Bordering on Conflict: Real Talk on Borders, War, and States
When discussing the territorial boundaries of the Middle East, Africa, or other former colonial areas, there is often a temptation to trace the source of today’s wars to hubristic colonial powers who engaged in social engineering and drew arbitrary borders. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Nick Danforth correctly points out that many of these claims are overstated, as it is not clear that locals draw borders any better than foreign powers do. But the distinction between foreign drawn and local drawn borders is misleading, and more critically, this distinction does not fit with the latest scholarship on state formation. Over time, how we perceive borders being created, or what determines a natural border, changes, but the fact that all borders are originally social constructions by elites (oftentimes seen as foreign) is important to keep in mind.
I agree with Danforth that it is misguided to blame current problems in the Middle East on colonial borders. However, the role of colonial powers still matters. Colonial rule and imperialism contributed to weak states, not due to drawing borders, but because of the reduced likelihood of conflict at those borders. As a secondary point, I hope to show that the Balkans do not provide a unique case of self border creation, as Danforth argues. The Balkans, rather, serve as an emblematic case of state formation where the threat of war drove the Balkan states to strengthen themselves after imperial rule.
International Structure, Border Formation, and State Strength
How does border construction matter in understanding current conflicts? The answer comes from the literature on state formation. Borders were largely determined in Western Europe through war and conquest that led to the emergence of states. The famous quip that “War made the state and the state made war” is emblematic of the role international incentives played in forming states and borders. The threat of war pressured social groups to prepare to defend and expand their borders in order to ensure their security. Preparation for war led nascent states to expand taxation, increase bureaucratization, and generally push for stronger, more centralized states. The introduction of nationalism soon followed, which allowed states to grow their military further: France, for example, illustrates this point. There was no natural French state that Frenchmen were born into. Rather, war provided an incentive that pushed France to centralize the state and create a national identity of Frenchmen to respond to threats. Thus, the nation-state was then born through war, conquest, and national identity formation. States seek to strengthen themselves when conquest across borders appears likely. Hence, when the threat of war is present in the international system, the process of state formation and border formation accelerates as states seek to consolidate rule over territory. Removing the international threat of war, however, removes the incentive for states to undergo centralization and strengthen reforms.
Moving outside of Western Europe, colonial and imperial rule have often led to a less conflictual international environment. Imperial states and colonizers often protected the boundaries of their territories and removed the likelihood of conflict with neighbors. This reduced the threat of interstate war in many regions. But providing security also eliminated the systemic incentive to consolidate and centralize rule of the territory. By the time of decolonization, the international community began supporting a territorial integrity norm and international legal principles of uti possidetis, where boundaries drawn during colonization hold after independence, to ensure that no wars were fought over territorial lines following decolonization. This further removed the likelihood of conflict over borders and territory, and reduced the incentives to centralize and strengthen new states.
Thus, looking at borders during colonial and imperial rule, they were not drawn arbitrarily; there is just no such thing as appropriate borders. Instead, the borders of post-colonial states were not threatened by warfare, and this reduced incentives to build strong states to defend them. Borders in imperial and colonial states were not drawn in a demonstrably different way than the rest of the world: A group used military power to place territory under their control, and then engaged in nation building at home to create a national identity to fit in that territory. The problem was that the use of a foreign state to defend these borders reduced the incentives for colonial states to build strong state apparatuses. How borders are drawn is largely insignificant, but the international context in which they are created helps explain why we have weak states in some regions and strong states in others.
The Balkans seem to provide a possible exception to this argument. Traditionally, the Balkans are seen as one of the most war prone territories in Europe, leading one to think that they provide a good argument against the claim that war propelled states to form and strengthen. Thus, the weak, conflict prone states of the Balkans should show how systemic incentives for war did not provide strong states and borders. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, wars in the Balkans were historically quite rare, especially compared to Western Europe — war did not emerge largely until the 19th century, hundreds of years behind Western European war making. The idea of the Balkans as a unique war-torn region of Europe emerged only after the 19th century wars of independence and the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, due to popular media accounts of the day. Compared to the rest of Europe, the Balkans has had a dearth of war due to the role the Ottoman and Habsburg empires played in dominating the region. It was not until the two imperial powers receded that state formation in the Balkans began, and war making soon followed. In the early 1900s, as the region prepared for the Balkan Wars, the Balkan states increased their bureaucrats and state capacity — instruments necessary to build war making ability and provide for their own security. This indicates that the uncertainty of the security of their borders drove centralization and state strengthening reforms.
Thus, the borders in the Balkans do not follow a special path; rather, the Balkans is just a late arriver in the European state formation game. The security provided by the Ottomans and the Habsburgs prevented state formation in the region. Only when imperial decay took place did the new national states emerge. Construction of national identities soon followed, as states began to contest borders and engage in conquest. International competition and insecurity led to the development of national identities in the Balkans in an attempt to strengthen the state for future conflicts.
It is true that blaming borders and colonial rule for modern problems is a common trope in mainstream accounts of conflict in the Middle East. However, instead of focusing on who created borders, a focus on how the borders were defended is a more fruitful endeavor in explaining modern state weakness and conflict. In the end, I agree that debates over natural borders are problematic, but more examination in how those borders emerged in terms of state formation is a path more policymakers and academics need to take. The construction of borders is fundamentally a social process, just as state formation is. Only when we move to understand how these social processes unfolded, and how international context created differing incentives for states to centralize and consolidate, can we reach a more comprehensive understanding of the role borders play in current conflicts.
Ben is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, specifically focusing on International Relations. His research focuses on of the causes and consequences of military occupation and other forms of foreign rule.