To insist that in reality borders are forever fixed is to prevent frozen conflicts from ever being resolved.

by Akhilesh Pillalamarri

The notion of territorial sovereignty is premised on a state’s actual ability and legitimacy to control its territories. This has led to the absurdity of the persistence of Somalia and Libya, states which have effectively ceased to function as such. Instead of allowing the “natural” emergence of more viable states such as Somaliland, the international insistence on establishing, in defiance of the facts on the ground, weak national governments in Mogadishu and Tripoli, makes a mockery of the primary function of a state—the ability to monopolize violence within its boundaries.

Territories conquered by states from other states are also unlikely to be recovered. Take the cases of Crimea and the Golan Heights, which were seized from Ukraine and Syria respectively. There is a world of difference between endorsing the violent conquest of a nation-state and acknowledging minor adjustments, especially where there is no obvious way of reversal.

The notion that borders are sacrosanct perpetuates interstate hostility and frozen conflicts, and prevents the resolution of territorial disputes, because states have no incentive to negotiate new boundaries, and thereafter build stronger political and economic relations with each other, having resolved their territorial disputes.

Border changes ought to be recognized in three cases. First, limited changes ought to be permitted to reflect the facts on the ground in frontier zones that do not alter the fundamental characteristics of a country by depriving it of its core regions. Second, borders can be altered if the people within a certain region assent to the change, usually for economic or cultural reasons. Finally, in the case of states that have effectively collapsed, the emergence of new political entities within their borders should be provided for. The alternative is a world in which territorial changes are never recognized, nor possible. This perpetuates failed states, frozen conflicts, and unresolved territorial disputes between hostile neighbors, that if resolved, could lead to better relations.

A world with completely fixed borders is a world in which ground realities are denied. This leads to the continuation of conflicts, rather than their resolutions. It ought to be remembered that territorial boundaries have historically been much more flexible, for a good reason.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an international relations analyst, and a contributing editor at The Diplomat, writing on foreign policy, politics, history, culture, and geography.