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Focal points and fuzzy borders

In the 1960s a slogan from the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States urged people to ‘make love, not war’. In 2006—half a century later—Amos Oz published a book, How to Cure a Fanatic, in which he introduces an alternative phrase: ‘make peace, not love’.

A reviewer of Oz's book wrote that ‘rather than focusing on virtues like brotherhood, compassion, and forgiveness, Oz refers to what he regards as more important virtues: justice, common sense, and, most importantly, imagination’. To generate common goods for their joint benefit, neighbours do not have to love each other—but they do have to get along and cooperate.

And that seems to be the crux of many a violent conflict today: how to cooperate? Indeed, why cooperate when there are alternatives that make non-cooperation seem feasible and preferable?

While economists have made progress in pinpointing economic causes and consequences of violent conflict, we have been less successful in imaginatively identifying structural features that would enhance incentives for cooperation. One of the prominent structural features of today’s world is that of the sanctity of nation-state borders.

In 1960 Thomas Schelling argued in his pivotal book, The Strategy of Conflict, that borders are important not because of their specific geographic placement but because of their symbolic value. When borders are a ‘fuzzy’ continuum of geographic space, there is no end to uncertainty over whether or not a border has been crossed. Uncertainty provokes skirmishes, even when no border violation has occurred. 

In contrast, when borders are strictly demarcated, parties can be certain when a border has been violated. Instead of skirmishes, the certainty of violation invites certain retaliation: parties might think once before encroaching on a fuzzy border, but think twice before crossing a firm border. Borders become ‘focal points’. They concentrate the mind. Therefore, while firm borders have often been the cause of war, more often they may have kept the peace. This was a key idea behind the Peace of Westphalia: borders sow peace among sovereigns.

However, the stability that borders offer is deceptive. Fixed at a point in time, they become fuzzy over time. Borders are, in fact, quite malleable and what persists are not nation-states but people and the smaller-scale communities they form. Peoples’ identities rarely coincide with nation-states. There are no ‘Indians’, and there are no ‘Myanmars’. Thailand does not simply consist of ‘Thais’, so diverse are its ethnic, cultural, and linguistic origins. What counts is the beneficial stability of people’s associations.

To be sure, the nation-state can be a means to a beneficial, cooperative end, but the benefit of association needs to be established and continuously validated. The nation-state thus is the outcome of an on-going negotiation, not the premise as much of current international peacemaking appears to presume.

All this implies that we need not make a fetish out of borders; need not create or maintain them against all practicality and reason. Norway separated peacefully from Sweden in 1905. The Czechs separated peacefully from the Slovaks in 1993. South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011. In 2014, the Scots will vote on full independence from the United Kingdom. If, to keep the peace, Iraq devolves into independent but perhaps loosely federated, units—a Shia south, a Sunni center, and a Kurdish north—so be it (although, to appease the Turks, they all might be given a nominally Iraqi passport).

By ceding some of its powers—by creating fuzzy internal borders—Indonesia made peace in Aceh. The Philippines recently agreed on a framework for peace talks with rebels in the southern province of Mindanao, in part by acknowledging that it was ready to cede some degree of autonomy.

Spain has its autonomous regions; Canada, too, has Quebec and Nunavut. Fuzzy borders can help make and keep peace. In the 1990s, the Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung mediated a conflict between Ecuador and Peru over a disputed piece of Andean jungle by proposing a bi-national peace park. The deliberate creation of a fuzzy border solved a problem. With imagination, as Amos Oz suggested, one can both be separate, yet bound. There is no need to fight.

None of this may seem very practical but practicality based on the concept of the inviolable, fixed-border nation-state isn’t always practical either. Sometimes the underlying, foundational concepts need to be questioned—and newly agreed upon—before one can proceed. While nation-state fixed borders may at times have helped to make and keep peace, at times the job is better done with fuzzy borders.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).