Buffer Zones and the International Frontier

Global and Large-Scale Outlooks

At a high level of geopolitical generalization, buffer zones appear as separating large areas unified by religion, empire, ideology, or culture. With the rise of Islam, the Mediterranean Sea became a buffer zone between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa. Charlemagne’s empire, divided in three parts at Verdun in AD 843, led to a historical buffer zone between what would become France and Germany. Many of the European buffer states between the two countries originated from Lotharingia, the Third Kingdom between the Eastern (future French) and the Western (future Germanic) Frankish realms. The Cold War separated the world on the basis of ideology, creating a complex buffer zone out of the Soviet glacis, the American containment zone, and the shatter belt. With the end of the Cold War, Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis introduced a new division between large civilizational areas, separated by persistent historical frontiers, like the one between Western and Eastern Christianity (the 1054 Schism line).

On such a scale, buffer zones are usually perceived in negative light, as areas of conflict and political fragmentation, marginal in comparison to the civilization of the power centers. This vision has been recently theorized by Violette Rey. Her concept of ‘in between’ (entreles deux), inspired by her study of the area that Jean Gottmann named ‘‘the tidal lands of Europe’’ (Central Europe), describes the state of an area submitted to overwhelming, conflicting, and constantly changing outside influences. The resulting historical discontinuities constitute an obstacle to accumulation. A feeling of futility demoralizes elites and reinforces opportunistic attitudes. However, the argument is sometimes returned upside down. The nineteenth-century German concept of Mitteleuropa promoted the idea of centrality of the German space, being in the middle of Europe, between East (Russia) and West (France, England). The partition of Germany after World War II transformed this potential European center into a borderline, part of the Iron Curtain. A parallel can be drawn with Samuel Huntington’s frontier between East and West in Europe in comparison to Dimitri Kitsikis’ ‘Intermediary space’. Kitsikis considers the area around the Aegean (today’s Greece and Turkey, the former core of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires) as the center of a large historical buffer zone between the two major civilization areas of Eurasia, the West (Europe), and the East (India, ChinaSoutheast Asia, Japan). If the Schism linear icon represents Huntington’s conflict hypothesis, Kitsikis’ intermediary buffer zone indicates the possibility of dialog between civilizations.

The above examples illustrate the use of the buffer zone theme to convey geopolitical representations that can influence politics.

Demilitarized Zones

In many cases of violent conflict, various forms of sanctuaries are set up in order to offer protection to noncombatants, diplomats, hospitals, etc. Also secure zones are organized as meeting places for negotiation or exchange of prisoners. Finally, when fighting ceases, bands of land can be neutralized from a military point of view in order to separate the population and avoid the spontaneous start of hostilities. Such agreements are negotiated through the mediation of the United Nations or diplomats of the major powers. The control of their respect often falls under the responsibility of the United Nations. Thus, since their creation, the United Nations have organized an important number of demilitarized zones, often called buffer zones. Among the most important and long lasting are: the buffer zone separating North and South Korea since 1953 and the Cypriot demilitarized zone established in 1974 between the territory under Turkish control and the rest of the island. Many other demilitarized zones have been set up during the various stages of the Israeli–Arab struggle, as well as in the Balkans, in Africa, and elsewhere.

Such zones are part of a larger system that may be termed as the international frontier. This frontier is made up of a variety of international arrangements, past or present, including international protectorates, buffer states, neutralized zones, areas under international administration, international canals and waterways, international mandates and trusteeship areas, etc. The international frontier, managed more or less successfully by the international community, has been very active after World Wars I and II. At the peak of the Cold War, it has been superseded by the frontier dividing the two blocks. The bipolar system left few areas of the world outside either the rigid stability inside the blocks or the violent clashes in areas of confrontation, the shatter belts. The eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East are among the exceptions to this double rule and this is the reason for which the international community was especially active in those areas.