Deepening the Peace

If I were a foreign-policy advisor to a major presidential candidate, I’d suggest a foreign policy platform labeled “Deepening the Peace.” What would it consist of? First, celebrate the fact that the world has gotten a lot more peaceful in the past few decades, as many have observed, but most impressively Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and the authors of the Human Security Report. This shows that something is going right, and to some extent suggests we should “stay the course.” However– second– the trend towards world peace is less secure because of the persistence of many frozen conflicts: Georgia vs. Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Israel vs. Palestine; Japan and Russia over the Kuriles; Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands (the cause of a dangerous kerfuffle at the moment); India and Pakistan over Kashmir; the Kurds vs. various Middle Eastern states; Northern Ireland; Kyrgyz vs. Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan; Taiwan; Transnistria; Crimea; Cyprus; Serbia vs. Kosovo; the Falkland Islands; and Azerbaijan vs. Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. There are probably a lot more that I’ve never even heard of, but which the relevant locals care about intensely.

What does this have to do with open borders? Well, to begin with, whether or not these questions have anything to do with open borders, they clearly have to do with borders. The pattern is that there was some old dispute about borders, the sort of thing which in the past would likely have been a cause of war, but today– and especially since the 1991 Gulf War when the violation even of one of the world’s more arbitrary borders was punished by a huge international coalition– no one dares to engage in “aggression.” (The scare quotes indicate that the would-be “aggressors” usually don’t think of it as “aggression,” but they know the world would.) And so the conflict stays frozen, but there is no reconciliation. I saw this up close when I lived for a while in Azerbaijan. The Azeris hate Armenia, in a war almost twenty years ago occupied part of what was the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan, and has been occupying it ever since. They are not very interested in distinguishing ordinary Armenians from the Armenian government or anything like that. They are not tolerant of the opposing view. They will not entertain the possibility of eventually conceding. They are certain they could beat Armenia in a war, if only Russia would stop backing Armenia. In spite of that, they don’t resent Russia much: all their anger is targeted like a laser against Armenia. There are no differences of opinions on the subject: everyone tells you exactly the same story, regardless of personality, education, Russification, age. They rewrite history, claiming, for example, that Armenia never had a state of their own but were homeless like gypsies. They will not admit any fault on the part of the Azerbaijani government in causing the war, though at one point Azeri forces threatened Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The Azeri nation seems to be absolutely of one mind in its conviction that someday, they will go to war with Armenia and take back Nagorno-Karabakh, and one doesn’t exactly feel the presence of any qualms about wiping the rest of Armenia off the map while they’re at it. Meanwhile, there are a million or so refugees from the regions occupied by Armenia. They haven’t melted into the general population of Azerbaijan, for the most part. Often they live in their own village, maintaining contact with their own exiled regional governments. The wound has not healed, and Azerbaijan has no intention that it ever will. It left me with the impression that the danger that frozen conflicts pose to world peace are widely underestimated.

Now, I would like to argue that open borders would facilitate world peace, by giving each nation a stake in the prosperity of other countries, where some of their own relatives live, by letting people from estranged nations meet on the territory of third countries and find out that they are not devils, and by reducing a bit the importance of just who controls what territory. But it’s not that simple. First, the catastrophe of World War I points the other way. It was in the midst of the great age of open borders, the 19th century, that nationalism was arming itself materially and mentally, building up to its grisly climax. Of course, times have changed; open borders might be more effective in encouraging peace among nations today than they were then; and the United States now seems to be on particularly good terms with most major immigrant source countries. Anyway, my point is that these frozen conflicts seem insoluble as long as the doctrine of nation-state sovereignty is normative. Either Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Armenia (or is independent with an Armenian population), or it is restored to Azerbaijan: not both. No compromise is possible between these absolute principles. But what if Armenia retained administrative rights over Nagorno-Karabakh but minus the right to exclude Azeris from the territory? And what if this judgment was backed by a strong authoritative judgment from the international community, such that both Azerbaijan and Armenia could be pretty confident that any infringement of the terms would lead quickly to war against an overwhelming international coalition? Could peace be made to stick?

I have no idea where “Deepening the Peace” would lead. I’d start with UN reform– expand the Security Council, maybe change the veto rules so that two permanent members had to veto rather than one– and then lay out a tentative set of principles for resolving frozen conflicts permanently, and wait for feedback. You would try to distinguish between: (a) countries that agreed with the principle of resolving frozen conflicts through the application of universal principles, but advocated different principles from those the United States suggested; and (b) countries that opposed the principle of principled resolution because they want to maintain double standards, e.g., supporting separatists abroad while suppressing separatists at home. You would want to encourage set (a), and build a certain solidarity among countries with a principled commitment to international legality, while isolating set (b). Since Russia, which backs separatists in Georgia while waging war against its own separatists in the North Caucasus, is the most obvious example of (b), “Deepening the Peace” might turn out to be rather controversially anti-Russian. The policy would probably “fail” in the short run, that is, it would fail to overcome emotionally-held nationalist dogmas and myths that make frozen conflicts so intractable. If it were to succeed in the long run, its success would probably have to involve at least some mitigation of nation-state sovereignty, e.g., the creation of gray areas where Nationality A doesn’t get to vote but is allowed to live, and is able to appeal to some kind of international body if its rights are violated, while Nationality B is in charge but constrained in its methods of administration by various international treaties and inspectors. Opening certain borders, and thus decoupling of the scope of state jurisdiction from the scope of personal mobility, may need to be one of the methods by which frozen conflicts are defused. The alternative is to leave them frozen, and the trouble with that is that some of them may turn hot again.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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