Buffer Zones as Peripheries of Territories

Ideally, buffer zones are neutral spaces between two or more territories. However, in many cases, buffer zones were organized by one power in order to cope with challenges or in order to take advantage of opportunities coming or existing in spaces dominated by less organized powers. In such situations, buffer zones are in fact peripheries of the territory of the more structured power.

At a primitive stage, spatial separation between dif ferent human communities was a gift of nature. Un inhabited spaces in the form of deserts, marchlands, forests, or seas created sufficient obstruction to circulation from one territory to another to make humanmade obstacles unnecessary. At the other extreme, the densely and continuously inhabited post Renaissance Europe had to devise a sophisticated territorial system defining with absolute precision the transition from one area of sovereignty to another. Between the two extremes, range a series of separating systems that organized the transition from one power field to another according to gradients rather than in the form of an abrupt spatial discontinuity.

Premodern Buffer Zones

Those premodern buffer zones resulted from asymmetrical power situations. They were organized by relatively well structured societies facing the challenges of outside infiltration or invasion that threatened to destabilize them. The most known examples of organized zones of transition from the ‘civilized’ to the ‘barbarian’ realm are the Roman ‘limes’ and the Chinese Great Wall systems. Although both terms convey the image of a linear separation, they were in fact zones, with sufficient depth to serve as protecting buffers. Those imperial protections were part of the imperial territory: they constituted its periphery. However, they also had a life of their own. Their inhabitants, in contact with the ‘barbarians’, were influenced by their culture. They developed their own leadership which could sometimes challenge the imperial center. These buffer zones had therefore many characteristics of a territory and often evolved to states. During the Middle Ages, buffer zones between what remained of the Roman Empire and the pressure coming from outside, from the sea, or from the steppe, took the form of special areas named marches in the West and ‘akra’ (singular: ‘akron’) in the East (Byzantium). Many States of today carry in their names the memory of this terminology, like Denmark (the Danish march) or Ukraine (akron). Some of them continued to function as buffers in modern times, but in the form of buffer states.

Modern Forms

The stabilization of the West European political map after the Renaissance excluded the practice of peripheral buffer zones, however, a new field was opened for them in America. This time buffer zones were not organized for defensive purposes, but, on the contrary, as a means of expansion into new lands. Those new peripheral territories became known as the American frontier. With the European marches/akra of the Middle Ages, they had in common their specific culture that differentiated their inhabitants from those of the core. The American frontier served as a buffer zone between the established and lawabiding American society and the lawlessness in the Western lands it was taking away from the indigenous populations. It was thus instrumental in the legitimation of what was in fact a colonial situation.

Another form of peripheral buffer zone is represented by the glacis. The term comes from the French verb glacer, which means to slip. The glacis was the outside part of medieval fortifications. A strong slope protected the fortifications from artillery and exposed the assailants to the defensive fire. Following this analogy, a glacis is therefore a buffer zone surrounding a territory that it helps to defend. This metaphor has been used by Stalin to legitimate the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. This East European Soviet glacis was presented as necessary in order to protect the Soviet Union from capitalist infiltration. A parallel can be found in the US containment strategy, that is, the construction of a chain of alliances with states surrounding the Soviet Union in order to contain the expansion of communism. In the same family should be placed the French idea of cordon sanitaire: a series of anticommunist buffer states surrounding the Soviet Union to protect Europe from the communist ideological epidemic after the Soviet Revolution.

The Israeli Security Zone in Southern Lebanon, set up in 1982 against Palestinian infiltration and missile fire, is an example of a modern buffer zone in the form of a territorial periphery in an asymmetrical situation that reminds those of the Middle Ages.