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Internet preview version - updated 4 April 2001

Power or peace?
Trauma, change and psychological climate
in national and international affairs - 2001

Dai Williams, Chartered Occupational Psychologist

Initial studies: Israel, the USA and UK in 2001
Tracking psychological climate after traumas or change
Study 1: Outlook for psychological climate in Israel and Arab communities
Study 2: Outlook for psychological climate during the US Presidential transition
Psychological climate analysis in national contexts
Psychological climate and international affairs
Power or Peace and transition management
Study 3: Implications for the UK Government
Power or Peace project briefing


Power or Peace is a project to increase awareness of peace and political psychology. It suggests that political and military decisions need to include psychological factors affecting political leaders, governments and communities as well as social, economic and military considerations.

The basic proposition is that human responses to stress and change can be used to monitor and forecast the psychological climate in governments and communities after major political changes, conflicts or disasters. Greater awareness of these factors may highlight unexpected hazards and new opportunities for managing periods of trauma or change.

The Power or Peace proposition is explained in a new Eos briefing that combines theories, methods and practical examples from previous studies. This is a Preview version for Internet discussion. Previous applications include the effects of trauma and change on the UK Government since 1997, on communities during and after the 1999 Balkans war, and in the Northern Ireland peace process. Figure 1 illustrates its application to transition periods in Israel and the USA:

Figure 1: Potential effects of trauma and change on psychological climate in Israel and USA

Summary of climate forecasts for Israel and US affairs in 2001 Small text may be hard to read on screen but should print clearly. Click here for full page chart.

The briefing offers ways to monitor psychological climate in governments, communities and other organisations that commentators, planners and analysts can try for themselves alongside other forms of analysis and forecasting. It should compliment other techniques for managing change, disaster response and alternatives to violence for managing community conflict. It is intended for use in any political or community context.

Initial studies: Israel, the USA and UK in 2001

The Power or Peace project involves a series of studies. Studies 1 and 2 - for Israel and the USA - suggest that political events could be seriously destabilized for several months by the aftermath of recent traumas and government changes, potentially improving later in the year, see Figure 1. These outlooks have national and international implications. Study 3 applies them to timing options for the UK General Election, and for UK relations with both countries this year. Similar implications apply for other countries.

Tracking psychological climate after traumas or change

Periods of trauma and change have predictable effects on the psychological well-being or distress of individuals. In this project the term psychological climate means the psychological well-being or distress of groups, organisations or communities and how this fluctuates over periods of time. It is a combination of individual responses to trauma and change and the collective behaviour of groups sharing similar experiences.

Psychological climate can be monitored by observing critical incidents ranging from elation e.g. election celebrations, to extreme stress - seen in strategic errors, panic, rage or violence. In periods of trauma or change two basic psychological processes are involved. The fight or flight response enables individuals to respond to immediate threats. The transition process enables individuals to adapt to major traumas or changes (good as well as bad) but operates over many months. (see Figure 2 below and Human responses to change).

Observers can review psychological climate in groups by tracking key indicators of their behaviour month by month. This has been done in Studies 1 and 2 for the period September 2000 - February 2001. Other Eos reports tracked psychological climate in the UK Government from the May 1997 election to February 2000 (see charts in Parliament in Transition and Accidents waiting to Happen). Over longer periods these show distinct cycles with some crises following major events several months earlier. The timing of other crises e.g. natural disasters may be random but are likely to start new cycles of change for people directly affected.

When whole organizations or communities are affected by a major trauma or change it should be possible to predict shifts in their collective well-being or distress - the psychological climate in governments and traumatized or disaffected communities (see Balkans Aftermath).

Figure 2: The transition cycle - - a template for individual responses to change.

The transition cycle

The transition cycle offers a template to predict phases of change after major events like elections, violence or disasters. However, since individuals vary in coming to terms with change, the recovery phase may take longer to establish in groups.

Recent events in Israel and the USA are likely to have started psychological as well as political transitions in each country. If so they are likely to involve periods of psychological crisis for individuals and groups - at all levels of society and government, and for winners as well as losers but at different times.

The transition process appears to serve a vital evolutionary function - to enable individuals and communities to adapt successfully to major traumas or changes. In the first 3 months people adapt day to day behaviour to respond to the new situation. Threats to deeper beliefs are rejected or denied during this stage. But after 4-5 months contradictions between old attitudes or beliefs and the new reality may cause increasing stress and confusion. These inner tensions can reach intolerable levels in a transition crisis about 6 months after trauma or change.

The transition crisis period is potentially hazardous for individuals and groups. People under severe stress (at its worst in transition crisis) are likely to lose strategic vision and make serious errors of judgement or even fatal decisions. In political organisations these may including internal conflict, splits, scapegoating or resignations see Figure 3:

Figure 3: Headlines during the UK Parliament's post-election transition crisis Oct 97 - Feb 98

UK headlines during the post-election crisis 97-98

Under extreme stress the fight or flight response increases risks of random violence e.g. suicide bombing, military atrocities, or escape in refugee exodus (see Figure 2 in Fear and violence in stressed populations).

One key to surviving transitions is coming to terms with the new situation, usually letting go of some deeply held belief or expectation. For new governments this may require updating policies or manifestos. For communities these may require extensive support in peace and reconciliation programmes.

If individuals, communities or governments can find the key to making these changes they can move forward into the positive transition recovery phase. In ideal conditions this can happen within a few weeks. In 1997-98 the new UK Government was in crisis for 3 months despite its landslide majority but then made a fast recovery including a popular budget and the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland (see press reports in Figure 3 above and the time-line of events in Parliament in Transition).

Individuals, organisations and communities that make successful transitions are better adapted to the new environment than those who do not. They retain the best of past traditions and beliefs and shed those that are no longer appropriate. Some may be transformed by the experience of trauma and change e.g. Japan and Germany after World War 2, and rejection of sectarian violence by many communities in Northern Ireland (see value shifts in the Northern Ireland peace process). However in countries with long histories of political or ethnic conflict it make take several years and a series of national and international interventions to move forward to peaceful coexistence. Other psychological strategies are needed over long periods to facilitate reconciliation. But the recovery phase of transitions offers windows of opportunity to move some of these processes forward faster.

Psychologists in organisation and personal development have developed ways to help people manage the several phases of transition - from redundancy or bereavement to managing major corporate mergers and takeovers (e.g. in Shell). Transition management techniques relevant to political and community change are explained in the full project and in other Eos studies. They have been used to indicate potential hazards and opportunities and their approximate timings in Studies 1 and 2 below.

Study 1: The outlook for psychological climate in Israel and Arab communities

These studies illustrate practical applications of psychological climate analysis to political arenas going through major changes in 2001. The first two focus on prospects for peace in the Middle East and political stability for Israel and the USA. The psychological effects of the Intifada and post-election transitions in Israel are likely to be exacerbated by ongoing stress in all communities. (see Fear and violence in stressed populations).

The potential Intifada transition crisis, in addition to existing high levels stress in Arab and some Israeli communities, suggests an increased risk of chaos and random violence developing this month (March) into early summer. The new Government's transition period enters a risk of crisis in June-July. The combination of both crisis periods overlapping could create exceptionally unstable conditions. Traditional security measures to control communities in psychological crises may have the opposite effect during this period.

Study 1 chart: Psychological climate outlooks for groups in Israel through the Intifada
and post-election transition periods in 2001

Psychological climate outlook for groups in Israel during the new Initifada and post-election transitions

click here for full page version of this chart

The full report gives detailed explanations of the processes involved, especially factors that enable or inhibit successful transitions (see Transition psychology in practice).

Study 2: The outlook for psychological climate in US politics during the Presidential transition

The US Presidential election involved two major events and potentially two overlapping transition periods. The dispute over election results in Florida created national confusion for several weeks through November-December 2000. For the Democrats their 'loss of power transition' was likely to start from this time. This may lead to individual or collective crises from April-May onwards. The new President and Administration were inaugurated in January. Their 'honeymoon' is likely to move towards a crisis period in early summer.

Study 2 chart: Psychological climate outlooks for parties in the US post-election transition period:

Psychological climate outlooks for Republicans and Democrats in the US post-election transition period
Click here for full page version of this chart.

Subject to other events these forecasts suggest that both the Republican and Democrat organisations should stabilize by late summer or early autumn. This could be a productive period for new national and international initiatives. This transition period is most likely to affect people directly involved in national and state government - politicians, supporters and public organisations that need to adjust to the new administration. This is an opportunity for researchers in the USA to monitor organisational and psychological climate changes in government organisations in the first year of a new administration, and for organisational change consultants to act as facilitators for transition management.

The effect of government changes on the wider population is usually slower than the transition cycle for politicians. This depends on the type of changes that a new government makes e.g. cuts in spending for public services. These may take many months to affect public attitudes. But the effects of the election crisis in November might cause some unrest among organisations or communities directly affected.

Psychological climate analysis in national contexts

Analysts and commentators with detailed knowledge of Israel and the USA can consider how these theoretical forecasts may affect existing political, military and economic scenarios for 2001. The full report acknowledges ways in which historical, cultural, religious and other contexts may alter the behaviour of specific groups during periods of change. Major trends e.g. risks of economic recession, and events in other countries e.g. economic problems in Japan, may place additional pressures on governments and society.

More cautious research would monitor events and report on them afterwards. As in previous Eos studies of psychological issues in governments and communities these propositions are offered in advance. Transition analysis has been used for 25 years for counselling and managing organisation change in business. Watching an organisation entering a period of transition crisis is like watching civilians walking into a minefield. It seems important to offer a warning and practical advice for managing and surviving periods of trauma and change.

A practical issue for new governments and leaders is establishing authority within their own parties and organisations. High control management styles (command culture) may be appropriate for fighting elections and early stages of setting up a new administration. But organisations in transition are also involved in a learning process. No administration can fully anticipate the new reality they are creating. The crisis phase highlights vital issues and potential contradictions between policy and practice. This may lead to internal conflict. Over-control in crisis periods can lead to rebellion e.g. in the UK Parliament in December 1997. Over-control in the recovery period will inhibit the potential for new confidence and insights. Leadership style needs to adapt at different stages of transition (see Parliament in Transition).

These forecasts may help governments and communities to minimise the hazards of transition crisis periods and maximize opportunities for recovery. Publishing psychological climate forecasts in advance also means that others can test the propositions against actual events. No one can know the future. But we can try to develop better scenarios of likely futures and plans to pre-empt or respond to worst-case developments.

Psychological climate and international affairs

By unfortunate coincidence the current change cycles in the USA and Israel overlap (see Figure 1), potentially amplifying political and public reactions to events. An optimistic scenario is for the new governments to be optimistic and supportive towards groups in crisis during their honeymoon periods. But this may be hard to sustain as they enter their own crisis periods. If they feel threatened by crises in April-May the usual honeymoon periods may be cut short.

Previous studies indicate that national leaders or governments are likely to initiate military action during periods of psychological as well as political crisis. President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair and President Putin have all done this in the last 3 years. If the crisis periods forecast in these studies do develop there is a high risk that either or both the new Israel and US governments may initiate major military actions during the next 4 months. There is also a risk that terrorist groups see governments in crisis as easy targets, provoking or providing an excuse for military retaliation e.g. the attacks on US embassies in 1998 and bombs in Moscow in August 1999.

The prime purpose of these forecasts is to offer national leaders and international agencies (e.g. the United Nations) additional options for managing these periods of change in 2001. The charts indicate the most optimistic recovery scenarios. If unstable situations are mishandled during transition crisis periods they may result in extended crises for many months.

Power or Peace and transition management options

These forecasts highlight strategic options for national leaders and governments when managing periods of transition. If transition crises develop they have choices between either:

  1. Using economic sanctions, fear and military power to suppress civil unrest and community conflict, or
  2. Promoting social, economic and psychological conditions that will stabilize communities in crisis, promoting prospects for peace by increasing economic security and emotional support.

These 'power or peace' options are a frequent source of disagreements between governments focused on national interests and international organisations like United Nations agencies promoting humanitarian concerns. If psychological factors like human responses to stress, trauma and change are considered then governments and military organisations may recognise national advantages in humanitarian strategies.

The UK government and military began to realise this several years ago and changed their approach to military and police operations in Northern Ireland to minimum necessary force. This was combined with major economic development programmes (many funded by the EU) and multiple community initiatives for peace, reconciliation and support for traumatised victims and families.

It is asking a lot for the new administrations in both Israel and the USA to consider radically new strategies to the crises they may face within the first 6-9 months of office. They will be keen to establish their authority and may consider that restraint could be seen as a sign of weakness. Positive initiatives may win them authority with respect rather than fear. But if they are unaware of these psychological factors they are likely to use extreme military action first and learn its limitations by experience.

Government strategists may be willing to consult leading business organisations that can explain the value and importance of transition management strategies in the first year of any new project or organisational change. Governments initiate many changes for others. But politicians may be reluctant to recognise the importance of managing their own traumas and changes. Emotional intelligence has become a popular topic in some countries but emotions are taboo in many political cultures. Organisational intelligence and transition management may be more acceptable concepts.

Study 3: Implications of psychological climate in Israel and the USA for the UK Government

Power or peace options may also face political leaders and parliaments in other countries closely involved with the USA and Israel. They may have options to become involved in military or humanitarian action programmes in response to potential crises over the next 6 months.

Study 3 considers how psychological climate forecasts for Israel and the USA may affect the UK Government's choice of election dates and options for foreign policy and military involvement in the Middle East this year. The UK also faces a major domestic crisis with the Foot and Mouth disease epidemic for farm animals. This will be considered in a separate study.

Summary of climate forecasts for US, Israel and UK election options.

Click here for full page chart.

The UK election usually involves closing Parliament for approximately 4 weeks before the election. Political campaigning becomes the highest priority for all parties. The Government has a choice of dates. An early election in April was possible but has been dropped because of the national crisis for farming communities. It has planned a May election for several months. Its current legislation programme is based on an early election. But it also has an option to hold the election in October.

The UK Government currently has a strong majority and is almost certain to win an election in the near future. An early election would enable it to extend its hold on political power in the UK for another 4-5 years.

The forecasts for USA and Israel could be important because they suggest a high risk that the crisis between the Israel Government and Palestinian communities may rapidly escalate in the next two months. If this happens it seems likely that the Israeli government may start a major military offensive. This could result in a range of responses from neighbouring Arab states, from international terrorists like Bin Lardin, or widespread protests by Muslim communities around the world. If Iraq is in any way involved it is likely that the US Government will take military action in support of Israel. In doing so it is almost certain to request UK military support.

The possibility of the UK becoming involved in a new military conflict on the scale of Operation Desert Fox in 1998 while the Parliament is closed will present a serious dilemma to the Government and outrage from other political parties. The possibility the the UK Prime Minister would guarantee not to get involved in international military action during an election is minimal. The issue of recalling Parliament once it had been closed for an election would create a major constitutional crisis.

The UK Government also has a peace option for international affairs in the immediate future. Prime Minister Blair is the one western leader who could offer a bridge of continuity through the US Presidential transition period. He also has positive relations with Israel. The next 2-3 months could be a vital window of opportunity for initiatives to stabilize the developing Middle East crisis, and to offer calm counsel to the new administrations in Israel and the USA. This support is likely to be needed, without distraction and with multi-lateral support, until July-August. A UK election campaign in April and new administration in May would weaken UK influence through this vital period, passing the initiative for international action to President Putin.

A May election would probably win Prime Minister Blair another 4-5 years in office. But if this involved the UK in another Middle East war, with potential terrorist reprisals in the UK, or against UK citizens overseas (as in 1998) plus a highly disaffected Muslim community his new government's credibility would be flawed from the outset. This is an avoidable risk. But psychological climate in the UK Government must have been badly affected by the succession of domestic crises it has suffered over the last 6 months (national disruption over petrol prices last September, storms, floods, rail crashes, political embarrassment and the Foot and Mouth epidemic). Chronically high stress levels are likely to be affecting strategic decisions - including its choice of election date.

Deferring the UK election to October would postpone one avoidable source of stress for the Government and many public sector organisations in a period of national, and potentially international crisis. With constructive support from countries like the UK the international outlook is far better for Israel and the USA by the autumn. The Foot and Mouth epidemic should have stabilised and the international economic situation should be clearer.

Similar power or peace dilemmas may affect international relations for many other governments in the next 6 months. These need separate investigation by analysts who can recognise critical incidents in each region.

Power or Peace project briefing

The full Power or Peace briefing contains the theories and methods used for the psychological climate forecasts in this Internet Preview. Other practitioners and researchers can use it to test these analyses or look for examples of transition crises and recovery periods in other historical and international contexts. It may be relevant to other social scientists, political, economic, military and medical researchers, historians and biographers. It covers the following topics:

The full briefing (40 pages) is available in hard copy or by Email, price £25. Contact Eos to order.

Summaries of psychological climate studies will be posted on the Eos website. Reports of similar studies can be posted to the Eos Life-Work Forum.

17 March 2001

Copyright © Eos Life Work 2001
This document is offered in the public domain for education, research and public discussion provided that Eos copyright is acknowledged and the Eos website address http://www.eoslifework.co.uk is included. Copying or reproduction of text or illustrations by any media for commercial use is subject to prior agreement with the author and advance payment of a licence fee.

Published by Dai Williams, Eos Life Work,
32 Send Road, Send, Woking, Surrey GU23 7ET, UK
Email: eosuk@btinternet.com
Phone: UK 01483-222017 International: +44-1483-222017

Your comments on these issues are welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum or by Email.

Page updated 4 April 2001.

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