Territorial issues have been prominent causes of armed conflict and war in the modern era. This observation has led to a rapidly growing body of academic literature on the sources, management, and consequences of such issues. Although territory has gotten most of the scholarly attention, this literature has its roots in research on contentious issues that began in the 1960s. Academic research on contentious issues began with studies on issue areas in foreign policy analysis, focusing on such questions as how the foreign policy process differs from more traditional domestic policy processes. This line of research struggled to find mainstream acceptance until scholars began adopting a more substantive conception of issues, focusing on the nature of the values at stake. General patterns of foreign policy conflict and cooperation have been found to differ substantially across different issues. Importantly, territorial issues are the most frequent and most dangerous issues in armed conflict and war, leading scholars to focus much of their issue-related research on the dynamics of territorial contention. Research on territory has stemmed from the main elements of issues theory that were developed earlier: issue salience, or the importance of the issue under contention; issue context, or recent interactions over the same issue; and institutional context, or the extent to which other actors and institutions are able to influence contention over this type of issue. Armed conflict is much more likely when the issue at stake is more salient, particularly when this salience involves intangible dimensions such as the presence of a state’s ethnic kin in the claimed territory. Greater issue salience also increases the likelihood of peaceful negotiations and nonbinding conflict management techniques like mediation. A recent history of armed conflict or failed negotiations over an issue increases the likelihood of armed conflict, bilateral negotiations, and nonbinding management. The normative and institutional context also appears to affect the likelihood of conflict and peaceful management over issues, although more remains to be done in this area. The issues literature is beginning to make important strides beyond this initial work on territorial claim management. Scholars are beginning to geocode data on international borders, raising important potential benefits for the study of territory and perhaps other issues. International legal arguments appear to affect the management of territorial claims in systematic ways, and ending territorial claims seems to produce substantial improvements in relations between the former adversaries. The same general patterns seem to hold for river and maritime issues, as well as territorial issues, and these other issue types have more promising institutional contexts. Future research could benefit from considering additional issue types (including a recent effort to collect data on identity claims), as well as studying domestic and interstate issues.
Paul R. Hensel
Andrew P. Owsiak
The steps-to-war theory maintains that war results from the issues under dispute and how states handle these issues. Its foundation rests on the territorial explanation of war, which argues that territorial issues are more conflict-prone than non-territorial ones because these issues constitute a salient security threat that realism recommends be addressed via power politics (i.e., the use of force, including alliance- and armament-building). When states employ power politics, however, the dispute festers, thereby causing recurring militarized conflict; creating feelings of threat, enmity, and competition (i.e., rivalry); producing counter-alliances and arms races; and generally building the more hostile, war-prone world that states originally sought to avoid. Each step taken—from a territorial dispute to rivalry (i.e., recurring militarized disputes) to alliance-building to armament building—therefore increases the probability that war will occur. Existing empirical evidence supports the steps-to-war theory’s predictions in numerous ways. Tests of the entire theory, for example, demonstrate the dangerousness of territorial disputes, the tendency to manage territorial disputes via power politics, and that individual steps reinforce one another. Other bodies of research connect the individual steps directly to the likelihood that war will occur or highlight the connections between these individual steps—much as the theory predicts. Despite strong empirical support, however, much work remains to be done. Future research should consider the sequencing of the steps to war, investigate why the effects of certain steps vary across different epochs (e.g., alliances differ in their effects on war during the 18th and 19th centuries), identify the alternative paths to war, and study the paths to peace more explicitly—as obtaining peace may not be as simple as removing the known causes of war.
Krista E. Wiegand
Despite the decline in interstate wars, there remain dozens of interstate disputes that could erupt into diplomatic crises and evolve into military escalation. By far the most difficult interstate dispute that exists are territorial disputes, followed by maritime and river boundary disputes. These disputes are not only costly for the states involved, but also potentially dangerous for states in the region and allies of disputant states who could become entrapped in armed conflicts. Fortunately, though many disputes remain unresolved and some disputes endure for decades or more than a century, many other disputes are peacefully resolved through conflict management tools. Understanding the factors that influence conflict management—the means by which governments decide their foreign policy strategies relating to interstate disputes and civil conflicts—is critical to policy makers and scholars interested in the peaceful resolution of such disputes. Though conflict management of territorial and maritime disputes can include a spectrum of management tools, including use of force, most conflict management tools are peaceful, involving direct bilateral negotiations between the disputant states, non-binding third party mediation, or binding legal dispute resolution. Governments most often attempt the most direct dispute resolution method, which is bilateral negotiations, but often, such negotiations break down due to uncompromising positions of the disputing states, leading governments to turn to other resolution methods. There are pros and cons of each of the dispute resolution methods and certain factors will influence the decisions that governments make about the management of their territorial and maritime disputes. Overall, the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes is an important but complicated issue for states both directly involved and indirectly affected by the persistence of such disputes.