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States of mind

When does a country’s right to claim territory expire?

By AC Grayling   September 2013

Most borders between states are drawn in the blood of wars. Most states, even small ones, are aggregates of territories once separate and many retain a desire to be so. A state is a highly artificial thing, a fiction of history, an uneven line on a map turned into a fetish, a casus belli and a licence for all the arrant nonsense we call nationalism, patriotism and other dangerous absurdities.

All over the planet there are claims by one country to ownership of part or even the whole of another. One of the more comical is Spain’s claim to Gibraltar—comical because Spain possesses about a dozen Gibraltars on and around the north African coast and even inside France. What difference is there between Spain’s Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, attached to the Moroccan coast, and Gibraltar, in being one country’s appendage on another country’s shore? Yet Spain wants Gibraltar “back.” It has about as much right to it as Turkey has to Spain itself, through the historical link of the Caliphate.

The world’s most irredentist state today is China. It claims ownership of everywhere that was once part of the greatest extent of its imperial past, and more. Some of these claims have more to do with oil and gas than history. But it is history that makes Tibet a beaten, oppressed victim of Chinese territorial terrorism, and Taiwan an aircraft carrier pointed nervously at the giant claiming suzerainty over it. China’s constitution says: “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the lofty duty of the entire Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.” This pious nonsense is the very stuff of irredentism; and it is, as history abundantly shows, too often the prelude to much murder.

By the lights of Spain and China, or of Argentina and “Las Malvinas” and any of the scores of other countries claiming bits of others, Mexico is entitled to a big slice of the US, England to claim ownership of France (and vice versa), and Israel to Palestine. But wait: this raises the question of how long claims of ownership legitimately last. Is there no historical statute of limitations? If the Jewish peoples have a 2,000 year old title to Jerusalem, then Calais is definitely English.

One reason for the messy situation over state boundaries is demographic fluidity. People and peoples move in tidal fashion, pushed by conflicts or climatic change, pulled by the attractions of greener
pastures. Ethnic and political boundaries scarcely ever coincide. Pieties over nationality, language and culture keep the sense of old ties alive, with the potential for trouble.

Irredentism is, obviously, dangerous. It keeps frictions and tensions alive, and drains money and energy into defence budgets and diplomatic endeavours. Europe after the Second World War offers a model for a solution. In 1945 the continent was a chaos of major population displacements and uncertain boundaries, but the arrangements that followed have largely been accepted. Among the reasons for this is the realisation of the interdependence of neighbours, if peace and its possibilities for prosperity are made the chief consideration. That realisation weakens the sentimental power of local feeling, the root of nationalism and patriotism; and out of that come the enlarged unions which offer so much more than local sentiment ever can—the US, for example, or the EU.

There are Israelis and Palestinians who together believe in a one-state solution—an Israel-Palestine—and there are both ultra-orthodox Jews and anti-Israeli Palestinians who also believe in versions of a one-state solution, but an exclusive one, without the other half in it. Getting over history and accepting present realities is the obvious necessity for a peaceful two-state solution. What would it take to get it? If there were a Mandela-like figure on each side of the divide, each big enough of heart and mind to envisage a good future instead of being enslaved to a bad past, things might change.

Humanity’s track record is very poor on the irredentism question, though, so there is no point in holding one’s breath. But if there were just one place where a solution would help the world as a whole, it is in that vexed fragment of unpropitious earth between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.


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