The Buzz

Securing Strategic Buffer Space: Lessons from the Past and Implications for Today

A series of geopolitical fault lines are coming apart today. There is a hybrid conflict in Ukraine, an arc of destruction from the Levant to Iraq, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and instability in the southern Caucasus, just to name a few. What these conflicts have in common is that they are taking place in strategic buffer zones, physical spaces caught between competing regional powers. To address these problems by drawing lessons from the past, my paper for the Center for the National Interest examines four major cases of strategic buffer space conflicts: the Belgian crisis of 1830-1831, Byzantine-Sassanid and Ottoman-Safavid wars, China-Japan-Russia competition over Korea during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the Balkan powder keg that led to World War I. The paper finds that the dynamics of buffer space conflicts depend on four principal factors:

  • Balance of Power among Great Powers: The relative imbalance of power among great powers competing over strategic buffer space often leads to a conflictual outcome, as the stronger side refuses to compromise, while the weaker side makes preventive attempts to claim the buffer region in dispute.
  • Stability of the Contested Buffer Space: Great powers often fail to manage buffer space conflicts when competing parties are dealing with unstable buffers that contain multiple autonomous local actors with their own interests and goals.
  • Third-Party Guarantor of Security: The existence of a relatively impartial third-party actor that has the capacity and will to guarantee security and stability of a contested buffer space helps to mitigate security dilemmas among competing great powers.
  • Norm: Great powers are also inclined toward diplomatic solutions when there exists an agreed international norm that emphasizes moderation and equilibrium.

The Belgian Crisis 1830-1831

After the defeat of Napoleon, the United Kingdom of Netherlands—which included Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg—was created in 1815 as a bulwark against future French expansion northward and as a buffer between Britain, France, and Germany. In 1830, southerners in the kingdom revolted, creating a crisis that threatened to plunge Europe into another war. The French saw the rebellion as an opportunity, while other European powers sought to keep the Netherlands united, although the British held a more ambiguous attitude toward the conflict. During the 1830-1831 London conference, the European powers were able to resolve the issue diplomatically, de-facto recognizing an independent Belgium.

At the structural level, the European powers were able to resolve this conflict because a carefully constructed balance of power existed in Europe from 1815 to 1871 to deter any of the major powers from taking advantage of the Belgian crisis. The balance of power constructed during the Congress of Vienna (1815) ensured that France would be contained but also that German states would not be powerful enough to dominate the entire continent.

At the domestic level, conflict resolution was possible because the United Kingdom of Netherlands did not completely fracture with the southerners’ rebellion. During the crisis, there was a clear Belgian provisional government and then a Belgian national congress in the south. Outside great powers had clear negotiating partners on the ground and could enforce a diplomatic settlement without events on the ground spiraling out of state authorities’ control.

Norms of equilibrium and moderation also prevailed during the Belgian crisis and helped lead great powers to a diplomatic solution. During the crisis, Europe’s great powers did not unconditionally back any particular side. Instead, they demanded that the Belgians and Dutch stop their fighting and decided that they would intervene against any power that refused to comply. For example, when the French intervened militarily to respond to a Dutch attack in violation of the armistice against Belgium, other European powers more or less let the events progress. Had other European powers given blank checks to the Dutch, the conflict might have turned into another Europe-wide war. The British in fact sent a squadron of ships to aid the Belgians. The London conference, led by the British and the French, in the end, imposed a de-facto settlement.