Sunday, February 19, 2012

Boaz Atzili's "Good Fences, Bad Neighbors"

Boaz Atzili is assistant professor in the School of International Service, American University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict, and reported the following:
Good Fences Bad Neighbors is a book detailing how “border fixity”- the proscription of foreign conquest and the annexation of homeland territory - affects war and peace in the world in the last half century. Simply put, conquering and annexing your neighbors’ territory is no longer acceptable according to the “rules of the game” in international relations (as it was in the past). Despite the much larger discrepancy between the military power of the United States and Mexico, for instance, a land grab like the one done in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American war would be unthinkable today.

On face value, the development of border fixity should delight every peace lover, and indeed it yields significant peace dividends in some parts of the world. In those regions where most states are institutionally weak, however, border fixity in fact creates more conflict, not less. The reason for this counter-intuitive development, as I argue in this book, is that border fixity perpetuates state weakness in much of the developing world; and such pervasive weakness of the institutions and legitimacy of a state is a major factor in much of today’s violent conflicts, both domestic and international.

Before the last 60 years or so, territorial wars and preparation for these wars played a crucial role in strengthening state institutions and legitimacy, and this is where Page 99 comes into the picture. It is part of a historical case study which looks at the effects of territorial war on 19th century Argentina. In this page, I ask, “To what extent can we observe in Argentina, in the period 1810–80, the expected process of external territorial threats and opportunities leading to a successful project of state building?”

Page 99 also begins to answer this question. It starts by looking at the Argentine military: “At the start of the struggle for independence in 1810, Argentina did not exist as a nation. Thus, by definition, it possessed no national army… For most of this half century there was no central control of the state, and the various forces that controlled the towns of Argentina had their own military or proto-military forces. In the countryside the local caudillos had their own troops, consisting mainly of their gaucho peons.”

“The process of building a regular modern national army took more than half a century and was much less linear than in the case of Brandenburg- Prussia,” which is another historical case used for comparison in the book. “Very gradually, however, a more unified military institution emerged from this plethora of forces. Wars, international and domestic, were among the most important forces that affected this process.” The chapter goes on to detail the forces and processes that steered Argentina from a non-entity in 1810 to a fairly strong and unified one by 1880. It looks not only at military advances but at economic, social, and bureaucratic developments as well.

The Argentine case, the story of which begins in Page 99, as well as other historical cases, set the stage for an investigation of weak states in our own time, concentrating on the cases of Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and how their internal – and external – relations are affected by the border fixity norm.
Learn more about Good Fences, Bad Neighbors at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue