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The Return of Conquest? Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine

Author: Tanisha M. Fazal 

Affiliation: Political Science professor at Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: May-June, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 3604



Keywords: Ukrainian War, Geography, Norms against Territorial Conquest, State Death, the Future of Global Order



The author argues that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a decisive test of norms against the territorial conquest of other countries by force and changing the borders—a tradition that was established in the international order after the end of the Second World War. This prevailing norm, which preaches the sacredness of borders and maximizing their importance, has prevented the swallowing-up of the weakest countries, especially those geographically adjacent to the major powers. The Russian invasion of Ukraine revives the ancient law of acquisition by conquest and threatens the future stability of the international system if the global community does not strictly move against it. It forebodes the extinction of more states from the world map and the changing of borders. 


The article is based on the author’s book published in 2007, entitled: “State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation.” The article is divided into four parts. The first part explains the phenomenon of “state death” in history, defining its reasons and tracing its steady decline since the early twentieth century. State death expresses the formal loss of control over foreign policy to another state after submitting to the latter, and the inability to act independently on the world stage. At the beginning of the modern state era, the reason behind state death was mainly the blunt force trauma that a country may be exposed to from another. Between 1816 and 1945, countries were disappearing from the world map because of this trauma every three years, on average. The countries located between the competitors were more likely to be seized. For instance, Poland was carved up by its surrounding strong powers (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) between 1772 – 1795, and it completely disappeared from the map of Europe for more than a century. In addition to the unfortunate geographical location of such countries, the author determines other reasons for the state’s death including its lack of strong diplomatic relations with the colonial powers. The “strong” trade relations conducted by many countries in Africa and Asia with the colonial powers were not sufficient for their survival. Here, the author compares those countries to others in the Middle East and Latin America that established strong diplomatic relations with colonial powers that helped them to keep their survival. Since the early twentieth century, this phenomenon has known a remarkable decline. The emergence of the United States as a great power—that had completed its invasion of lands in the American continent—contributed to the decline in the “death of state”, in addition to President Wilson’s 14 principles that were promoted during his era and after, especially the self-determination and defense of the territorial integrity, despite the US’ double standard in its use of these principles. In addition, the horrific events of the Second World War contributed to restraining states from territorial-conquest behavior in the post-war era. However, territorial conquest did not completely disappear, and the intervention of states in other states generally took place without trying to redraw borders. The invaders often replaced this behavior with regime change and the installation of another regime more suitable for them, as the Soviets did in Hungary in 1956 in order to deter Eastern European countries from leaving the Warsaw Pact. The same has been done numerous times, both directly and indirectly, by the United States in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Korea, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Iran and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. The author also points to other reasons, such as the beginning of the nuclear age in the era of bipolarity, and the tendency of the great powers to avoid future wars. Moreover, the outcomes of globalization have reduced the tendency of invading lands after states became able to get access to others’ resources and maximize influence over them through trade tools without the need to resort to using force. 


In the second part, the author focuses on the force of norms in international relations as an important factor in restraining territorial conquest behavior after World War II. A global consensus has grown in support of norms against territorial conquest. These norms have consolidated force through regional and international institutions as a broader project to promote peace and maintain global stability. The author identifies different drives among countries that have led to them maximizing the importance of norms. Some countries glorify norms because they have no ambitions in other territories. Others – even the most powerful states – obey the norms because they realize that territorial disputes have been a major cause of wars and see that the stability of the international system serves their interests more. Some follow norms for fear of being punished if they violate them. According to the author, the support of norms against territorial conquest has caused undesirable and unintended consequences, including that the sanctity of borders created conditions that precipitated the failure and collapse of states as long as this sanctity prevents other states from interfering in the state’s internal affairs. The “border fixity” has also enabled some dictators to focus their efforts on extracting local resources for their own gains, since they do not need to focus attention on building a strong army in order to protect themselves from external predation. Furthermore, supporting norms against territorial conquest has contributed in some way to the growth of “never-ending civil wars.”


In the third part, the author warns of the dangers posed by the Russian invasion because it may revive the territorial conquest and undermine norms among the rest of the world. She believes that the fate of norms will depend largely on how the rest of the world responds to Russia. She also urges strengthening norms by condemning Russia’s behavior by all means regardless of Putin’s aims, whether it is changing the Zelensky regime, annexing some Ukrainian lands, or achieving other far aims, because accepting a limited violation of norms may be more dangerous in the long run than a total rejection of violation. Moreover, the author calls on the Western alliance not to lift sanctions on Russia entirely unless Putin recognizes Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders. If the global community fails to enforce norms against territorial conquest, the countries bordering the great powers will face grave dangers of extinction. The author then praises the Ukrainian resistance and reminds that about half of the countries that died violently since 1816 were subsequently resurrected thanks to national resistance and that few occupations throughout history actually achieved their long-term political goals. 


In the last part, the author urges recommitting to norms against territorial conquest. It is true that norms are not permanent once they are entrenched, and that they have not prevented wars, conflicts, and political assassinations since 1945, however, they have succeeded in reducing wars between nations over unreconciled territorial boundaries. The author provides examples of territorial disputes, like between El Salvador and Honduras in 1986, and between Bahrain and Qatar in 1991, where norms contributed to a resolution without violence by driving the states to resolve their disputes through institutions such as the International Court of Justice. The author concludes by emphasizing that the war between Russia and Ukraine goes beyond the geography of both, and “if the norm against territorial conquest ends up as another casualty of this war, states would be wise to carefully tend to their borders.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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