Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict

by Boaz Atzili


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Tuesday, October 23  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.


Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict by Boaz Atzili

Border fixity—the proscription of foreign conquest and the annexation of homeland territory—has, since World War II, become a powerful norm in world politics. This development has been said to increase stability and peace in international relations. Yet, in a world in which it is unacceptable to challenge international borders by force, sociopolitically weak states remain a significant source of widespread conflict, war, and instability.

In this book, Boaz Atzili argues that the process of state building has long been influenced by external territorial pressures and competition, with the absence of border fixity contributing to the evolution of strong states—and its presence to the survival of weak ones. What results from this norm, he argues, are conditions that make internal conflict and the spillover of interstate war more likely. Using a comparison of historical and contemporary case studies, Atzili sheds light on the relationship between state weakness and conflict. His argument that under some circumstances an international norm that was established to preserve the peace may actually create conditions that are ripe for war is sure to generate debate and shed light on the dynamics of continuing conflict in the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226031361
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/10/2012
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Boaz Atzili is assistant professor in the School of International Service, American University.

Read an Excerpt

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors

By Boaz Atzili

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03136-1

Chapter One

The Theory and Practice of Borders


Territoriality and borders are essential parts of the modern sovereign state and of the state's international relations. The first section of this chapter surveys the debates on states' territoriality and borders within and outside the discipline of International Relations (IR), in order to situate this investigation in the context of past and present research. The studies of territory and borders, and especially of different norms that define the way we think about borders, have been developing in recent years, but they still contain significant gaps and leave much to be desired. The aim of this book is to start filling these gaps or, more appropriate to the title, start mending this wall. This chapter first briefly surveys some of most important theoretical and empirical discussions of borders. It then introduces the concept of the border-fixity norm and discusses its development, status, and strength.

Throughout history, many if not most conflicts and agreements between states were about territories and borders: their location or their functions. Historically, territory and border issues are probably the primary cause of wars, as well as agreements, between states. In a fairly consistent way across databases and studies of the modern state-system (since Westphalia in 1648), the finding is that territorial disputes are the most common underlying cause of war and militarized disputes. Statistical work based on the COW ("Correlates of War") project, find that territorial issues are present in more than a quarter of militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) while it accounts for more than a half of the wars between 1816 and 1992. Working from his own data set, Kalevi Holsti's findings for the period between 1815 and 1989 are similar.

One may suspect that this could be the case since territorial disputes often occur between contiguous states. These states have both the willingness (more reasons to fight) and opportunity (more tools to fight) for conflict initiation and war, thus making territory somewhat spurious. Yet research has found that territoriality is a major cause of war even when controlled for contiguity and a host of other possible variables. Territory, moreover, is even more likely to serve as a cause for war initiation when the states in question do not share a border. In other words, the argument is that territories and borders have some intrinsic value to states that make them more likely to be a source of dispute and war. As John Vasquez argues, "Territory is a peculiarly sensitive area for human collectives. They will fight over it more readily than over any other question, and any issue linked with territory becomes subject to violence and the use of force."

Although this systematic survey of the role territories and borders play in interstate conflicts is rather recent, the notion of centrality of borders to international relations is anything but new. Because of this notion, and because modern IR studies are about interactions (be it diplomacy, trade, war, or other kinds) between political entities enclosed within some territorial boundaries, it is surprising to find how little has been done in this discipline by way of theorizing territorial boundaries. "International relations scholars rarely examine how definitions of populations and territories change throughout history and how this change alters the notion of legitimate authority."

To be sure, discussions of specific territorial conflicts abound, but generalizations and theoretical analysis of the system that is built of territorial states, and the nature and function of borders, has been scarce. As one scholar reflects, "It is truly astonishing that the concept of territoriality has been so little studied by students of international politics; its neglect is akin to never looking at the ground that one is walking on." Or perhaps this neglect is not wholly amazing. One often indeed does not look at the ground on which one walks, or at least does not problematize it. This is usually justified, since one needs a solid basis as a foundation for any endeavor. However, when significant change transforms the nature of that basis, it calls for a serious investigation.

Since the late 1980s, a slow but encouraging development in the writings about territoriality and borders has occurred. This emerging literature may be broadly divided into three categories: theoretical conceptualization of territoriality and borders; discussions of relations between territories and identities; and the study of territorial changes and territorial conflict. Below, I discuss some of the most important works in each of these categories. The emerging literature in all these three categories serves as a basis for identifying and studying the effects of the border-fixity norm.

Territoriality and the Modern State System

The role territoriality plays in modern international relations includes two fundamental components. First is the observation that territoriality, borders, and their relations with populations, are variables rather than constants. Second is the realization that international borders have two dimensions—locations and functions—which are both distinct and related.

The knowledge that territoriality plays a crucial part in the modern world, and that it differs in this respect from previous international orders, is not new. This knowledge, however, has hardly been developed in modern political science. One of the reasons for this lack of interest is the change of focus that the study of relations between territory and politics took at the second part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. This trend, centered on geopolitics and the writings of Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder, was rooted in the premises that there are certain geographic constants which determine the value and character of land in different regions of the globe, and that countries need to take account of these characteristics in order to be able to prevail in their power struggles with others. Important German scholars at the beginning of the twentieth century and through World War II made geopolitics the centerpiece of their attention but also gave it an additional twist. Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Haushofer, among others, attempted to create a much more "organic" view of geography, and mixed it with racial theories. Their political geography, eventually, became an important part of the Nazi propaganda machine.

After the defeat of the Nazis, the study of political geography was discredited in most places, and for a good reason. This trend was one source of the lack of interest in the study of territoriality in human and political affairs noted above. In the 1980s, however, interest in the subject slowly began to reemerge with a novel approach that discussed territoriality from a distinctively different angle: as a variable rather than as a constant. Friedrich Kratochwil pointed out the broad historical context in which political entities and their ordering principles could have different relations to territories. He distinguished, first, between territorial and nonterritorial orders and, second, between imperial and state-system orders within the territorial category. Using a historical study of Mongolia, he argued that "boundaries are important because of their role in mediating exchanges." The types of relationships that are mediated, however, depend on the rules by which societies are ordered. Whether the boundary differentiates between an empire and its outside ("barbarian") environment, between estates of feudal lords with overlapping authority, or between equal and sovereign states makes a huge difference.

These societies hold completely different views of territoriality. John Ruggie distinguishes three main differences between the way premodern societies related to territory and the way modern states relate to it. First, the modern state, in contrast to some of its predecessors, is based on a disjointed territory; second, in contrast to nomadic societies, this territory is relatively fixed; and third, modern territoriality is exclusive. Hendrik Spruyt adds some more models of relations between the political entity and territoriality in his discussion of the Italian city-states and the German city-leagues. The modern territorial state, then, is just one of several historical models of relations between a political entity, its territories, and its borders. Grasping this helps us understand the dynamic character of these relations, and thus sets the stage for understanding changes in the relations we see in today's world.

A second important theoretical observation is that international borders might be distinguished along two different dimensions: their function and their location. As Kratochwil notes, a significant part of international relations revolves around the management of these two dimensions: manipulation of the location of the boundaries, and management of the types of exchanges they mediate—that is, their function. The European balance-of-power system, for instance, was based on the former dimension, using consistent attempts to alter territorial boundaries to control great-power rivalry. Changing of the boundaries' functions, on the other hand, was used mainly around the edges of empires and their colonies. Various institutional arrangements—including spheres of influence, protectorates, suzerainties, and buffer zones—were used to manage the relations between empires and their environment and among the empires themselves. The bulk of European integration between World War II and today has also been about the changing functions, not the locations, of borders.

Granted, the division between the location and function of borders is somewhat artificial, as these dimensions are often interdependent. Indeed, as is shown by Jeffery Herbst's study of African borders in the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras, location itself might be the borders' most important function. Nevertheless, the analytical distinction is still useful, and it helps to define more clearly the puzzle of this study. While this book concentrates on border's location, one should never lose sight of their function, since the two dimensions are so closely intertwined. Moreover, since I argue below that significant change in the location of boundaries in the current state system is practically obsolete, the manipulation of their function takes on an even greater importance.

The current era of globalization is a case in point. While the function of borders is rapidly changing, their location is not. Moreover, contrary to the common assumption that globalization renders territoriality less important, researchers has found that it does not. The authors in a book edited by Miles Kahler and Barbara Walter find, for example, that globalization and territoriality interact in various ways, but that the political and symbolic attachments of people to "their" territory are as strong as ever in a globalized world.

Identities, Territories, and Borders

A second area in which the new literature on territories that have emerged since the 1980s has made a significant contribution is discussion of the intersection between territories and identities. This research demonstrates how institutions like "state" and "sovereignty" can take on different meanings, either territorial or not. It also points to the malleability of territorial definitions of states and ethnic groups, and the content of territorial identities.

One question dealt with in this literature is whether a nation is defined in territorial or in cultural terms. Using the comparison of France under Napoleon III and Prussia under Bismarck, Rodney Bruce Hall demonstrates, for instance, that "a state" could mean very different things with different consequences for international relations, depending mainly on historical societal developments. Similarly, Samuel Barkin and Bruce Chronin argue that the concept of "sovereignty" is neither fixed nor constant. They maintain that the international system at different times adopts different definitions, some of which are based on the state (i.e., territorial) and some on the nation (i.e., not necessarily territorial), thus changing the context and conduct of international relations. These shifting and changing concepts of sovereignty and state have often found some of their manifestations in changing practices of international intervention. As Stephen Krasner has argued persuasively, states' leaders have often interpreted sovereignty to suit their purposes and interests, and have intervened accordingly. Yet, as Martha Finnemore adds, these interventions are sensitive not only to the material interests of states, but also to changing norms with respect to what is an acceptable reason for intervention and what is not. And Benjamin Miller notes that disjuncture between conceptions of state, sovereignty, and nation can often lead to conflict and regional instability.

Students of geography have struggled with similar subjects. Some works, for instance, are focused around the notion that different geographically related identities, on different "scales," are "nested" within other, broader, identities. When cultural and political identities overlap or are in disjuncture between different scales, one should expect to see tension. This is true especially when asymmetry exists between the political state and the cultural nation, both of which are geographical entities. Empirical and historical works in this discipline have also started to emphasize the shifting and constructed nature of geopolitical perceptions, rather than their natural characteristics.

Borders and territory, then, are closely related to national and state identity, but both the location of borders and their appropriate function are changing quantities. This realization has enabled scholars to develop theories about when and under what conditions one would expect political entities' ideas of what constitutes "their" borders to expand and contract, when territories are perceived as "indivisible" and as part of one's core identity, and when such identities might lead to violent conflict. These works on territorial disputes are of great value to the study of borders, yet they neglect to observe the general process by which territorial changes, and especially violent territorial expansions, are becoming obsolete.

The body of literature surveyed in this section, then, serves several purposes. First, the discussion of the notions of territoriality, borders, and sovereignty and how they relate to national identity provides the ontological basis for my argument, as it shows all of these concepts to be social constructs. They can be more or less stable, but they are subject to change. Our collective conception of what constitutes a border—that is to say, of which entities and functions differentiate one state or nation from another—and how and whether it may change has been a variable rather than a constant in human history. This conceptualization is important to the theory of border fixity, because it makes clear that the supposition that borders are fixed and should stay so is a social construct and not a material reality, even though it has some very material consequences. Second, research on territorial disputes and territorial changes, as well as gaps within that research, provide me with the main puzzle, namely: Despite the fact that territorial issues have always been a major reason for states to go to war, making borders fixed, and thus not subject to change, has not significantly decreased the levels of violence and warfare. This is precisely where the concept of the border-fixity norm emerges.


All but gone are a whole series of terms, such as "subjugation" and "the right of conquest," which even as late as 1950 or so formed a normal part of legal discourse in a work on international law...."

MARTIN VAN CREVELD, The Rise and Decline of the State

Defining Border Fixity

This section explains and elaborates the meaning and scope of the border- fixity norm and discusses its origins and evolution. It then examines its existence and strength, demonstrating that the norm today is well internalized in thought and practice, over and above the reasons (some of them material) that gave rise to it in the first place.


Excerpted from Good Fences, Bad Neighbors by Boaz Atzili Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xi

Preface and Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 The Theory and Practice of Borders 10

2 Which Wars Make the State and Which States Make War 31

3 Preconditions to State Building: Making the Case for Comparison 57

4 State Building and State Weakness before Border Fixity: Brandenburg-Prussia, Argentina, and Poland-Lithuania 73

5 State Building and State Failure in a Fixed-Borders World: Lebanon, Congo, and Israel 118

6 State Weakness and International Conflict in a Fixed-Borders World 163

7 Conclusions 194

Notes 223

Bibliography 263

Index 281

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews