Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, the Bakassi peninsula. There are disputes over all of these territories but only one, the last—over a sizeable oil-rich wedge of land between Nigeria and Cameroon—has been taken to the International Court of Justice (World Court) for adjudication. Why not the others? There is no good reason. In the latest situation, we see hubris on the Russian side and an inflated sense of self-importance on the Georgian.
Six years ago, Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, confronted with growing tensions with Cameroon over the Bakassi peninsula, which had long been ruled by Nigeria, decided to resist the advice of his minister of defence—who was pushing for a military solution—and to turn the dispute over to the World Court. Newspapers ridiculed Obasanjo and public opinion was nationalistic, but the president held his course even when, in 2006, the court ruled in Cameron’s favour. Bakassi is now being turned over to Cameroon.
Unlike South Ossetia, there was something important to fight over in Bakassi—large quantities of oil—but Nigeria nonetheless swallowed its pride. This does sometimes happen, though not as often as it should.
It is often said that the 20th century was the bloodiest of mankind. Nevertheless, there is another rarely told side of the history of the last century. The truth is that over 100 years, states committed themselves to a far more just, humane and peaceable world than their practice often suggested. In her carefully researched book Codes of Peace, Dorothy Jones argues that there is a “hidden history” of the last century, “the record of unnoticed breakthroughs in treaty-making when the great warrior states have adopted apparently minor stipulations that, in fact, represent agreement to significant restraint on their sovereignty.”
The League of Nations rests in a perpetual historical cloud because of its failure to deal with Nazi Germany. But it did resolve the Aaland Island dispute between Finland and Sweden (which mattered as much at the time as Kosovo does today). Most notably, throughout an extraordinarily tense situation in 1935, an international military force kept order during the plebiscite that returned the Saar to Germany. (To gauge the passions involved, think not of South Ossetia, but of returning Ulster to Ireland today.)
These inflamed disputes were settled by arbitration. The vexed issue of the Aaland Island in the Baltic sea led to one of the most carefully crafted of all international documents, one that…