While it will take years, if not decades, to sort through the wreckage of the Ukraine War to come to any kind of consensus, it does seem clear that the maximalist claims of alliance networks have an immensely destabilizing role in the international system. The failure to set up buffer states— nations that agree not to join the alliance network of any nearby power blocs—between NATO and Russia might have led to the outbreak of war. Often situated at places where potential contention could arise, these countries keep rival power poles from having direct contact with each other. The reasoning is that if two powers can agree that neither dominates a particular smaller country, they can accept that the lessened risk of a hand-off approach to that particular state is the best way to de-escalate rivalry in that region.
The concept of buffer states has been used many times in history, though with admittedly mixed results. The idea is quite rare in modern international relations discourse, however. When it is mentioned, it is often done so in a disparaging manner. This is not only because the most famous example of a buffer state in the modern mind is the extremely ineffective invasion highway known as Belgium in the early twentieth century, but also because alliance networks have become increasingly burdened with values-laden assumptions that they did not have before. NATO, infused with democratist ideology, cannot accept that a country that wishes to join and become part of its network might be better left outside for reasons of geographic cohesiveness and avoiding more potential flashpoints with Russia. Russia, on the other hand, was ostensibly supportive of a neutral Ukraine but probably expected to dominate it indirectly in some capacity. The inability of these outside parties to stay out of the country resulted in a significant conflict that could have been avoided. Diplomats should learn from this and get more serious about the concept of buffer states.
Despite famous failures, there have in fact been numerous successful buffer states in history; places that for long periods of time (geopolitically speaking) served as effective points of no-contact between otherwise rival powers. Some exploited natural geography to further reinforce the natural borders already in place. Nepal, between the British and Qing empires and now modern China and India, is an example of this. Austria in the Cold War, with the victorious powers of World War II all agreeing to a mutual military withdrawal, is another. Perhaps the longest and most surprising of such states to modern observers is that of late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth-century Afghanistan. Not wanting to rule the unprofitable and warlike territory itself, the British Raj nevertheless was consumed by the specter of a Russian invasion through the territory during the height of Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, often referred to as “The Great Game.” After a succession of fruitless wars there, it was agreed to draw the boundaries of Afghanistan in such a way that Russian and British imperial interests would not directly collide with each other. The arrangement would bring a surprising amount of stability for the tribalistic nation, and only collapse when a series of coups and internal upheavals opened the way for a Soviet invasion in 1979 and subsequent Pakistani and U.S. intervention.
Lest it be assumed that a long-term successful stint as a buffer nation can only come about from circumstances of comparative stability, the experience of Uruguay offers one of the more remarkable transformations from instability to long-term success. Contested for centuries between the Portuguese and Spanish empires, the early independence of Uruguay was rocked with trouble. Both Argentina and Brazil attempted to dominate the country, and internal factions fought each other on the domestic front, sometimes in open civil war. These contests even helped spark South America’s deadliest war, the War of the Triple Alliance, which further seemed to relegate the region's smaller countries to domination by their larger neighbors. And yet it was the cost of that war, coupled with the desire to maintain some kind of balance in the region, that ensured Uruguay would be able to harness its natural agrarian bounty and access to ports in order to become one of the most developed and, eventually, peaceful Latin American countries. When Brazil and Argentina could both openly admit that they feared the space between them being dominated by the other, it became possible for them to mutually agree that neither would absorb the country into its security arrangements.
In today’s world, there are clearly regions that would benefit from taking a second look at the concept of buffer zones. Improving relations between Tehran and Riyadh could mean a new Saudi-Iranian understanding of Iraq that would have the potential to bring much-needed stability to that war-torn country. Myanmar’s precarious position between India and China already seems to be going for some degree of distance from each. Indonesia’s location as a large country right at the edges of U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence also implies the potential for it to exploit an independent niche between the two superpowers while reducing places where clashes could break out.
The history of buffer states is too complex to be an ultimate solution for every clashing great frontier, but it cannot be dismissed either as it often is in contemporary foreign policy commentary. Political geography can be shaped by policy to reduce conflict points between competing spheres of influence. With even the possibility of such policies creating opportunities for peace, it is worth giving the buffer state at least consideration in many troubled parts of the world.
Christopher Mott (@chrisdmott) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and the author of the book The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.