Border Fixity: What is it and why does it matter?

International borders are seldom natural in any meaningful sense. They are human creations – a social construct. The functions of borders differ markedly across time and space. Borders could be sealed or permeable. They may allow some kind of transaction (say, of goods) but restrict another (say, people). They could be based more on people (as in nomadic societies) or on territory (as in the modern state system). Regardless of the function of borders, however, the locations of borders have always changed throughout human history. And these changes have never been easy. Ample anecdotal and statistical data show that disputes about the location of borders -- that is, territorial conflicts -- have been among the primary motivations for war. This was true in antiquity and probably even more so in modern times.

Imagine, then, a world in which people do not fight over territory. A world in which borders are fixed and, therefore, there is no need to fight over their location. Would it not be a far more peaceful world? Wouldn't this world lack one of the chief reasons to go to war? We need not really imagine, because we are, to a significant degree, living in such a world – a world in which “border fixity” is the defining territorial norm. Border fixity is the prohibition of foreign conquest and annexation of homeland territory, a prohibition that became increasingly potent in the last half century.

To be sure, the process of fragmentation of the big multinational empires, which began around the First World War, still continues. Secessions, while not common, still happen as well. Yet conquest and annexation of a neighbor’s territory, a phenomenon very common until the mid-twentieth century, has become increasingly rare. The few such cases that took place in the last fifty years either involve minuscule territories, or are still not legally recognized by the international community. Some such well-known examples include Israel’s 1967 conquests and Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh territory (the only such case in the last thirty years, if one discounts the brief annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990). With this transformation in territorial norms comes a parallel development in international law. As historian Martin Van Creveld notes in The Rise and Decline of the State, “All but gone are a whole series of terms, such as ‘subjugation’ and ‘the right of conquest,’ which as late as 1950 formed a normal part of legal discourse in a work on international law.” This transformation is codified and institutionalized, moreover, in numerous charters, resolutions, and declarations of the United Nations and various regional international organizations. This does not mean that states are always satisfied with their territorial status quo. Many people in Poland, for instance, still consider parts of Ukraine as rightfully theirs. Bolivia still resents its territorial losses to Chile in the 19th century’s War of the Pacific. But states in Europe and South America are less and less likely to go to war over these issues. They accept current borders as a fact of life, if not always fair.

But do we really live in the world described in the aforementioned thought experiment? The answer is most certainly mixed. The same factors affect relations between states differently in different situations. In some parts of the world the norm and practice of border fixity are greatly contributing to the creation of a much more stable, peaceful, and cooperative environment. Ironically, in other parts of the world, the same principles and practices create new logics and incentives for conflict. What determines whether border fixity transforms international relations for better or for worse is the socio-political strength of the majority of the states in a given region. In regions where most states are relatively strong, such as Europe (save the Balkans), North America, South America, and to some extent north Asia, border fixity begets stability and eliminates border conflict. In regions where most states are weak or failing, such as in Africa, the Middle East, some parts of Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Central America, border fixity often generates more international conflict.

As used here, the socio-political strength of states refers first to the efficiency and the extent of reach of a state’s institutions and, second, to the level of identification of the residents with the state. The first component measures the degree to which the institutions of the state are capable of governing the state. It thus contains, such measures as the degree of monopoly on the use of violence, the ability of the state to extract taxes and to distribute collective goods and the efficiency and geographic reach of the bureaucracy of state institutions, such as the judicial system, the police force, and the education system. The second component measures the degree to which the state is socially cohesive and the citizens identify themselves with the state per se (not necessarily with its regime or government) and are loyal to the state. The stronger these two essential socio-political components are, the stronger the state is judged to be on this basis.

Border Fixity and Strong States: Providing the Conditions for Peace

In regions in which most states are socio-politically strong, border fixity contributes to peace and stability by eliminating the option of territorial wars, reducing anxieties of the security dilemma, and providing an environment for cooperation. Since territorial conflict has historically been among the most salient justification for war, the fact that borders no longer change, by itself, significantly decreases the likelihood of waging a justifiable war. Alsace and Lorraine, for example, were at the epicenter of Franco-German conflict for centuries, changing hands repeatedly. The provinces were given to Louis XIV of France in 1648, taken by Bismarck’s Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, annexed by France in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, conquered by Hitler in 1940, and returned to France by the Allies in 1945. But in the era of border fixity, Alsace and Lorraine cannot be (and are not) a matter of international dispute. Germany accepted Alsace and Lorraine as permanently part of France by its 1955 regaining of sovereignty, and nowhere in the current German polity can one find any significant reference to Alsace and Lorraine as a part of Germany. Thus, border fixity has all but eliminated this cause of prolonged German-Franco conflict.

Nor is this effect restricted to the European continent. The legal principle of uti possidetis, which determines the borders along their location under the colonial rule, was gradually accepted by most nations in South America as the basis for international relations in the region by the end of the nineteenth century. The most important states of the region were by that time fairly strong in socio-political terms, which made them able to enjoy the positive externalities of border fixity. Thus, though South America was rife with international conflicts in the nineteenth century, the pattern of conflict has dramatically changed since. South America was the second quietest continent in the twentieth century (after North America), and suffered only three international wars from 1900 until today. At least some of this decline in international wars can be attributed to border fixity and the strengthening of the states.

Furthermore, the elimination of the option of forceful territorial changes is not the only reason why border fixity enables socio-politically strong states to create a more stable and peaceful international environment. Border fixity among strong states results in greater international peace and stability because strong states face a volatile “security dilemma,” a situation in which what one state does to increase its security might be perceived as a threat by another state and thus creates arms races, mobilizations, and possibly inadvertent wars. By practically banning the use of force to change the territorial status quo, border fixity greatly reduces the potential threat that one nation’s defenses pose to its neighbors. States are much less inclined to interpret any defensive move by a neighbor as a threat if they do not fear that their neighbor could use its power to annex territory or threaten survival. The First World War, for instance, is often taken as a crucial example of the malign effects of the security dilemma that states face, when all the European Great Powers were reluctant to embark on a major war but nevertheless found themselves entangled in precisely such a war. As a result of their fears of the others’ intentions and capabilities, the European powers thought the breakout of the war to be virtually inevitable. Arguably, if border fixity existed in Europe in 1914, Austria and Germany would not have worried about French revanchism or Russian expansionism, and French and British fears of Germany’s rising power would not have been so acute either.

A less standoffish environment of security dilemmas is also prone to increase cooperation. A world of unstable security dilemma situations is one in which states are likely to perceive their relations with others through zero-sum lenses and thus are less apt to cooperate with their neighbors. A world with less threatening security dilemmas, on the other hand, is one in which actors tend to seek absolute profits and are thus more likely to cooperate with each other. The recognition that territorial changes are no longer part of the game, and the resulting ease of security tensions, therefore, enables a much higher degree of cooperation between the United States, Canada, and Mexico than we would otherwise expect. And it is unlikely that the high level of integration reached by the European Union would have been possible if, for instance, Germany would have still harbor ambitions of territorial expansion. This cooperation and integration, in turn, further decreases the likelihood of armed conflicts in regions in which most states are socio-politically strong.

Overall, border fixity decreases the chances of war and increases stability, peace, and cooperation in regions where most states are socio-politically strong. Border fixity, of course, is not the only factor that enabled peace and relative stability in Europe and the Americas, but it is a significant one that is often overlooked.

Border Fixity and Weak States: Creating Conditions for Conflict

Border fixity has a dark side, which increases the level of conflict in regions in which the majority of states are socio-politically weak. While in these regions territorial conflict has diminished, the same principle creates conditions under which other kinds of violent conflicts are more likely. Border fixity, indeed, magnifies the domestic sources of international conflict in much of today’s Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. It does so by perpetuating and exacerbating state weakness, because it deprives the state of a key factor that historically motivated state-building: the external threat to state borders and state survival. The combination of socio-politically weak states and border fixity is increasingly becoming the most potent source of both internal and international conflicts.

Most young states are “born” weak and in that sense today’s young states are no different from those in seventeenth century Europe or the nineteenth century American continents. But the structure of incentives is very different for today’s leaders when compared with those of past young and weak states. For late seventeenth century Brandenburg-Prussia, late eighteenth century United States, or late nineteenth century Argentina, failing to aggressively state-build would mean slim chances of survival; the same is not true for today’s Sudan, Lebanon, or Uzbekistan. The deepening and expanding reach of the state, the creation of centralized (or federal) bureaucratic systems, and the monopolization of legitimate means of violence, makes confrontation between strong groups with entrenched interests inevitable. In the past, however, these were often risks worth taking since they enabled the state to survive and thrive in a world in which territorial conquest and annexation were the rules of the game. Those states that did not follow the path of state-building often ended up loosing territory or even their independence. In a border fixity world, by contrast, states survive regardless of their internal weakness. No matter how weak the states become, it is unlikely to loose its formal sovereignty, with all the benefits that sovereignty entails. Leaders, therefore, have fewer incentives to take the road of state-building and face the powerful interests opposing such a move. Politicians, of course, still strive to consolidate their own power; they simply look for cheaper and less risky ways to do it – through patrimonial networks, or divide and rule tactics, for instance – than state-building. In addition, in the past territorial threats helped galvanize a coherent in-group identity. External threats still exist today, but as they do not endanger the mere survival of the state or its territorial integrity, they are more likely to be perceived as threats to some segment of the population rather than the whole.

Border fixity thus perpetuates and exacerbates weakness in states that are already fragile. And socio-politically weak states are more prone to suffer from higher rates of internal violent conflict. When government is very weak or absent, groups within the state face an analogous security dilemma to a state in the anarchic international system. This may lead to inter-group conflict. The same weakness of the state may also allow deliberate predation by one group against another. The government's weakness in Burundi, for example, was a primary cause of the outbreak of the communal conflict there in the 1990s and early 2000s. Communal conflict may also occur in weak states because rulers have fewer institutional tools to gain legitimacy in the absence of external territorial threats or opportunities. They might try to compensate by using “internal scapegoating” – excluding some groups of the population in order to gain legitimacy with others. Such tactics might have ominous consequences for inter-communal relations. In an era of border fixity, moreover, the excluded groups lack an exit option, which makes internal scapegoating both more likely and more prone to result in violence. For instance, as Zaire started crumbling under Mobutu Sese Seko in the early 1990s, its leader incited a campaign of exclusion against the Banyarwanda of eastern Zaire, branding this ethnic group as foreigners, and denying them citizen’s rights, in order to gain the support of other groups in the region. Predictably, this act resulted in increasing communal violence. Weak states in an international environment of border fixity, thus, are prone to suffer from civil wars and internal violence.

Moreover, most of today’s international conflicts are, at least to some extent, spillovers of domestic ones. First, conflict may spill over because cross-border kin relations compel states to intervene in an internal conflict in which they see their brethren threatened. Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, for instance reacted with military means to the assistance the Kurds received from their kin across their borders. Second, internal wars tend to produce more refugees than external ones, and refugee flows are often the medium for spreading conflict across borders. The recent conflagrations between Sudan and Chad, for example, is most certainly a spillover of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, which is exacerbated by the socio-political weakness of both states and the fixity of international borders.

Third, while territorial predation is no longer allowed, socio-politically weak states are still vulnerable to other sorts of foreign intervention. The fact that one state cannot legally annex its neighbor’s territory does not mean that it cannot manipulate it politically or abuse it for its own economic profits. Greed is omnipresent, but weak states are an easy target since internal allies are much more identifiable to an outsider, and because many socio-politically weak states also become militarily weak. Maintaining a strong and cohesive military when the state is falling apart and when taxes are not forthcoming is extremely hard. These conditions often result in predatory international intervention. Again, the predation expected here is not territorial but political and economic. One example of economic predation is Zimbabwe’s involvement in the war over the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-2004). Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe openly declared the potential economic profit in the DRC to be one of the chief reasons for Zimbabwean involvement in the war, and his policies reflected this aim. Intervention in Lebanon by Israel (1982-2000) and Syria (1976-2005) , on the other hand, were political in nature. Both tried (and Syria succeeded for almost two decades) to impose their own preferences on the Lebanese political system. Socio-politically weak states, then, are not spared the wrath of war, nor do they enjoy long-term prospects of escaping it.


Border fixity is a fact today. Contrary to the norms and practices of previous eras, foreign conquest and annexation of homeland territory are no longer part of the acceptable rules in the contemporary international environment. The effects of this change in the way states conduct their relations with others, however, varies considerably. In regions that are occupied mostly by socio-politically strong states, border fixity is a virtue that encourages peace, stability, and international cooperation. In regions that are occupied primarily by socio-politically weak states, like most of the developing world, border fixity actually perpetuates and exacerbates the weakness of states, and thus contributes to the occurrence of both internal and international conflicts. Thus, border fixity transforms the relations between states, but transforms them in contradicting ways: one nation's blessing is another one’s curse.