New Issues

The international frontier carries memories of past tensions that are related to the persistence of geographical factors or to the inertia of cultural geography. With the end of the Cold War, many parts of this international frontier became destabilized again. The return of war to Europe has led to ethnic cleansing, diminishing again the potential of many areas to function as buffer zones between different national groups. The cases of CroatiaBosnia, and Kosovo clearly indicate the trend to reinforce the separation of nationalities and to diminish the intermediary function of residual mixed communities that had somehow survived the homogenizing processes in the Balkans. At the same time, demilitarized zones have been multiplied in order to cope with renewed conflict.

On the other hand, the new forms of terrorism do not express territorial conflicts. The Islamist challenges to American hegemony are not organized in the framework of a continuous territory with a hierarchical structure of organization behind it. Rather they function in a chaordic way, based on reticular spaces that penetrate deeply inside the opponent’s territory. Does this shift to conflicts that make territory less relevant also neutralize the utility of buffers? Should we conclude that the interest of the buffer zone is or will become only historical? As it is difficult to hope that geographical inequalities – in the form of differences in demographic growth, development, stability, or even, in the urban sphere, of spatial segregation – will vanish, buffer zones will always exist, even if they have to take new forms.

In our globalized world, the new reticular political geography will continue to focus on territory, but at a larger variety of scales than in the past. It will be interested in combinations of territories forming networks that will be defined less and less by the logic of topographical distance. The cultural factor will become more and more important. The predominance of the territorial nationstate, both as a reality and as a geopolitical representation, will be challenged and, with it, the geopolitical forms and phenomena that have accompanied its rise. In this sense, buffer states may in fact become less relevant.

However, buffer zones separating the wealthy inhabitants of Western metropolises from the immigrant communities may unfortunately emerge as new subjects of study. In cities where conflicting ‘civilizational’ groups coexist, buffer zones may also be needed to absorb the clashes. On a global scale, airports and airplanes are also turning into a reticular buffer zone. Like the maritime realm, they become spaces with their own rules that function as cushions between the societies of the developed world and the universe of the illegal immigration. The geographical inequalities between Europe and Africa have led to various Euro Mediterranean projects, the latest of which is to create a Mediterranean Union on the model of the European Union. Those projects correspond to a new form of buffer zone, a new European march to face the challenges of African poverty, underdevelopment, and instability, to regulate a relationship that might become explosive. North America facing the challenges of South America is also experimenting with various forms of buffers or marches.

It will be necessary to invent the reticular equivalents of the buffer zone at continental and at global scales in order to respond to the buildup of tensions related to the rapid unification of the world. It is essential, however, that these real or virtual buffer zones will not only have the role of partitioning the new geographical space but also of functioning as meeting points, as crossroads of exchange and dialog. Diasporas already play this role. Between the developed world and countries like China or India, they constitute in between reticular spaces that share cultural characteristics of both worlds. Their role has been instrumental in regulating population flows, encouraging the exchange of products, capital, and innovation, and promoting dialog and understanding. However, diasporas can also become unstable spaces, just as the traditional buffer zones. Modern terrorism and organized global crime are the ugly faces of those modern buffers.