In praise of buffer states

In praise of buffer states

The United States and its NATO allies have long neglected an historical and geo-strategic truism: we need buffer states to avoid direct confrontation between regional powers. Buffer states keep armies apart and allow important countries to trade in peace.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Robin Edward Poulton

The latest report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva highlights the changing nature of warfare from bilateral and internal armed splits, to regional conflicts. One reason for this, is neglect by the United States and its NATO allies of an historical and geo-strategic truism: we need buffer states to avoid direct confrontation between regional powers.

The world was divided into Nation States after the collapse of great empires during the turbulent 20th century: after WWI in 1919, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were dismantled; after WWII we saw (starting with Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947) the collapse the British empire ‘on which the sun never set’ and then the French empire in Africa (beginning with the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s); and the Cold War brought the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. Many nation states and frontiers were created by the French and British: all of Africa and most of the Middle East are composed of states like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel that never existed before 1916.

The USA, the world’s only super-power, is redrawing frontiers in order to control the world’s oil and mineral resources. NATO’s destruction of Iraq, Libya and the division of Sudan into two countries, for example, diminished Chinese and Russian oil contracts and led to regional armed conflicts that have infected neighboring states. The conflicts bring poverty and misery to millions of people; but they put millions of dollars in the pockets of the oil billionaires and arms manufacturers.

The Cold War brought peace because it respected a rule that every nation has interests. Trading patterns were regional rather than global: and where regional trade flourishes, peace generally thrives. Regional interests are reinforced by buffer states: states that keep major empires apart, forcing politicians and business leaders to use the skills of diplomacy and negotiation instead of imposing sanctions or brute force. Ask the Finns what it is like to live next door to the Russians. Ask the Nepalese how they enjoy being squashed between India and China. Ask the small Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg) how they have survived the misfortune of being placed between the warrior nations of Britain, Germany and France. They all stay neutral because they negotiate, and smile.

No buffer state has suffered more than Afghanistan. The British failed in three wars to conquer the Afghans. Instead, a Pashtun emir called Abdul Rahman Khan gained British support to establish his kingdom in the 1880s, as a physical buffer between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia. When the British empire disintegrated, the Soviet Union made the mistake of thinking it no longer needed a buffer state: but China, Pakistan and India all have regional interests, as well as the West. From 1979 until 1989 the Red Army fought and failed in the Afghan mountains. The US and the British fared no better after 2001: we are now trying to disentangle ourselves from the fourth Anglo-Afghan war, in which Washington and London have shared a bloody nose because both ignored the value of a buffer state.

The West is making the same mistake in Ukraine. A relentless eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO since 1989, has brought them to the borders of Russia. Ukraine is the last remaining buffer state. If NATO persists in trying in incorporate Ukraine into its military alliance, it will create conditions for armed conflict with Russia. Germany (= EU) and Russia have been rivals for centuries. Ukrainians and Americans will create war, unless they recognize Ukraine as a buffer state between the expansionist ambitions of Germany and Russia. No Ukrainian wants war: like every buffer state, they must learn to negotiate and smile.

Americans have always been quick to defend their own regional hegemony: sanctions against Cuba, invasions of Grenada and Panama, interference in Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua are a given of US foreign policy. It should not be too difficult to understand that China, India and Russia have similar concerns in their own back yards. The role of Syria as a Russian buffer state resembles that of Ukraine and Afghanistan: recognizing this could bring a solution of the Middle East regional war that was started in 2003 by the ambitions of Dick Cheney and the ignorance of George Bush.

Syria has multiple buffers: it is perhaps the world’s most complicated buffer state! The Alawite regime is a spin-off from Shia Islam: since extremist Sunni sects believe that all Alawites must be killed, Bashar Al-Assad is fighting to avoid a genocide of his people. His regime is a buffer between Sunni and Shia expansionists (between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey and Iran). Syria is also a buffer between Israel and Sunni extremists like ISIS who want to destroy Israel. Western analysts often misunderstand Arabic and Persian linguistic hyperbole: Syria and Iran use Israel as a ‘enemy’ exactly as the Likud party uses them to bolster its power in Israel. Syria and Israel need each other.

Syria is also an important Mid-Eastern buffer state between Russia and the West. While America lies across the Atlantic Ocean, Russia is Syria’s close neighbor. Russia has an important naval base in Syria. Whatever takes place in this region, happens in Russia’s back garden. The most intelligent analysis of the Syrian conflict has come consistently from Mr Serguei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. Far better than anyone living in Washington, Lavrov understands the dangers of a regional Arab war, and the importance of Syria as a buffer state. Even if NATO and the American government are deaf to the reports of the ICRC, they really need to listen to Mr Lavrov, and to recognize that all regional powers have regional interests that they have to buffer. Buffer states are really important: they allow countries to trade in peace.

Dr. Robin Edward Poulton is an international peace consultant with attachments to Virginian Commonwealth University (VCU), the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Transcend Peace Network. 

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