Sunday, February 23, 2014

The debate about boundaries

John Quiggin recently touched off a long discussion at Crooked Timber with the assertion, contained in a re-cycled post on "the traditionality of modernity," that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less."

I won't repeat my comments in that discussion here, but want to follow up with a couple of reflections (one or two of which will be set out here, others perhaps in a subsequent post).

In questioning the assertion that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time," several CT commenters argued that not enough time has passed since the end of decolonization, or even since the end of WW2, to draw inferences about a trend.

For example, Peter T writes in a comment at the end of the thread:

John Quiggin would, I imagine, be fairly hard on those who repeat the “19 years of flat temperatures proves global warming is a myth” idiocy. But there’s a similar issue here. We should not expect national boundaries or state break-up/formation to proceed at a steady pace. They are affairs of decades at the least. Definite national boundaries, as opposed to zones of influence (sometimes broad, sometimes quite sharply defined), are a fairly recent thing over much of the earth anyway. The last wave – the decolonisation movement – only subsided around 40 years ago. There have been a number of minor shifts since then, plus the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. So it hasn’t really been all that stable, and it may be simply too early to go looking for explanations. If we get through another 30 or so years without major changes in state boundaries, then I’ll be impressed (if I live that long).
There are several issues here. One is that a strong argument can be made that decolonization itself, as it played out, contributed to boundary stability rather than the reverse (I dealt with that at CT, so won't elaborate here). Another is that Peter T (like others who made a similar point) assumes that the statement "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" contains an implicit prediction that stability noticed at time T will persist until some future time T + X, or will persist indefinitely. Although the context of JQ's post might have encouraged this interpretation, the statement that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" need not be read as anything other than a descriptive statement of what has been happening in recent years: the words "are becoming" do not necessarily mean "will continue to become" or "will continue to become, indefinitely." If someone looks in the mirror and says "my hair is becoming grayer," that does not necessarily mean "my hair will continue to become grayer." All it means is that the person has noticed that his or her hair is grayer now than it was two weeks ago, or two years ago. There is no guarantee that the process of graying will continue: the color of the hair could simply remain as it is, or it is even possible (if not perhaps likely) that the process of graying could reverse itself (without the application of hair dye or anything like that). 

The point, and sorry for the repetition, is that "national boundaries are becoming more stable over time" does not necessarily have to mean "national boundaries will continue to become ever more stable" or that "stability will persist indefinitely." It can simply mean that in a given span of time -- the last half-century, say -- national boundaries have become more stable. The notion that this, even if empirically accurate, is a meaningless observation because it probably just represents another phase in an endless up-and-down cycle, and the related notion that 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years is too short a time span from which to infer anything of consequence, both suffer from the same weakness.

The weakness is that these dismissals ignore the normative context of international politics, the normative environment in which, in this case, fluctuations in boundaries do or don't occur. Actors have ideas and these ideas influence how they behave, at least to some extent. One idea that the corporate actors known as states now firmly have in their heads is that national (i.e., state) boundaries should be messed with as little as possible and as seldom as possible. We know this because they say it in authoritative contexts. Of course actions do not always match words. The question is how often actions diverge from words. Krasner in his book on sovereignty argued that states' actions diverge from their words quite often; he called this, borrowing from other writers, 'organized hypocrisy,' i.e., a situation "in which institutional norms are enduring but frequently ignored." Is the current norm about boundaries -- i.e., 'don't mess with them' in my colloquial rendering -- "frequently ignored"? Are we dealing here with organized hypocrisy? It depends partly on what one means by "frequently," but my sense is -- and some research, to which I referred at CT, backs up this intuition -- that the boundary norm (or 'the territorial integrity norm' as it has been called) is observed much or most of the time. Not all the time, but enough of the time so that one can say that the match between words and deeds in this particular context is reasonably (not perfectly, but reasonably) good. The norm could change, and/or the degree of conformity to it could change, but to write comments on this subject as if the norm did not exist is peculiar, to say the least. 

Commenters who made points like the one quoted above don't even ask the question about the match between words and deeds because they implicitly assume that words don't matter. It's as if the stability/instability of boundaries, for them, is a question in Newtonian physics, completely divorced from what humans in their collective capacity think or say. But that's not how politics, or almost any other aspect of human life for that matter, works.

Note (added 3/3): Peter T has replied in the comment thread attached to this post; those interested may read the ensuing conversation there. 

ETA: Another example of the same sort of thing, this time from a CT commenter who annoys me a lot more than Peter T ever has, namely bob mcmanus. Here's mcmanus (from another CT thread):

Just finished Daniel Alpert’s Age of Oversupply. It’s a readable middle-brow summation ... with affinities to DeLong and Krugman, with the usual laundry list of Keynesian technocratic prescriptions that are politically implausible.  I think the resource or supply constraints are still a long ways off. What we have is a typical glut, overcapacity, overproduction, oversupply crisis, a typical Marxist (too much capital) crisis of astronomical proportions. Combined with an equally terrifying failure of distribution and global and local imbalances of power and resources. Combined with perhaps social technological advances (US hegemon, nukes, smarter Central Banks, int’l technocrats) that prevent the old mechanisms of creative destruction and rebalancing, war/revolution and/or depression/capitals destruction => reterritorialization and reconstruction.
I've added the italics, because that's the part I want to focus on. What is preventing a global war, which mcmanus seems to think might in some way be beneficial, at least to the powers that be? Why, it's "social technological" factors: "US hegemon, nukes, smarter Central Banks, int’l technocrats." God forbid it should ever enter his mind that what statespeople say and believe actually makes a difference in how they conduct themselves. Or that the experiences of their predecessors might influence them. No, that's all superstructural rubbish.


Anonymous said...

"Bob McManus" is a warning label to skip reading any comment with that heading.

Ronan said...

Playing devils advocate (and thats all it is, as I find this analysis convincing) whats the alternative hypothesis (if there is one) for the rise of stable borders over the past 50 odd years ?
I guess it would be along the lines of strong, centralised states .. etc? But that doesnt seem overly convincing on it's own.

LFC said...

To be telegraphic: Question noted. Pondering. Answer (of sorts) to follow in due course.

Anderson: The thing about McManus is that he obvs reads an *enormous* amt, but instead of making a consecutive-thought kind of comment, which he clearly cd do if he wanted (i wd think), he often just drops names of writers and produces cryptic, epigrammatic "neoliberalism and post-Fordism dissolve national identities" type of remark, which might be right, but doesn't explain how he thinks anything happens. It as if it's enough to say certain key-words. "I miss Arrighi," he'll say. OK. WHY do you miss Arrighi? What is it in particular about Arrighi's work that you found insightful or whatever? It drives me up the f****** wall. Why does he do this? Can he possibly derive any satisfaction or pleasure from it? Sorry. Ranting.

LFC said...

[whoa, sorry, this turned out to be on the long side - I don't know quite what propelled this verbal excess! In fact I had to cut it into two b.c Blogger wdn't take it]
This might sound like a dodge, but I think it (relative boundary stability of last 50 yrs) is a phenomenon that has more than one explanation, more than driving factor. It's overdetermined, to use a word I don't esp. like.

It's not, though, so much the rise of strong centralized states, which predates the phenomenon considerably, as the fact that territorial conquest has simultaneously become (1) more difficult practically (b.c of weapons technology and including though not nec. limited to nuclear weapons), (2) less desirable to states and those who run them b.c their ends can be achieved without it, and (3) less and less legitimate. So 'material' and 'ideational' factors were pushing in the same direction, assuming you want to make that analytical separation, which not everyone does.

One of Doug M's (from the CT thread) strongest pieces of evidence (allegedly) on the other side of the ledger was the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia into Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo (though the latter has only partial international recognition). But the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was a consequence of the end of the Cold War. Which prompts some further thinking aloud, viz (next box).

LFC said...

It's an interesting question what would have happened had Gorbachev managed to achieve a, so to speak, soft landing, with the USSR kept together but under a reformed economic and political arrangement, and the Cold War still effectively ended by negotiation. Under that scenario, with the USSR still intact but no longer exercising a sphere-of-influence control over E. Europe, Yugoslavia would prob., though who knows for sure, still have broken up. Either way, without some or all of perestroika, glasnost, overthrow of Warsaw Pact regimes in Romania and Poland and E. Germany, tearing down of the Berlin Wall, signing of the Charter of Paris, and reunification of Germany, you would not have had the breakup of Yugoslavia from c.'92 on. It has to be seen, I think, in that context.

In other words, the end of the Cold War, as a world-historical event of quite huge proportions, was obviously going to result in shaking up the political map of eastern and central Europe and the Balkans. To refer to the stability of boundaries in the past 50 or whatever yrs is in no way to minimize the really quite earthshaking change in intl politics that the end of the Cold War represented. What does support the argument is that the resulting new states emerged largely on already existing territorial lines -- provincial or regional boundaries, for the most part, became int'l ones (though Doug M. did point out a few anomalies or exceptions to this generalization).

The end of the Cold War and the end of a bipolar system was obviously a systemic change of great significance, but when it is looked at in retrospect what may strike observers first is that it occurred relatively (not entirely, but relatively) peacefully, and that the most violent and bloody of its consequences occurred in the Balkans, a region historically marked by instability, geopolitical complexity, and ethnic (or ethnonational) conflict.

That a big systemic change like the end of the Cold War took place in the same (perhaps arbitrarily demarcated) 50 or 60 or 70 yr period that was also characterized by aspects of remarkable system-wide stability (in the respects already noted) presents a challenge to both historians and IR types. Because one has to figure out how to construct the narrative or the explanation of a period -- in this case, say 1946 to the present -- that has, at the level of the intl system, elements of both exceptional geopolitical stability and exceptional, unanticipated (few predicted the end of the CW) political/geopolitical change.

Which is why Hobsbawm's title for his hist. of the 'short' 20th cent., The Age of Extremes, was so apt -- even though Hobsbawm was more concerned w economic, social, and cultural history, it was an age of extremes geopolitically as well. Or so one cd argue.

Writing this comment has persuaded me that I need to look at some hist. accounts of 1989-91 to remind myself of the precise sequence of events.
(I suppose I cd start w something as short and basic as e.g. the 2 pp. entry on 'Gorbachev Doctrine' in The Penguin Dictionary of Intl Relations.)

Jamsheed said...


This is good stuff. Thanks for mentioning on the CT thread (whichever one).

The one nitpick I'd have is that the argument against "implicit prediction" is a bit unfair. As purely a matter of semantics, you're surely right. But of course, if you're making an argument of the form "national boundaries are becoming", etc., and opposing this to the past, I think it's completely fair for a reader to infer that the "are becoming" will continue for in the near to medium future. Indeed, you even seem to endorse the latter. (I don't think I'm wrong in inferring this from your post: Insofar as the territorial integrity norm continues to apply, national boundaries will continue to be stable, relative to the past. And there's nothing, or nothing notable, to suggest that the territorial integrity norm is about to be overhauled. So..., etc.)

(Also, your response to Anderson made me laugh. I kind of mcmanus for much the reasons you hate him. He's hilarious!)

Jamsheed said...

Oh, this is 'js.' from CT.

Peter T said...

Couple of points.

I'm not assuming hard and fast here - there is, as you say, persistent gap between rhetoric and practice, but that does not mean the rhetoric is meaningless. But to say that borders are becoming more stable is to make a comparison with earlier periods. One key issue is what period is appropriate for comparison?

That borders should not be shifted without serious consideration and, preferably, a high degree of international agreement, has been a norm for centuries. With the complicating factor, as I noted, that clear boundaries were very much the exception until surveys and theories of absolute sovereignty arrived. And the internal/external distinction is not terribly helpful: when border changes were negotiated in the past, it was usually by transferring some existing internal unit (say, Alsace, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, or the Six Counties). So that says nothing much about frequency, the more so as the creation or adjustment of internal boundaries often reflected the same pressures that led to the movement of the international border (see, say, the division of Bengal under the Raj into eastern and western parts to reflect the Hindu-Muslim divide).

Given that it often takes one or two decades for a border to be internationally accepted, and often much the same time for the pressures generating the change to play out through its various stages and possible paths (establishment of an internal boundary, some degree of autonomy, maybe a war, eventual recognition), I think taking the long view of changes is appropriate. In which case we can't say much.

LFC said...

Thanks for the comments.

js.: yes, I think that's a fair point. My argument re 'implicit prediction' is a bit unfair. (And I sort of realized that as I was writing it or just afterward.)

Peter T: Some of these points were raised and debated on the CT thread.
You say "That borders should not be shifted without serious consideration and, preferably, a high degree of international agreement, has been a norm for centuries." This is one of our key disagreements. I don't think it has been a norm for centuries that borders should not be shifted "without...a high degree of international agreement."
For a long time it was the norm that if a state won a war, it got to keep any conquered territory, or at least any territory for which it could produce some kind of dynastic or familial 'legal' claim, whether the territory was an already established one or whether it involved actually creating a new boundary (as it presumably sometimes did, though it would be useful to see some historical work on the issue of how frequent the latter was).

In terms of the relevant norms and when/how they developed, Holsti's discussion of conquest (in 'Taming the Sovereigns', 2004) is useful, b.c the norm vs. conquest and the territorial integrity norm are basically the same, or at any rate very closely related.
I will quote the relevant passages from Holsti in the next box, though perhaps not until later today, as there are some other things I have to do first.

LFC said...

What follows is somewhat messy (sorry) and simplifies a complicated history, further complicated by the fact that it is hard to disentangle ideas/norms about conquest from conceptions of sovereignty and territory, which were in flux for a long time (by which I mean a good couple of centuries, at least). Some of this is based on Holsti, as mentioned above; some is my own exposition:

15th-16th cent.: Notion of conquest as a right developed (Holsti, p.132) -- w/r/t Spanish conquests in the New World, there was debate about the justifications/grounds;see Vitoria, who argued more restrictively than most, but still held conquest of 'the Indians' legitimate under certain conditions.

In Europe of this period, conquest was legitimate if grounded on some sort of 'just' (probably to some extent in the eye of the beholder, I would add) claim derived from e.g. rights of inheritance or succession (133).

[This is me now, not directly tracking Holsti here]: The dynastic and familial element of European politics in this period is, of course, important. Dynastic claims are often seen as valid notwithstanding that they might and do leap (often embryonic) borders and ignore the nascent map of states (whether far-flung polities, as quite a few were, or more territorially coherent and contiguous ones). [On 'composite' states, relevant here, see Nexon's bk.] Ideas of territorial exclusivity (exclusive legal jurisdiction, 'supreme authority,' and/or actual control over territory) coexist uneasily w/ more dynastically-based notions, which are in some (or many) cases more fluid and less exclusive.

In the late 17th cent., Leibniz elaborates the idea that sovereignty involves or requires the actual ability to defend a territory from attack. This is a more 'ground-based', in some ways modern notion. It coincides with Vauban 'rationalizing' the frontiers of Louis XIV's France. But the overall conceptual, legal, and normative situation remains rather confused or 'hybrid', mixing older and newer ideas.

[back to Holsti now, p.133]: The normative/legal perspective on territorial conquest begins to change with the Congress of Vienna, which, in reaction to Napoleon, declared that sovereignty over territory "could no longer be acquired merely by conquest"; for one thing, the consent of those in the conquered territory was required. But the Congress of Vienna only starts the process of changing the pertinent rules.

[to be cont. in next box, probably tomorrow or next day.]

LFC said...

The ref. to Vauban, above, has to do w/ fortifications. As Peter T mentioned, advances in mapping/surveying are more important for the development of the (relatively) clear, mutually-recognized boundaries we think of as 'modern.'

Note also that while the overall progression is from less to more clear, linearity per se in boundaries is not a modern invention and 'zones-to-lines' is thus too schematic and simple as a depiction of the trajectory. (This pt and some of the rest is basically regurgitated snippets from my unpublished diss., not a pathbreaking work of toweringly orig. scholarship [quite a few of them aren't]. Anyway...)

One more quote (next box) and I think I'll be done w this topic, at least for the time being.

LFC said...

Holsti, p.134 (comments in brackets are mine):
"By the twentieth century, conquest became de-legitimized. The League of Nations Covenant specified that the highest purpose of the organization was to protect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its members [not that it was esp. successful in doing that]. The Stimson Doctrine (1931) declared that the United States would not recognize as legal any territorial changes brought about through the use of armed force [this stance was doubtless facilitated by the fact that the U.S. was no longer in the mode of acquiring territory by force, but had shifted or was shifting to acquiring base rights as a kind of substitute]... The United Nations Charter (esp. Article 2(4)) effectively terminated any remaining vestiges of the old legitimacy accorded to there is no legitimate means of bringing about the death of states."

Peter T said...

"today there is no legitimate means of bringing about the death of states"

South Vietnam, East Germany, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union beg to disagree.

My original CT comment was directed at the notion that one can add very much to understanding very particular historical (path-dependent) arrangements through broad rhetorical flourishes. If "borders are becoming more stable" is to mean anything, then it has to point to something more than a maybe temporary fluctuation in the flux of human affairs.

For most of history people seem to have had a vague idea that conquest signified divine approval, and that one supreme power (however practically applied) was logical. The main questions being who was to exercise it and what supreme power implied (as in, yes the Great King/Emperor/King of Kings.. has the supreme power, but that does not mean he can do x here). Europe was different after 900 or so, in that almost all communities recognised that legitimate power inhered in ethnic/territorial units ("France", "England", "Castile", "Denmark" and so on), with power resting on a combination of the assent of the political nation and some form of hereditary or electoral right (both religiously validated). Conquest in itself conferred no rights over any such unit (although the rest of the world was fair game) - as Edward I found out in Scotland. This left a lot of room for war, but it was a powerful barrier to snowballing conquest a la Rome, the Carolingians or the Ottomans, in that without assent and some plausible electoral or hereditary claim, conquest brought as many or more liabilities as assets.

The loose cousin-hood of monarchs and higher nobility evolved into the conference system over the C17 and C18, and that into the Congress system of the C19. Post-imperial states adopted the norm in self-protection. But in parallel the notion of the political nation - the conception of whose assent legitimates power, has also evolved. Formal democracy has been the norm for the last 60 years or so, and that makes mergers harder and probably dissolution easier. But that rests on a balance of drivers particular to industrialism which seem to be weakening.

The point of this is that periods of stable borders are very much a by-product of larger processes, and so inherently rather fragile. They are weather, not climate.

LFC said...

For various reasons (including, speaking of weather, yet another snowstorm here), I probably will not reply to the above comment until tomorrow or the day after that.

LFC said...

one can[not] add very much to understanding very particular historical (path-dependent) arrangements through broad rhetorical flourishes.
I agree w this general

If "borders are becoming more stable" is to mean anything, then it has to point to something more than a maybe temporary fluctuation in the flux of human affairs.
What it points to, I've been suggesting, is a change in the normative environment, the 'culture' if you prefer, of int'l politics. You see this differently and that's fine, and we are not going to agree on this, so I think we shd just agree to disagree.

The rest of the comment swerves off into the history of state formation, the "political nation," and the vicissitudes of conquest, and I realize that I opened the door to this with my earlier remarks. But to address properly what you've said wd require at least a smallish article, I think, rather than a comment.

On this, though:
Europe was different after 900 or so, in that almost all communities recognised that legitimate power inhered in ethnic/territorial units ("France", "England", "Castile", "Denmark" and so on), with power resting on a combination of the assent of the political nation and some form of hereditary or electoral right (both religiously validated).

"Ethnic/territorial units" obscures the fact that there were various kinds of polities in late-medieval and early-modern Europe -- small principalities, city-states, federations or leagues of cities, in addition to certain polities that one might regard
as embryonic sovereign-territorial states or, from a different interpretive vantage point, as 'mosaic' or 'composite' states that were more like empires in the way they ruled (cf. Nexon). Then there was the Church, a political actor in its own right; the Holy Roman Empire, hard to characterize as an 'ethnic/territorial unit' either before or after Charles V split it in two in the 16th cent.; etc.

All this has rather little to do w the original debate, and it's my fault for bringing up the history of the rt to conquest (not the history of conquest per se, but the history of how it was viewed). No doubt this is a bit more complicated than Holsti, whom I followed, suggests (he's an IR scholar not a historian), but the main lines of his argument seem reasonable. Anyway, on the orig pt, as I say, we are prob not going to bridge the disagreement, so we shd, I think, simply agree to disagree.