Territory, Contentious Issues, and International Relations
- Paul R. HenselPaul R. HenselDepartment of Political Science, University of North Texas
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.