A cultural approach to conflict resolution assumes that conflicts do not just involve basic human needs and interests such as territory, economic prosperity and natural resources, and that their resolution is not governed by power politics. Some suggest that culture rests at the heart of many conflicts, particularly in respect of communist or former communist countries, and conflicts in the Middle East and Asia. Others who adopt a cultural approach suggest that conflicts, although in essence pragmatic, can only be successfully mediated and resolved if culture is taken into account.
The Australian academic, politician and diplomat Dr. John Wear Burton (1915-2010) proposed that culture is unimportant in conflict because all humans have the same needs that are non-negotiable and unalterable. He suggested that people will pursue the satisfaction of their needs regardless of the cost. This is consonant with a cultural evolutionary approach which sees conflict as a competition for scarce resources in which only the "fittest" will survive. Ira William Zartman, an emeritus professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, who served on the United States National Advisory Committee of the Middle East Policy Council, suggested that culture only affects negotiation through style and language. Like Burton, he argued that culture is always trumped by power.
The Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (1930-), a founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, defined, in his book Peace, Violence and Imperialism, three forms of violence: direct, structural and cultural. He suggested that cultural violence occurs as a result of cultural assumptions. These can result in direct or structural violence. For example, a culture might show indifference toward those who are disabled, or even consider their extermination or expulsion a good thing. Ethnic cleansing occurs when cultural violence leads to direct and possibly structural violence.
John Paul Lederach's elicitive methods of conflict resolution, which he calls conflict transformation, emphasize that culture provides the logic by which people reason. His academic work is laden with examples from his experience in the field as a mediator in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Colombia and Nepal. Similarly, Robert Jervis (1940-) the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University argued that international politics is not governed by the cost-benefit logic of the state but by fuzzy logic used to set the rules of behavior. Wolfgang Dietrich (1956-), the UNESCO Chair for Peace Studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, proposed a classification of peace interpretations that is culture-based: moral, energetic, modern, post-modern and trans-rational. A trans-rational approach favors cultural, relational methods of conflict transformation that go beyond pragmatic and interest-led diplomacy.
Dr. Mohamed Rabie argued that Westerners should not judge Middle Eastern and post-communist conflicts by Western rules of culture or assume that they are material and interest based. Rabie advocates incorporating cultural attitudes into models of conflict resolution and the involvement of bicultural individuals in mediation.
Those against a cultural or trans-rational approach argue that it will not produce practical directives for resolving or managing global conflicts since ideology trumps pragmatism and objectivity. Recognizing aggressive cultural tendencies or ardent counter-Western, or counter-establishment attitudes can be seen as openly or tacitly supporting terrorism or radicalism as an acceptable strategy for the 'disempowered' to rectify their grievances, real or perceived, against the ‘powerful'. Cultural understanding tends to be advocated by the left-wing, which may give an unbalanced understanding of the cultural issues involved.
An argument in favor of the cultural approach rather than pragmatic approach is that the majority of armed conflicts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been ended through negotiations, not military solutions, which suggests that culture and ideology, rather than basic resources does play a major role. This was posited by Dean E. Peachey and others in their book In Defence of Peace Studies.
In their book Making War and Peace, Michael Doyle and Nicolas Sambanis suggest that a cultural approach can confirm, rather than undermine, cross-cultural consensus on the importance of human security, human rights, development, democracy, and the rule of law.
In any event, some pragmatists also argue that while a conflict may ultimately be about resources rather than ideologies, diplomacy cannot contribute to resolving most conflicts without taking into account the cultural approach of those involved. They identify culture as defining the approach, communications and modus operandi of negotiators, which are a sine qua non of successful intervention. Without cultural sensitivity it is unlikely that those involved will participate or reach an outcome that can be implemented.