The Territorial Peace: A Research Program
Summary and Keywords
The first argument that the democratic peace may, in fact, be the product of a larger, territorial peace among states was published in 2007. The argument was based on the strong findings associating territorial issues with conflict. Territorial issues may, in fact, be so salient to the domestic population that they force political centralization and the maintenance of non-democratic governments. This also implies that democracies are likely to be members of a group of states that have resolved their latent territorial issues with neighbors; absent these threats to the state, democracies are faced with few issues over which to fight. That argument is described here, providing a comprehensive discussion of why territorial issues are so salient to the domestic population and the effects of that salience on the polity.
This article describes the development of a research program over the last 20 years and the connection between territorial issues and democracies. Then and now, two of the strongest, most robust empirical relationships in international relations suggest that democracies do not fight each other (Maoz & Russett, 1993) and that territorial issues make conflicts between states much more likely (Vasquez, 1993). The interesting thing to me was that Vasquez’s explanation of why territorial issues were so dangerous—his Steps to War model of politics—also had clear implications for domestic politics. Vasquez argues that crisis bargaining, arms races, and general escalation are more likely when states contend over territory, and each of these actions could increase the centralization of political power in the state. Meanwhile, democratic peace scholars shared little agreement over the mechanisms for why democracies were peaceful with each other and, ironically perhaps, paid little attention to the domestic politics within the state.
The real world then struck several years later with 9/11 and the American response to that tragedy. Though not a territorial issue in any clear sense, the politics of responding to threat led the United States to become more nationalistic at home, to break down political checks against power centralization, and allow the state greater influence in the everyday conduct of personal lives. All of this was seemingly done to both protect the individual from harm and also allow the government to better prosecute any conflicts against rivals. Democracy in the United States did not fail, of course, but the connections between salient threats to the state and centralized behavior and institutions were apparent.
This article outlines the domestic politics portion of the argument and their ramifications for state behaviors in the international system. The empirical relationships associated with the democratic peace are well-developed elsewhere in other articles and so is the Steps to War argument. Therefore, the next section begins by assuming territory’s salience and demonstrates how that salience alters the domestic political environment. A section describing how these domestic politics can affect a state’s foreign policy and its behavior in the system then follows. The last section closes by noting remaining questions that need further development.
How Territorial Issues Affect Domestic Politics
We know well that territorial issues are linked to an increased rate of disputes and war. Completely underdeveloped, however, are explanations of why territorial issues are so salient to the states that fight these conflicts. Unlike other types of issues, fights over territory often constitute direct threats to individual lives and livelihoods, and this triggers many of the basic, biological and psychological responses to threat that are endemic to humans. Indeed, for an individual in a threatened country, territorial issues may overshadow all other environmental factors that determine such basic political attitudes as personal identity and tolerance for others. Of course, wars are organized violence perpetrated by states, and just because individuals are affected by territorial issues does not mean that international conflict follows. This is especially true in states that do not necessarily reflect citizen interests.
Territorial Issues and the Individual
The Correlates of War Project provides a straightforward classification of various issue types—territory, regime, policy, and other issues define separate categories of militarized interstate dispute (Jones, Bremer, & Singer, 1996). Other classifications follow similar patterns. For example, Holsti (1991) examines the wars since Westphalia (1648) with a 12-part list of issue types, but his typology can easily be aggregated into the basic categories of territory, regime, and policy.1 This suggests that similar types of issues occur over time, and, importantly, it provides a consistent basis for comparisons of the effects of issue type on international conflict and the states that fight.
Territorial issues are different from other issues because they trigger multiple biological and psychological responses by individuals in threatened states. First, targeting land also directly targets individuals’ lives and livelihoods. Thus, unlike most other types of conflicts, territorial conflicts affect humans’ strong biological drive for survival. Territorial issues also activate the individual’s attachment to their own homeland, which is often made even more important by group attachments to regional territories. Group attachment is complemented in turn by the psychological dimensions of conflict: Threats to territory enable the (in/out) group comparisons that are at the heart of many individual political values, including identity choice. Once these in-group and out-group dynamics are established, secondary values such as political tolerance, trust, and other democratic values become more difficult to maintain (Hutchison, 2011; Hutchison & Gibler, 2007; Miller, 2013). Taken as a whole, then, territorial conflicts comprise an issue type that is highly salient for the individual.
Land and Economic Well-Being
In early societies, land was the primary source of food, shelter, and other resources necessary for survival (John, 1989; Vayda, 1976; Wilson, 1975), and in many ways that still holds true for individuals in developing countries. Competition for scarce resources means that groups who hold particular pieces of land thrive, while those who do not suffer. The problem of constantly worrying about survival has dwindled for most with modernization, but land ownership still comprises a key economic resource in even the most developed countries. Indeed, it oftentimes represents an individual’s most valuable asset. Land still provides shelter, and, with a strong legal system, private property can be leveraged into higher-order goods and services or the tools needed for personal wealth creation. Threats to the territories of the state therefore also carry threats to individual property, which translates into threats to individual lives and livelihoods that are only mildly attenuated by the level of economic development within the state.
Territorial conflicts are often doubly dangerous because of their possible indirect effects on individual fortunes. For example, the likelihood of being proximate to active fighting is much higher for individuals in states targeted by territorial issues. This is just the nature of territorial conflict itself. Occupation and control of territory is the goal of the conflict, and therefore, the targeted territory becomes a battleground itself. These effects will be exacerbated in those conflicts that use primitive supply techniques in which the army literally feeds off the land. Intense conflicts also sap the resources available to the area to manage the public health and relocation issues that follow the end of fighting (Ghobarah, Huth, & Russett, 2003). Thus, the average individual residing in or near disputed territories has reason to fear the start of conflicts over their land since most status quos are better than the likely outcome of nearby conflicts.
By comparison, it seems difficult to connect an increased individual wariness with threats to foreign policy decisions or to the regime status within the state. Most regime disputes, for example, concern foreign governments that are targeting the leadership of non-democratic, mostly authoritarian states. (Indeed, only 5 of 103 regime challenges targeted democracies between 1816 to 2001, according to version 3.1 of the Correlates of War Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) data. Of the remaining cases, 56 targeted states were at or below -5 on the combined Polity IV scale.) Under an authoritarian government, most individual citizens would benefit in the long-term following some type of regime change; at the very least, most would expect the chance of benefiting through regime change. This is perhaps why targeting countries have sometimes assumed mass support would follow their attempts to impose some type of regime change on their rivals.
Attachments to Land
Territory also holds more than economic value for most individuals. Vasquez (1995) argues that there is a biological basis for the salience of territorial issues in individuals. According to this argument, humans are “soft-wired” to have certain predilections when exposed to external stimuli such as threat. Constituting neither instinct nor drive, humans are instead socialized to treat violence as an appropriate means of resolving disputes over land. This tendency explains the empirical association between threats to property and aggressive behavior in the individual. It is also consistent with a substantial anthropological literature that suggests humans are like other animals who use aggressive displays to hold and gain territories (Goodall, 2000; Wilson, 1975). Of course, the implication of the socialization argument is that humans can also un-learn these tendencies toward aggressive behavior when territory is threatened.
Aggregated to the society or state level, the human tendency toward aggressive displays when property is threatened is used to explain the strong, positive correlation between territorial issues and war. Individuals, leaders, and societies as a whole learn that war is a preferred method of distributing political goods such as territory. Power and war thus determine land ownership, at great cost to those who fight.
The move to conflict or war need not take a precipitous jump from individual to society or state, however, for socialization to explain the salience of territorial issues. Instead, the socialization of territory may be actively encouraged by groups within society, in a top-down approach. At least some research suggests that the definition of group identities relies on the ability of cohesive groups to employ myths and legends, signs and symbols, education, and religion to attach the individual to particular lands associated with the group (Duchacek, 1970; Paasi, 1996; Tuan, 1991). This is why diaspora groups often refer to traditional lands and ancestral homelands; missing an ownership of the soil, the group recalls formative events that are physically attached to particular places (Smith, 1981). Numerous studies of civil conflict have also identified the importance of biological and socio-psychological attachments of individuals and groups to their land. In these studies the ethnic nature of the conflict is actually defined as such by the elites within the community. For example, Brass (1997) makes this claim by showing how Indian elites frame violent incidents as “communal” when it serves their interest, thus conditioning publics to favor additional conflict (see also Brubaker, 2004; Brubaker & Laitin, 1998). Threats to territories, while clearly affecting group identities, also present serious threats to individual identities and are therefore highly salient to those affected by potential conflict.
Quite simply, territorial threats matter more to individuals than policy or regime issues. Who derives their individual identity based upon their leaders’ foreign policy choices? Many individuals would have an opinion on the normative rightness of each proposal, perhaps even based on empirical evidence, but again, few would derive their personal identity choice from such policy decisions. Similarly, few would consider themselves intimately linked with their leaders, such that threats to the regimes that rule them also affect their own, individual identities. The rally effects literature, for example, and relies on the mechanism of support for the state as a whole, not any particular leader, when threatened by external rivals. Threats to the state lead to nationalism, and a subsidiary effect of that nationalism is the observation of popular support for the leader. This is why rallies are so ephemeral; 90% popularity can become less than 40% quite quickly.
Group Definition and Self-Identification
Vasquez’s (1993, 2009) territorial explanation of conflict has clear theoretical roots in the early social psychology literature, specifically the work of Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser. Building on Simmel’s (1955) hypothesis that conflict is a socialization mechanism, Coser (1956, p. 38) extended the socialization hypothesis to argue that “conflict serves to establish and maintain the identity and boundary lines of societies and groups.” In this sense, external threat serves to increase the internal cohesion of a group. Thus, territorial threats that target the state increase nationalist responses among ordinary citizens, and these encourage popular rallies in support of the leader.
We found this to be true in several different contexts. Using data from both the World Values Survey and Afrobarometer, we found that individuals in states targeted by territorial disputes were more likely to be nationalistic (Gibler, Hutchison, & Miller, 2012). We even discovered that distance from the threat mattered as well. For example, citizens in Nigeria who were on the border with Cameroon were more likely to be nationalistic than citizens on the opposite border, even though the effect of external threat was felt by citizens across the country. Indeed, all Nigerians were more likely to be nationalistic following disputes initiated by Cameroon over disputed territories. Territorial threat provides national group identification—over tribal and other types of self-identification—and did so because of the issue’s general salience to the population.
These results provided additional evidence that territorial conflict had a strong effect on individuals—an effect we first discovered when examining individual-level political tolerance in threatened countries (Hutchison & Gibler, 2007). Previous explanations of political tolerance had almost uniformly considered the presence of democracy and democratic institutions as key determinants of tolerant individuals. However, our inclusion of territorial targeting in reevaluations of the political tolerance surveys eliminated the statistical significance of democracy as a predictor of more liberal attitudes. Democracy had no discernible effect. This explained a long-standing conundrum for tolerance studies—among democracies, why are individuals from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States so much more tolerant on average than citizens in Israel? The difference is threat. Island states and countries in pacified regions rarely have territorial threats while Israel has been under threat since its inception as a state.
When individuals are threatened, leaders and regimes are going to be better positioned politically to institute policies that are consistent with the defense of the state, which is why leaders will often want to manufacture issue salience themselves. But can they? This entire discussion of issue salience has revolved around biological tendencies to react to threat and the socio-psychological attachments individuals develop with their homeland. If correct, these attachments seem difficult to threaten artificially. To affect survival instincts, external threats have to be real and palpable to the individual. The same must be true for group attachments as well. When an individual’s leader targets another state, initiating some type of diversionary conflict to rally popular support in their favor, average citizens are only likely to respond when their lands are somehow targeted. The rival must respond and directly threaten territories. Otherwise, any rally of support is likely to be weak and inconsistent. Put simply, most leaders would find it incredibly difficult to manufacture the types of disputes that encourage the centralization of their political power within the state.2
The politics of issue salience suggests that only the leaders in states that are targeted by territorial issues will be able to benefit from the extra attention individuals pay to certain issues. This suggests that the politics in states targeted by territorial issues will differ markedly from other states. Threatened individuals will coalesce around a group identity, providing political support to their leaders, and will seek security from the state. This environment enables increased militarization and the centralization of power by the leader.
Territorial Issues and the Structure of the Military
Territorial conflict, unlike other types of conflict, has the occupation of land as its primary goal. Of course, in order to occupy land, countries that initiate territorial conflicts must construct armies capable of both defeating the enemy and also holding the land once it has been taken. Note the differences across conflict types though, especially with regard to possession of the status quo in the dispute. Prior to challenge, the land is physically held by the targeted states. In most other types of disputes, the status quo is more ephemeral, relating to the stated policy position of the target. This position can be changed much more easily than possession of land, but more importantly for the argument, policy positions can be defended by means other than occupation. Simply increasing the costs of conflict enables better defense of the policy position, providing deterrence, and if conflict does occur, the combat is not strictly land based. Territorial issues, conversely, force defense by land possession, and this makes standing, land armies a necessary tool for this type of conflict.
Threat Location and Military Type
There are two key determinants of domestic military structure: type and location of threats to state interests. Threats to far-flung interests such as trade routes should lead to the construction of navies and air forces for defense since no occupation of land is required, only protection of the policy interests of the state.
This is also true for states with vast colonies. Land occupation is technically necessary for colonial disputes but not to the extent that this type of threat would, by itself, affect the military structure of the state. If threats are posed by indigenous forces, the technology advantage of a major state compared to the local population often makes a small land force and navy enough to put down the conflict. If another major state initiates the threat, then the locus of conflict shifts to wherever the major states are positioned, and the conflict devolves to major state versus major state and forces the use of militaries appropriate to that particular dyadic conflict. Regardless, the very nature of the colonial holding—that it is abroad—suggests that whatever occupying force is necessary in the conflict is physically removed from the state for the duration of the conflict. In most cases, colonial holdings actually weaken the repressive power of the elites at home.3
Threats from far-flung states may also target locations in or contiguous to the state. This has been especially true recently as many non-democratic regimes have been targeted by the major over territory. Further, as Colaresi (2004) describes, political leaders in targeted countries have strong political incentives to respond aggressively during rivalries. Thus, there are situations in which domestic politics encourages the maintenance of territorial rivalries that are salient to the individuals in both states, and what began as an artificial initiation of conflict for domestic reasons transforms into a conflict with serious implications for both states In these cases the location of the conflict necessitates the construction of at least some land army force to repel the threat (or maintain order). However, the primary goal for the defender is repelling the threat. Therefore, the threatened leader uses whatever forces are best designed to thwart an invasion or conquering force. Armies have no intrinsic advantage over other types of forces in these cases, unless they provide a cost-effective means of damaging the challenger.
Threats made by contiguous states are usually more serious because of their location, which makes force projection much easier. Contiguity also conditions at least some of the targeted state’s defenses, but this varies by type of threat. For policy disputes or for disputes over trade, repelling the intentions of the initiator is paramount, and again, the mix of forces does not necessarily presuppose an army-led force. In fact, air forces or other quick-strike forces may be best equipped to provide maximum deterrence. Since the goal of the threat is not land occupation, and any territorial acquisitions are for the goal of policy change, the incentives for the targeted state are to repel and damage the challenging force.
Issues and Military Type
Territorial threats made by contiguous states are different, however. The added costs of occupying and holding the land make large armies indispensable for these types of threats. The goal of the challenger is to take the land, and in order to do this, the challenger constructs an army for occupation. Conversely, the target seeks to hold the territory against land attack and therefore builds an army capable of maintaining occupation. Possession is the goal for both states.
Issue types are also likely to affect threat duration. According to Vasquez (1993, p. 147), states will continue to fight over territorial issues until one side is decisively victorious and can claim the land or a compromise is negotiated that is acceptable to both parties. Remaining are the cases of recurrent conflict, when one state tries to defeat the other but does so only nominally. These cases tend to fester. Short of decisive victory, the losing state has every incentive to maintain their army and attempt a challenge when the conditions best warrant such an attack. The winning state understands this logic and maintains its army’s presence as well. Thus, territorial conflicts tend to recur (Hensel, 1994), and the presence of militarized states across tense borders maintains.4
Territorial Issues and the State
Thus far the argument has focused on how territorial issues are salient for individuals and make large land armies necessary for the defense of the state. Both these factors combine to impose a strong, centralizing force on domestic politics in territorially threatened countries. The large land army gives elites the resources necessary to repress other segments of society, and the territorial issue itself makes political centralization within the regime likely. Collectively, these reactions to territorial threat make autocracy likely in territorially threatened states. Absent territorial threat, democracy may take hold.
Repressive Bargaining Between Elites and Poor
Repression by the elite is often easier in militarized societies, suggesting a simple path from potential conflict to the centralization of economic and political power. States that experience consistent external threats to their home territory are more likely to construct large militaries and to experience slower economic development, resulting in a relatively low cost of repression for the elite, as well as more intense redistributive pressures from the poor. The elites then have an incentive to pursue an exclusionary strategy in the maintenance of the autocratic order, and autocracies should be quite skilled at maintaining this level of domination. When borders are stable and peaceful, however, economic growth becomes possible, reducing the differences between rich and poor, raising the costs of repression, and increasing the mobility of capital, rendering strategies of high taxation increasingly difficult. The relative size and power of the military diminishes, and democracy emerges as a possible equilibrium. Finally, because borders are interstate institutions, stability on one side frequently translates into stability on the other, and democracy spreads across peaceful interstate borders, emerging in zones of stable peace where the regional territorial status quo is accepted.
The economic nature of large land armies reinforces the trend toward greater concentration of power in the hands of the elite within society. Standing armies require high levels of taxation as well as a broad centralization of authority—to acquire, arm, equip, feed, and otherwise maintain the troops. High taxation and centralization both contribute to a widened gap between the fortunes of the elites and the poor as compared to the status quo. High levels of military spending and frequent conflict also depress domestic consumption and economic growth. This makes the costs of adopting democracy and conceding to the poor’s redistributive demands far higher than the costs of using the army to pursue a strategy of exclusion and suppress competing social groups.
One may begin to wonder why the average citizen would tolerate the creation of a large, standing army within the country. If the army reduces the costs of repression for the regime, strengthens the elites’ hold upon society, and alters the dynamics of group bargaining, why tolerate its growth? The simple answer returns to the likely reactions of individuals in targeted states, which was described above. Direct threats to homeland territories are highly salient to the individual; they affect the lives and livelihoods of the people threatened. Other core values associated with liberal society—liberty, equality, etc.—become much less important when the shadow of the future narrows dramatically for the individual.
The Centralization of Political Power
Territorial threat also encourages political centralization within the institutions of the state. As argued above, individuals in threatened territories are likely to seek security. The consequences of this attitude change are such that most leaders—both in and out of power—will turn their attention to security and support the state against the now common foe. As opposition forces move to support the leader, the favorable political climate provides the executive in power a unique opportunity to institutionalize their increased political power. Checks against the leader fade as the regime centralizes authority.
This type of centralization happens in both democracies and non-democracies (Gibler, 2010). While opposition forces in non-democracies often must remain silent until the opportunity for regime change presents itself, the opposition in democracies tends to be quite vocal. Nevertheless, opposition leaders in both types of regimes must be responsive to their own bases of political support. When such an important issue as territorial threat affects the average individual, the opposition must shift or maintain a position of security against the common threat. This quest for security therefore often results in the opposition supporting the leader, who is actively defending the state as well.
Repression only amplifies this effect. Just as elites may use the military structure of the state to extract greater rents from society, so too may leaders turn the military against opposition forces, even when the opposition includes the ranks of the economic or political elite of society (Gibler, 2012, ch. 4). In fact, the mere threat of military repression may be enough to quell opposition unrest in most cases, and, in this way, regimes in territorially unsettled environments reach a type of autocratic equilibrium. Only the removal of the threat and the elimination of the political power of the military would be enough to encourage democratization.5
The Effects of Territorial Threat
Not all states have latent or active claims made against their homeland territories, however. This can occur for one of two reasons. First, as Hintze (1906) observed, island states are least likely to have threats made against their homeland territories. Mountainous geography, like the borders of Switzerland, may also isolate homeland territories from threats. Both examples imply that geography can successfully isolate states from territorial threats and encourage the decentralization of economic and political power within society.
More difficult to identify are the states that have resolved their borders with their neighbors. Vasquez (1995) suggests that conflicts will cease once a state achieves an overwhelming victory over its neighbor. Similarly, powerful states need not fear their less powerful neighbors. While each of these arguments may be empirically true, neither is consonant with territorial peace since latent territorial claims may still exist in the weaker state. Instead, territorial peace arrives once each of a state’s neighbors has accepted the border as legitimate. How this is accomplished is difficult to observe. Peaceful territorial transfers (Gibler & Tir, 2010), treaty affirmations, and years without conflict may all indicate the acceptance of borders, to differing degrees. But legitimacy is really the key. At the heart of territorial peace is the mutual acceptance of territorial borders by neighbors.
Once territorial peace does occur, it changes the bargaining structure of domestic politics for that state.6 Without external threat, individuals become more accepting of other groups and are less likely to heed calls for nationalism or other land-based calls for group mobilization. Arguments for a strong military are also less effective, and demilitarization becomes likely. Absent the strong political force of the standing army, equal political competition among groups takes hold, and repression by the elites becomes difficult and costly. Decentralization of domestic power follows, and if the prerequisites of democracy are present, then the chances of democratization increase. Figure 1 summarizes the effects of territorial threats to the state.
Territorial Threat and Regime Type
While the argument suggests strong correlations between authoritarianism and territorial threat, democracy and territorial peace, the concepts are still distinct.7 For example, not all states free from territorial threat will be democracies. States with settled borders may still lack the economic or political factors that encourage democratization. Conversely, territorial threat may sometimes force political centralization within established democracies. Each of these possibilities assures that the correlation between settled borders and democracy will remain imperfect.
Consider first the large literature on democratization. Over 50 years ago, Lipset (1959) demonstrated the role of wealth in predicting states likely to be democratic, and the literature has since consistently affirmed that wealth and democracy are strongly linked.8 Indeed, this is one of the strongest findings in the comparative literature on democracy. But wealth is not necessarily affected by an absence of territorial threat. Resolved borders do not put raw materials in the ground, educate the workforce, or create strong property rights systems. While states with settled borders are not likely to have politically powerful militaries, standing land armies, and domestic forces that push for centralization of the state, the lack of territorial threat does not immediately translate into greater wealth for society or competitive middleclass interests. The poorest states that have otherwise resolved their borders may therefore still remain non-democratic if other components of democracy are absent. This is the case for many sub-Saharan states that accepted their colonial borders upon independence in the early 1960s but have remained non-democratic since. Mired in civil wars and poverty, few of these states have been able to democratize even while territorial threat remains low across the continent (Lemke, 2002, ch. 7). There are other notable exceptions to this probabilistic argument as well.9 Nevertheless, the implications are clear: external territorial threat leads to domestic political centralization, and this often causes an association between authoritarian governments and conflict.
Whatever the cause of democracy, these cases provide evidence that settled borders and democracy, though correlated, are distinct concepts. Thus, while Israel and India remain democratic, both are likely to have greater centralization of political power as compared to other democracies. Their citizens should also be more cognizant of the territorial issues that affect the state, should identify with their nation against their rival, should be less tolerant of minorities, and should feel greater attachments to their land. The institutional structures of these democracies will also tend to reflect centralization as leaders often run for office based, at least in part, on fears related to rivalries. Compared to other democracies, then, these regimes are likely to have fewer institutional checks against leaders in power, especially during times of imminent territorial threat or conflict.
Eliminating territorial threat also does not imply complete demilitarization within the state. In fact, the strongest military in the world can be found in the United States, a state that has been at peace with its neighbors for some time. Note, however, the type of military that the United States possesses. Technologically sophisticated and designed for quick response to far-flung conflicts, the U.S. military relies heavily on air and sea power, and while it still maintains powerful army and marine forces, these units are ill-equipped to repress local populations. Perhaps most importantly, the lack of direct territorial threats to the state has ensured that the political power of the military remains subservient to civilian authority. Together, these factors reinforce the democratic equilibrium that was reached long ago and allow the United States to be both a “garrison state” and a democracy (Friedberg, 2000). Figure 2. Provides an illustration of the types of states in the international system.
States at Territorial Peace
A large group of autocracies is unlikely to have resolved their territorial issues. These states have strong militaries that are politically influential in domestic politics. Also not at territorial peace are new democracies, which may not have had an opportunity to resolve their territorial issues. Further, smaller-state, democratic prot´eg´es such as Israel certainly still have active territorial disputes with their neighbors and are likely to have conflicts in the future, at least until these issues are settled.
Territorial peace implies peace with neighboring states. This may mean that leaders will still choose to go to war over other types of issues and with states that cannot threatened homeland territories. However, since territorial issues tend to be more difficult to resolve and are the most common issue type associated with war, an absence of territorial issues will be correlated with peace between the states as well.
The Territorial Peace and International Conflict
The key contention of the Territorial Peace argument is that resolving territorial issues leads to the decentralization of power within the state. Since decentralization also increases political competition within the state, democratic transitions are most likely to occur in stable regions in states with stable borders. Of course, if democracies are most likely to be found in regions without dangerous territorial issues confronting them, then this would explain why democracies almost never fight each other. The democratic peace is really a subset of a much larger, territorial peace.
Clear Borders and Peaceful Dyads
I provided the first test of the argument that variations in the occurrence of territorial issues explain the well-documented peace between democracies in Gibler (2007). At that time the large peace-to-democracy literature had difficulty overcoming problems associated with endogeneity. Peace could cause democracy, but democracy could also cause peace. Separating the causal sequence of the two concepts is really difficult to do in a convincing way. Further, one of the leading democratic peace arguments had embraced the peace-to-democracy criticisms within its own broader framework of a Kantian Peace, arguing that the reciprocal effects of democracy on peace were still powerful even if peace leads to decentralized political power within the state (Russett & Oneal, 2001). However, endogeneity in the peace-to-democracy literature can be eliminated by focusing on geography. Building on Schelling’s (1960) argument that geographic salients ease coordination, international borders that follow easily identified geographic markers are likely to be more stable than borders that do not. Geography adds a status quo bias to border placement coordination that is difficult to overturn. If these assumptions were correct and geographic salients are correlated with a lower likelihood of territorial conflict, then the endogeneity problem would be solved since democracies are unable to change geographic landmarks in any meaningful way.
Controlling for land borders worked. Once controls were added for the presence of border salients there is no statistical relationship between joint democracy and conflict. Of course, like any first study in a research program, errors were made developing the argument. Chief among these errors is that all dyads in the international system were included in the analyses rather than realizing that the arguments really only mattered for contiguous states. After all, borders should have no direct effect on the relations between states across the globe. Perhaps indirect effects would be present from a lack of neighboring militaries tying state interests to the region, but, again, these are not central to the territorial peace argument.
Therefore, the book-length statement of the territorial peace focused on contiguous states and again found that joint democracy had no statistically significant effect once territorial threat was added to the model (Gibler, 2012, ch. 7). This is true regardless of whether joint democracy was operationalized using a weak-link specification or a dummy variable that identified two states with Polity IV scores of 6 or above. Territorial threat demonstrated that the peace between democracies may be spurious to the distribution of territorial issues in the international system.
Testing the Argument With Different Specifications
Of course these findings are provocative since they challenge a large body of literature with a substantial number of findings supporting the democratic peace. Therefore, the argument has been tested using multiple specifications of both territorial peace and territorially unstable borders. First, border specifications based on peaceful transfers of territory can serve as a proxy for settledness (Gibler & Tir, 2010). Not all international borders are the same. In the 2007 article, stable borders correlate well with the existence of geographic salients. Territorial transfers present a set of cases that were mutually agreed upon by the states involved. By focusing the analysis on international borders that have been altered by mutual consent, these cases are likely to have a greater degree of legitimacy since the neighboring states have demonstrated positive motivation, trust, and credible commitment toward territorial dispute resolution.
The results provide strong support for the argument that settled international boundaries decrease the level of threat to the territorial integrity of states. We demonstrated that peaceful transfers are prominent among the factors increasing the rate of transitions to democracy.10 We also found that there is empirical support for the expected processes that lead to democratization. First, peaceful transfers reduce the chances that a state will be targeted in the future by military force over its border; this confirms that peacefully adjusted borders are indeed more settled. Second, when examining the effects of peaceful transfers, we confirmed a link to substantially lower levels of militarization within the country during future years. These findings reinforce the contention that settled borders are associated with political decentralization and liberalization within the state.
A second alternate specification leverages the tendency for conflicts to recur spatially and temporally to test the territorial peace theory. In work with Alex Braithwaite (Gibler & Braithwaite, 2013), we found that territorial “hot spots” occur frequently, indicating geographic dependence in the data on conflict (see also Braithwaite, 2005). Moreover, these hot spots provide a good, behavioral indicator of territorial threat in the region and eliminate a reliance on geographic salients. Substituting the behavioral, hot spot indicator of territorial threat in models predicting fatal MID onset, we found that the presence of a territorial hot spot is linked to both the occurrence of joint democracy and conflict. In fact, the inclusion of the territorial hot spot indicator also eliminated the statistical significance of joint democracy as a predictor in a common model of international conflict. We only found pacifying effects for joint democracy in regions that already lack territorial conflict. In other words, the pacifying effects of joint democracy may only be present in conflicts that do not involve territorial issues.
The core of the territorial peace argument has thus been affirmed in multiple studies, each using an alternate operationalization of the key explanatory variable (Owsiak, 2013; see also a similar study in Gibler & Tir (2010). This of course suggests a robustness to the findings associating territorial issues, democracy, and conflict, while also providing confirming evidence for the argument that the process of state development matters greatly for the international conflict literature. The next step, then, is extending the argument to other findings associated with the democratic peace research program.
Extending the Argument to Explain Other Empirical Regularities
The democratic peace research program followed the initial discovery of an association between democracy and peace with a host of extensions (Rummel, 1983; Small & Singer, 1976). Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, and Morrow (2003, pp. 218–219), for example, suggest that regime type may also provide an explanation for, among other things, the tendency of democracies to fight non-democracies; the tendency for democracies to fight less-costly, shorter wars in which they are likely to be victorious; and the tendency for democracies to negotiate their disputes rather than fight. Many of these findings can also be explained as a function of the territorial peace.
Issue Type, Conflict Selection, Duration, and Victory
For example, the findings that democracies, when they do involve themselves in conflict, tend to fight and win shorter wars at lower costs can also be explained by the types of issues facing democracies. The democratic peace literature argues that elected leaders fear punishment at the polls, so they tend to carefully select their targets. Once involved in conflict, these leaders use all their resources to fight hard and win since defeat in conflict is likely to bring punishment at the next election. However, a territorial peace explanation of these conflicts provides a different view of these findings. Since territorial conflicts with neighbors have been selected out of the issues facing democratic leaders, the sample of disputes that involve democracies differs fundamentally from those that involve authoritarian leaders. Direct threats to the territorial composition of the state necessarily preoccupy a targeted state and confine its conflicts locally. Once these threats are resolved, the decisions for dispute onset or dispute escalation become matters of choice. Thus, democracies are likely to fight short wars, at lower costs, which they can win (Gibler & Miller, 2013). All leaders would like to win their wars while expending fewer costs. The difference is that territorial peace states have greater flexibility in which to do so.
Disputes between democracies are quite different from the conflicts that affect other regime types. For example, Mitchell and Prins (1999) found that most disputes between democracies involve “fisheries, maritime boundaries, and resources of the sea.” Rarely do mature democracies fight over territorial issues that are likely to be salient to the public at large. Indeed, while roughly one-third of the disputes between democratic dyads from 1946 to 1992 involved territorial issues, few were between states that scored 10 on the combined Polity scale of autocracy-democracy, the highest level of democracy attainable using the combined measure. In fact, only 2 of the 23 disputes between full democracies involved territory; 31 of the remaining 74 disputes that involved democracies scoring less than 10 on the Polity scale involved territorial issues. In the pre-World War II sample, none of the fully democratic dyads fought over territory, but 40% of the disputes between lower-scoring democracies included territorial issues. As Mitchell and Prins (1999, p. 174) note, “More institutionalized democracies seem to be considerably more satisfied with the internationally recognized territorial boundaries.” This finding also provides empirical support for the claim that democracies do not fight each other because they are satisfied with the territorial status quo (Kacowicz, 1994, 1995).
Huth and Allee (2002, p. 281) provide similar evidence that democracies rarely fight over territorial issues as their study finds that “there were no cases of democratic challengers and targets waging war against each other over disputed territory.” In fact, democracies in their study were almost always less aggressive than other regime types when bargaining over territorial issues at lower stages of dispute. The only exception to this involved new democracies, which were found to be much more belligerent than other regime types. Together, these findings suggest that mature democracies rarely, if ever, fight over territorial issues. The findings further suggest that this empirical regularity is not a function of regime since new and less-developed democratic regimes still have territorial disputes and aggressively bargain over them.
Accordingly, mediation and arbitration for states that enjoy a stable border peace are more likely (Miller & Gibler, 2011). Also implied is that any state at territorial peace is advantaged when choosing the disputes they wish to escalate. After all, few leaders, democratic or non-democratic, wish to lose in war.
Issues, Negotiations, and International Norms
Democracy is also supposed to affect the likelihood of negotiated settlements to end militarized disputes. Dixon (1994) provides the clearest articulation of this theory that argues that the norm of bounded competition is common to all democracies, even though social and cultural norms as well as institutional mechanisms vary from state to state. Rivals in democracies openly compete for scarce resources and policy outcomes, but they do so with rules and restraints that normatively restrict political actors not to use coercion or violence. A “contingent consent” follows from this universal democratic norm (Schmitter & Karl, 1991). Aware that unregulated competition creates intolerable risks and uncertainty for all, political elites trust each other not to use force or violence during the electoral contest or any time after it. Since leaders, democratic leaders especially (Joffe, 1990), view international politics as an extension of democratic politics, this norm of bounded competition surfaces in international disputes. When two democracies are locked in the early phases of an interstate conflict, the leader of each democracy is secure in their knowledge that the leader of the other state is bounded by the same norm. When a democratic leader is confronted by an autocrat, the democrat does not believe that the autocrat is bounded by any norm, and nothing remains to restrain escalation. This normative perspective generates a unique answer to the paradoxes of the democratic peace. Democratic leaders do not trust autocracies but trust each other to the point where they peacefully negotiate settlements to their disputes before war is an option.
This normative perspective constitutes the theoretical backdrop for the empirical support linking democratic dyads and peaceful dispute settlements, such as arbitration, mediated settlements, and mutual compromises. Dixon (1993) is the first to identify the absence of conflict management research that links governing arrangements and peaceful dispute settlement. His analysis shows that the presence of joint democracy in a conflict increases the probability that conflict will result in some form of conflict management, as defined by Skjelsbaek (1986). In a later article, Dixon (1994) found that the democracy-settlement hypothesis is robust, even when controlling for past hostilities (Raymond, 1994, 2000).
If the territorial peace argument is correct, however, state development paths should affect this observation of democratic differentness with regard to negotiation and settlement as well. Again, states must settle their territorial disputes early in order to become democratic. Removal of these territorial issues then biases the sample of contentious issues for democracies toward cases that are much less likely to include territory and other issues salient to the homeland. Lower salience then leads to easier conflict management and makes negotiated settlements more likely.
Using techniques similar to the work on conflict victory and duration above, Gibler and Miller (2013) find that, when issues are unspecified in the estimation, the pacifying influence of joint democracy on negotiated compromises is confirmed. However, when the model is fully specified to include territorial issues between neighboring states, the pacifying influence of jointly democratic dyads disappears. The same happens when we split the sample according to contentious issue (territorial versus non-territorial). These differences confirm the argument that the dangerous, territorial issues have been sampled out of the issues facing democratic dyads. The disputes that do involve democracies are easier to handle and more amenable to negotiation.
Other Extensions of the Argument to International Relations
Extending the territorial peace argument even further, the conflicts a state may select itself into typically do not involve border issues. Instead, disputes for states at territorial peace involve less salient issues of imperialist claims and matters of policy and regime preferences around the international system, and when the issues are of minor importance to elites and publics, the need to handle disputes with power politics is reduced. This is why there tends to be an association between democracy and a host of other international outcomes. For example, in the alliance literature, democratic alliances tend to endure (Leeds, 2003) and serve as credible threats (Leeds, Mattes, & Vogel, 2009). In the audience cost literature, democracies are supposed to be able to credibly signal their intentions (Schultz, 2001). However, rather than focusing on a regime-based explanation of these regularities, the territorial peace explanation would assume that there is significant variation in the types of issues that affect these states. Democracies face less dangerous threats to the state, and this, in turn, leads to alliances that are rarely threatened and democratic audiences that rarely care about foreign policy issues, which makes audience costs exceedingly rare in these states (Gibler & Hutchison, 2013). Thus, the territorial peace argument not only predicts the likelihood of conflict, it also provides expectations on the content of the issues fought over.
Threat and Domestic Politics: The Persistence of Democracy
The territorial explanation is, at heart, an explanation of the domestic politics of the state under duress. As such, the theory provides a unique explanation of the bargaining that takes place among sub-national actors. For example, much of the comparative literature considers the strong correlation between democracy and wealth. Wealth either increases the likelihood of democratic transitions (Boix & Stokes, 2003; Epstein, Bates, Goldstone, Kristensen, & O’Halloran, 2006), or, democratic transitions are random and those that take place in wealthy countries persist (Przeworski, 2000). The territorial peace argument can inform this debate.
One of the main causes of democratic reversals is external threats to the state. Within the territorial peace framework, salient threats to the state should cause political centralization domestically as the political elite anticipate and sometimes take advantage of the reactions of their threatened populations (Gibler, 2010). Note the mechanism though. The threat causes a political environment that favors domestic centralization. The key, then, to finding when democracies under threat are likely to endure is to turn to those institutions that are more resilient to electoral threats. This turns to examining the ability of independent judiciaries to block executive power grabs during international conflicts (Gibler & Randazzo, 2011). Independent judiciaries are unique because, if viewed as legitimate within the state, these institutions protect the regime during times of electoral stress. As an institution, most are isolated from the domestic power changes that can result when state territories are threatened.
The model of centralization outlined here relies on changes in the domestic bargaining power of various actors as a mechanism for regime centralization. International conflict advantages the executive vis-à-vis other domestic actors, and eventually, power is concentrated in the executive as democratic principles are eroded. The causal mechanism relies on the opportunity given the executive by international crisis, as this threat, when coupled with popular backing, allows the executive to supersede the constitution in favor of expediency.
An independent judiciary can affect this process in two ways. First, established judiciaries are likely to deter executives from using the crisis as an opportunity to gain power. An executive facing an international crisis will likely not risk additional political decisions that may cause the questioning of their authority. This weak form of judicial independence creates few judicial annulments, but the court does buttress the political power of other societal and governmental interests against executive incursions. A stronger form of judicial independence manifests when the executive is overtly checked with annulments as the court favors minority rights and participatory democracy. In either case the executive is constrained by the court, and democracy maintains. Established judiciaries are probably one of the best institutional guarantees for providing a bulwark against executive-led political centralization.
The empirics support the stabilizing nature of judiciaries. Using 41 years of data (1960–2000) identifying judicial constraints across 163 different countries, we found that the presence of an independent judiciary is consistently associated with regime stability.11 Specifically, the analyses suggested that established judiciaries help prevent all types of regime changes toward authoritarianism for samples that included all regime types. When the sample was limited to democracies only, independent judiciaries still predicted fewer negative regime changes, but large-scale changes remained unaffected by the courts.12 In the end, independent judiciaries did stop political centralization caused by territorial threats. However, judiciaries were incapable of halting centralization during intense, long-term threats, such as those resulting from territorial rivalries.
This type of study suggests the importance of connecting theories of dyadic, interstate relations with the domestic processes within the state. The territorial explanation of conflict provides important answers for which issues are likely to affect political bargaining most, and these issues carry implications for the structure of institutions and individual attitudes within the state. Marrying theories of international conflict to domestic politics demonstrates the importance of independent judiciaries and other veto players for creating an environment that sustains democratic governance. This is of course a much more nuanced explanation of the peace-to-democracy thesis.
What’s Next?: Issue Evolution and the Development of the International System
The territorial peace theory is broad and applicable to many different literatures, including explanations of empirical regularities as disparate as the likelihood of party polarization across countries; how this affects changes in the number of veto players able to check the power of the leader; and how this is, in turn, related to international conflict. Further, these advancements are based on a new understanding of when popular opinion is likely to be intolerant and when individuals are likely to support their leader with rally ‘round the flag behavior. All of these theories have previously remained isolated arguments and, to varying degrees, plagued by inconsistent results. However, treated comprehensively, as inter-related mechanisms, strong and consistent findings confirm the overarching theory and its many implications.
As a field, we are beginning to realize that territorial issues matter for individuals, governments, and polities in general. The next step in this research program will develop the mechanisms by which territorial issues affect different aspects of the state. We are also beginning to uncover the ways in which territorial issues become conflicts between states. Future research should build on this momentum and try to account for variations in the number and types of territorial disputes across time and space in the international system. This type of research is fundamental for understanding the distribution of international conflict and democracy in different regions.
The research discussed here demonstrates that issues matter (Mansbach & Vasquez, 1981). An important implication of these findings is that there is substantial spatial and temporal variation in the types of issues and types of regimes that populate the international system at any given time. This is important for a literature that has become dependent upon cross-sectional, time-series analyses of dyadic data. For example, King (2001) essentially argues that the failure to account for variations in hostility levels across dyads—a form of issue salience variation—renders almost all large-N, quantitative conflict studies prone to omitted variable bias since variation of the historical animosity within the dyad remains unmeasured. After all, any peaceful years between, for example, India and Pakistan are not exchangeable with the peaceful years between the United States and Canada, without first accounting for the level of hostility that exists in the dyad. The territorial peace argument suggests that there is a reason for this variation, and it is based on state and regional development paths. Established democracies—those states most likely to be at territorial peace—will not face the same types of issues as new states or states in dyads with continually contested borders.
Finally, territorial peace theory makes a strong argument for reconsidering some of the foreign policy practices of the major players in the current international system. For example, the United States and Britain continue to emphasize peace and democratization abroad, but the theory suggests that neither will take hold without firm, settled borders. Even development provides little hope for democratization unless the pertinent territorial issues are resolved first. This suggests an even greater emphasis should be placed on peace between Israel and its neighbors, Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Spratly Islands, and the myriad other ongoing territorial conflicts. Rather than maintaining democracy as the solution for conflict and development, territorial dispute resolution needs to come first.
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(1.) Territorial issues are listed in the two categories labeled strategic territory and, simply, territory. Policy issues include the categories commerce/navigation, protect religious confreres, enforce treaty terms, balance of power, etc. Finally, regime issues include dynastic/succession claims, state/regime survival, and national liberation/state creation.
(2.) One exception may be conflict initiations during territorial rivalry. Individuals in countries with active rivals are already prone to heightened expectations of conflict. Moreover, and perhaps because of the increased sense of threat in the dyad, any initiation of conflict by one rival leader will most likely be met with a counter response, directed at the territory of the initiating state. Huth (1998) argues that this is one important source of territorial conflict. Politicians pursue domestic political power through a process of ethnic out-bidding, and this then constrains the new leader to a rivalry relationship over territory. Further, as Colaresi (2004) describes, political leaders in targeted countries have strong political incentives to respond aggressively during rivalries. Thus, there are situations in which domestic politics encourages the maintenance of territorial rivalries that are salient to the individuals in both states, and what began as an artificial initiation of conflict for domestic reasons transforms into a conflict with serious implications for both states.
(3.) North and Weingast (1989) argue, for example, that the powerful British king had to compromise with his parliament precisely because the bulk of the military force was abroad. The navy could not force increased revenues from the lords. Similarly, Friedberg (1988) argues that a more modern Britain was unable to maintain its global supremacy, thanks largely to its many, far-flung colonial holdings.
(4.) Other types of issues are unlikely to affect threat duration in quite the same way. Policy and trade disputes are more likely to be time and place specific, as conflicts end once there has been either a change in or confirmation of the status quo. Those conflicts that do recur—over regime type, perhaps—are still unlikely to engender the same type of military structure as territorial disputes. So, militarized states may tend to be found proximate to recurrent policy or regime disputes, but the land army will probably not be as politically dominant within the state.
(5.) For example, democracy followed military embarrassment and defeat at the hands of rivals in both Greece (1974–75) and Argentina (1982–83), for example.
(6.) An important side note here is that some level of territorial threat may initially be required for state development. The development state capacity and the avoidance of civil wars depends at least, in part, on whether the country had been previously exposed to threats to homeland territories (Gibler & Miller, 2014). This is consistent with evidence linking state birth patterns to international conflict and capability differences (Gibler, 2017).
(7.) The correlation is indeed strong. A variable that measures the state’s exposure to territorial threat eliminates the statistical significance of democratic community, measured several different ways, as a predictor of democratization (Gibler & Tir, 2013). Democracies tend to cluster together over time, and the presence of stable borders explains this.
(8.) This relationship has been repeatedly confirmed, but the cause of the wealth-democracy link remains debated.
Przeworski and various coauthors (Przeworski, 2000; Przeworski & Limongi, 1997; Przeworski et al., 1996) contend that wealth does not cause democratization but instead provides the antidote to all types of anti-democratic reversions. According to this argument, democratic transitions occur for myriad reasons that are often unrelated to economic development, but high levels of state wealth (usually measured by GDP) provide strong societal protections against reversions from democracy. Wealth is also generally found when other important domestic determinants of democracy are present. Wealthy states have a strong middle class that makes autocratic repression more difficult (Moore, 1966; Rueschemeyer, Stephens, & Stephens, 2000), and more generally, an increase in the number of powerful actors within society can be found in wealthier states, which makes a competitive, democratic equilibrium more likely (Olson, 1993). Ultimately, though the role of wealth in establishing democracy continues to be questioned (Boix, 2003; Boix & Stokes, 2003; Epstein et al., 2006), no one seems to doubt that wealth prevents reversions from democracy.
(9.) Israel, for example, has fought several of its neighbors over territorial issues and remains in an extremely threatening regional environment; in fact, many countries in the region overtly seek Israel’s demise. Similarly, India has fought wars against Pakistan multiple times, with Jammu and Kashmir providing the backdrop for each conflict and continued tensions in the dyad. Both of these exceptions provide further evidence that territorial peace and democracy are distinct concepts.
Examining both Israel and India in greater detail, it is rather incredible that both have maintained effective institutional democracies through some very difficult times. Nevertheless, there are at least three reasons why democracy maintains in both states. First, both states have generally been more powerful than their neighbors, and neither has feared total conquest by its neighbors in some time. This is especially true after the development of nuclear weapons by both states. Also aiding democracy is the amount of economic and military aid both countries have received throughout their histories to maintain their strategic advantage. For example, the Correlates of War Composite Index of National Capabilities consistently lists India’s power as four to five times the power of Pakistan. Israel also dwarfs the capabilities of most of its neighbors; though the population components of the measure bring the ratio closer to parity. Second, the nature of the military in Israel and the huge population in India greatly undermine the forces of repression that often result from territorial threat. Israel has maintained a quick strike force, based primarily on air power instead of occupation, and this make repression of the population difficult. Meanwhile, India’s large population makes successful enforcement of a repressive regime nearly impossible. Third, and finally, both states entered the international system as democracies, and once a democratic equilibrium emerges within a state, breaking it becomes difficult, barring any serious external shocks (Boix, 2003). Even in the face of growing or significant external threats, democracies can build large militaries without worrying that they might provide incentives for any social groups to pursue exclusionary policies. Rent seeking and exclusion will likely be punished at the polls before any would-be autocrats can alter institutions through domestic conflict.
(10.) Importantly, the analyses are not byproducts of the argument that democracy leads to peaceful transfers; democratic regime type has no appreciable influence on the likelihood of peaceful transfers in the dyad.
(11.) It is important to note that the analyses also confirmed that these results were not spurious to traditional correlates of democracy such as wealth and development history. Nor are independent judiciaries endogenous to polity changes.
(12.) Newly established independent judiciaries were associated with large-scale reversions (magnitude of 4 or more on the Polity IV scale) in both democracies and non-democracies. Examination of the data suggested this last finding resulted mostly from placement of the courts in difficult political environments, adding additional support to the argument that the power of the court grows over time. These results also indirectly confirm the ability of external threat to lead to domestic centralization—if external threats lead to increased popularity and a political environment that favors the leader, then only checks that are removed from popular will, such as unelected judiciaries, can mitigate the effects of political centralization.