Sungtae “Jacky” Park is research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A series of geopolitical fault lines are coming apart today. There is a hybrid conflict in Ukraine, an arc of destruction from the Levant to Iraq, rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, and instability in the southern Caucasus, just to name a few. What these conflicts have in common is that they are taking place in strategic buffer zones, physical spaces caught between competing regional powers. To address these problems by drawing lessons from the past, my paper for the Center for the National Interest, completed in September and published in October, examines four major cases of strategic buffer space conflicts: the Belgian crisis of 1830-1831, Byzantine-Sassanid and Ottoman-Safavid wars, China-Japan-Russia competition over Korea during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the Balkan powder keg that led to World War I. A brief summary of the four case studies can be found in The National Interest.
- Balance of Power among Great Powers: The relative imbalance of power among great powers competing over strategic buffer space often leads to a conflictual outcome, as the stronger side refuses to compromise, while the weaker side makes preventive attempts to claim the buffer region in dispute.
- Stability of the Contested Buffer Space: Great powers often fail to manage buffer space conflicts when competing parties are dealing with unstable buffers that contain multiple autonomous local actors with their own interests and goals.
- Third-Party Guarantor of Security: The existence of a relatively impartial third-party actor that has the capacity and will to guarantee security and stability of a contested buffer space helps to mitigate security dilemmas among competing great powers.
- Norm: Great powers are also inclined toward diplomatic solutions when there exists an agreed international norm that emphasizes moderation and equilibrium.
In addition to the case studies, my paper discusses the findings’ implications for U.S. foreign policy and four contemporary conflict zones, namely Ukraine, the Middle East, the southern Caucasus, and the Korean peninsula.
As a distant maritime power, the United States is in a unique position to influence conflicts over strategic buffer regions by taking the above factors into strategic planning. First and most important of all, the United States should seek to maintain the balance of power among competing regional powers, as imbalance of power is a major catalyst of conflicts over strategic buffer zones. Second, the United States should seek to reduce the number of relevant actors in a buffer region through either force, economic incentives, or diplomacy; a buffer conflict is often difficult to resolve because there are too many local actors with competing interests and shifting loyalties. The United States should also seek to stabilize fragmented strategic buffer zones or avoid creating them in the first place. Third, the United States should become a credible third-party mediator among competing regional powers by maintaining the most powerful military capable of projecting power and by being a “fair” mediator. Last but not least, the United States should work with other great powers to agree on a set of common principles to maintain global stability and order, as the Congress of Vienna had done before.
With a carefully calibrated global strategy based on these principles, the United States can continue to maintain its standing in the world in a sustainable manner to secure its political, economic, and security interests.