the African Union to the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security under Chapter VII. Such measures do not violate the sovereignty of Sudan because they are based on treaties it officially ratified. As noted earlier, we do have the normative and institutional resources, but lack the political will to apply those resources to stop the countless killings and human suffering in Dar Fur, wherever else it is happening. Short term measures include local action to disarm tribal militia, and restore the authority of traditional leadership to mediate violent conflict. There is also need for immediate humanitarian relief and assistance with sustainable development. Longer term measures include regional and international cooperation to combat desertification to preserve arable land and access underground water sources.

None of these measures is as farfetched or unrealistic as they sound except for our squandering of the credibility of our governments and international institutions through reckless actions like our failure to stop genocide in Rwanda, or fail to hold the United States and United Kingdom accountable for their illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Consider how much sustainable good could have been done in Dar Fur with the human and material resources wasted within the same timeframe (2003-2005) in the illegal invasion of Iraq? The point I am making is not, of course, that the United States and United Kingdom should stay away from Dar Fur, but is about how they and other major powers should act. At the same time, however, the urge to “do something” should not become a call to “do anything.” Here I recall what I said earlier about moral choice and political action, and about our shared human vulnerabilities. In Sudan, we have a proverb that can be translated as follows: “you shouldn’t feed your donkey only when you need to ride it.” In other words, we must build and maintain our conflict mediation resources all the time, if we want them to work when we need them. If we can maintain the rule of law in international relations all the time, contribute to fair and just economic development, democratic governance, protection of human rights everywhere and all the time, then when situations like what happened in Dar Fur since 2003 arise, we would have the institutional and material resources to deal with them effectively and humanely.

*Mr. Shultz was secretary of state from 1982 to 1989; Mr. Perry was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997; Mr. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977; and Mr. Nunn is former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


An-Na’im, Abdullahi, “Transcending Imperialism: Human Values and Global Citizenship,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 30, Suzan Young, editor, (forthcoming, University of Utah Press, 2011).

Carr, Edward Hallett 1946, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, 2nd Edition, London: Macmillan & co.

Morgenthau, Hans J. 1973, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 5th Edition, New York, NY: Knopf.

Waltz, Kenneth 1979, Theory of International Politics, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kmentt, Alexander 2008, “A Beacon of Light: The Mine Ban Treaty Since 1997’ in Banning Landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, in Jody Williams, Jody Stephen D. Goose and Mary Wareham, editors, (United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, 2010, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007; Page A15. See also “Nuclear Tipping Point”, a documentary available at, viewed January 27, 2010.

Smith, Shannon 2008, “Surround the Cities with the Villages: Universalization of the Mine Ban Treaty,” in Banning Landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, Jody Williams, Stephens D. Goose and Mary Wareham, editors.

Williams, Joffy, and Stephen D. Goose, 2008, “Citizen Diplomacy and the Ottawa Process: A Lasting Model?’ in Banning Landmines: Disarmament, citizen diplomacy, and human security, in Jody Williams, Stephen D. Goose D. and Mary Wareham, editors.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

The final/definitive version of Abdullahi An-Na’im’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 351-358, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue