The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

by John Quiggin on February 15, 2014

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).

As was pointed out in the comments to my karate post, the observation that most traditions are invented is getting somewhat traditional itself, going back as it does to the exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.

So maybe it’s time to turn all this around, and make the point that we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages.

The traditionality of modernity

It’s striking, if you’re not aware of it already, to observe that Christmas, as we now know it, was invented in the 20 years or so between 1840 and 1860, However, what is even more striking that it’s barely altered in the succeeding 150 years. Even the complaints haven’t changed in decades.

And what’s true of Christmas is true of most of the favourite examples of invented tradition. Clan tartans were invented out of whole cloth (as it were), as soon as the actual clans had been destroyed by the Clearances, but this process was pretty much complete by 1850, and the system is now as inflexible as if the Scots wha’ wi’ Wallace bled had done so in defence of a dress code. Moreover, at 150 years or more of age, these traditions really can claim to be ancient (at least in the eyes of a non-indigenous Australian).

A variety of cultural niches, once subject to the cycles of fashion, seem now to have been filled once and for all. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have all been dead for decades, but all are more instantly recognisable than any putative successor.

More significant institutions show the same kind of stability. Political systems and national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less. The collapse of the Soviet Empire led to the breakup of some federal states, but nothing like the wholesale resurgence of irredentist claims predicted by many.

One obvious factor assisting all this is technology. Just as printing has fixed languages once and for all, radio, TV and recorded music and video have a powerful effect in fixing cultural traditions of all kinds. Of course, this is the opposite of the usual story in which technology drives us to a postmodern condition of constant change. But that’s enough for me. It’s time to see what’s on at the (75-year-old) Commonwealth Games.

{ 161 comments }

1

Bruce Wilder 02.15.14 at 8:12 am

laeta lupercalia omnes

2

Sancho 02.15.14 at 11:10 am

I’ll throw in the comedic take in this stuff: http://tinyurl.com/25dspf8

3

JW Mason 02.15.14 at 1:22 pm

We can add to this the slowing down of technological change. Seems like if we were to ask when the rate of change was greatest for a wide range of stuff, the answer would be around World War One.

On the other hand:

- Is this true for the world outside of Eutope and its offshoots? I assume there are traditions invented more recently elsewhere. How old are things like holidays in their current form in China, India, etc.?

- What about the household, family, gender? That seems like one area where culture is changing more rapidly.

4

Pierre Corneille 02.15.14 at 2:52 pm

I can certainly agree that what people call tradition is largely and usually something invented or continually reconstituted.

But I have trouble understanding how we can go about proving, for example, that “we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages.” I imagine there are different ways one can measure degrees of “tradition boundedness” but I imagine that there is a lot that’s unknowable or not easily knowable.

I’ll have to state upfront one of my biases: I tend to believe that persistence is stronger than most historians seem to acknowledge. Where others see change, I have a tendency to see continuity. Perhaps I have this bias because in my area of study, the late 19th and early 20th century US, it’s easy to see change and harder to see continuity, and my contrarian streak pushes me in the other direction.

5

Z 02.15.14 at 3:36 pm

It seems to be the same with “traditional” recipes. They changed wildly during the XVIIIth/XIXth century because of the world-wide distribution of ingredients but seem to have largely stabilize in the last 70 years. Ramen, pho and carbonara spaghetti (considered nowadays typical Japanese, Vietnamese and Italian dishes respectively) are all direct by-products of late colonialism for instance (ramen was brought to Japan by Japanese and American troops coming back from China and Korea, pho was apparently a Vietnamese attempt to prepare pot-au-feu for their French colon masters and carbonara spaghetti was invented based on the large availability of eggs and bacon in American soldiers rations in the aftermath of WWII).

6

JW Mason 02.15.14 at 4:02 pm

Z, that’s very interesting. Is there a good book or article on this?

7

Z 02.15.14 at 4:23 pm

JW Mason, tracing the historical sources of “traditional” recipes is kind of a hobby of mine (I know…). So these are tidbits I got other the years. That said, Wikipedia usually has nice discussions of the origins of recipes.

8

jonnybutter 02.15.14 at 4:53 pm

Of course, this is the opposite of the usual story in which technology drives us to a postmodern condition of constant change.

To the extent that precision about this term is possible, I think what you describe is precisely the postmodern condition: the feeling that everything important has long since been fixed, that we are post-everything. There can be no successors to Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean because in these latter days we are incapable of creating that kind of un-selfconcious standard, tradition, etc. One of the most overused words (in the US anyway) is ‘classic’, and not just as a marketing sort of word. Whatever old crap you used to put up with (luridly yellow, unsubtly-flavored American mustard, for example) is now referred to as ‘classic’. “Remember when we ate that yellow crap? Man, those were the days!”. Nostalgia sets in so fast that I sometimes worry past and present are going to smack each other in the head, as it were.

Fascinating post.

9

Oxbird 02.15.14 at 4:58 pm

It would be interesting to see an analysis of the role of traditions, whether truly old or recently adopted, in major religions. I would not claim to be knowledgeable but it has often struck me that so many current religious practices appear to have virtually no connection to the origins of the different religions but are nevertheless strongly felt as religious mandates and are often the cause of sharp differences between religions and within religions. I have no idea whether such an analysis would suggest we are more or less tradition bound with respect to religion that we would have been, e.g., 100 or 500 years ago.

10

Bruce Wilder 02.15.14 at 5:14 pm

The recipes are a good example, because they focus attention on the material basis of this allegedly novel cultural traditionalism. The proliferation of industrially manufactured products combined with the availability of goods in global trade appears to be the basis for beginning the modern form of traditions. You can not have a Superbowl tradition until you have professional sports. You cannot have a tradition of sending greeting cards until you have a postal service and cheap pre-paid postage.

It is the multiplication of traditions with the proliferation of artifacts that’s new. And that proliferation of categorical artifacts did reach its maximal pace during the Second Industrial Revolution, even if the pace of technical change has continued to accelerate. That continued acceleration, with artifacts that fit the “old” categories — a cellphone is still a phone –may be undermining that sense of permanence, which traditions affirm, discomfiting us in subtle almost unconscious ways.

11

PJW 02.15.14 at 5:21 pm

Oxbird, your post referencing religious traditions had me thinking of the Sign of Peace (Peace be with you) ritual during the Catholic Mass. I’m lapsed but I was never comfortable with the practice, which I remember taking hold in the early ’70s, much to my chagrin. It seems to have had a long and interesting history from what I just now learned through a quick reading on it.

12

John Kozak 02.15.14 at 5:43 pm

JWMason: Rachel Laudan’s Cusine and Empire. Some of her essays: http://www.rachellaudan.com/culinary-history

13

Jeffrey Davis 02.15.14 at 5:58 pm

A variation on this is the idea that the 20th century just made the 19th century cheaper and tackier.

14

William Timberman 02.15.14 at 6:03 pm

Have faith in your cooks. A polenta made with maize instead of ground chestnuts is still polenta, Clemenza’s tomato sauce may be an American degeneracy, or roba del Sud, come la mafia, orphaned on another continent, but there’s still a continuity that you can trace through the centuries. A couple of years ago I did a sauce — a paste, rather — for dressing grilled lamb that came directly from a 2,000 year-old Roman recipe. A bit heavy for modern tastes, I suppose, but its resemblance to modern curry pastes, soffritto, tagine seasonings, and Pueblan moles was undeniable.

La plus ça change….

15

Jeffrey Davis 02.15.14 at 6:07 pm

My grandmother was born in rural Kentucky in 1888. No flight, automobiles, telephones, indoor plumbing (in her neck of the woods). By the time she died in 1981 there were personal computers and it had been a dozen years since men had first walked on the moon. More radical change than any other generation, it seems to me.

For me, is a cell phone really all that much?

16

JW Mason 02.15.14 at 6:35 pm

even if the pace of technical change has continued to accelerate

But has it?

17

JW Mason 02.15.14 at 6:44 pm

Rachel Laudan’s Cusine and Empire

Looks great, thanks.

18

js. 02.15.14 at 7:01 pm

Am I the only one who finds this totally depressing if true? (And it probably is true, isn’t it?)

19

Bruce Baugh 02.15.14 at 7:28 pm

It can be, Jeffrey, depending on who you are. The last 30 or so years have seen a drastic transformation in the life of many people housebound by illness and disability, injury nee to tend someone else, etc. Net acccess has a measurable impact for the good on rates of attempted and successful suicide by permanently disabled people. Mobile phones and portable monitors drastically transform the lives of people who must constantly monitor their own condition, summon specialized help in a crisis, or take preventative measures to avoid any number of changing environmental factors. They make or break employment opportunities for homeless and nearly homeless people. Their widespread adoption changes disaster recovery strategies. And on and on.

It’s cool that people went to the Moon, but nobody I know did or well. But I am myself one of those people whose lives changed dramatically, several times, thanks to mobile phones, and I know a bunch of others likewise.

20

bob mcmanus 02.15.14 at 7:46 pm

“we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century”

I don’t find it all that depressing because I don’t think it is really true. I just finished the Hobsbawm and Ranger and another associated book on invented traditions of Japan last month.

The important point is that “invented tradition” as described in the post was a very specifically modern phenomenon, a condition and tool possibly spontaneous and inevitable of mass production, mass consumption, mass communication. That, Fordism, is over, those societies are disaggregating, and most of the instititutions structures and traditions of the nation-state era are becoming irrelevant, optional, or situational. I wonder what the Nielson numbers on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were last year. Do they still show the “Wizard of Oz” annually?

Yet, if you look away from the macro-level and meta-narratives to the micro or meso levels, are traditions being invented on the Internet, blogosphere, MMORPGs? If Foucault and Deleuze are right, and we are moving via neoliberalism from discipline to control at the state and meta-social level, what now are the self-disciplining micro-social structures and mechanisms that may have taken their place?

The post-modernists and post-structuralists not only aren’t stupid or baroque, they are essential to understanding our disaggregated disassociated disintegrated fragmented world.

21

bob mcmanus 02.15.14 at 8:20 pm

Here is the Hobsbawm… introduction to Invented Traditions. He also has the final chapter, much of which is shared but expanded in Volume Three of his history, Age of Empire. I just re-read it.

(Hobsbawm was of his times and his ideology, of course)

Old traditions, customs, conventions and practices. Is an invented tradition dependent on a stable and persistent society or social group? What means “fashion” new or revived in this context?

40% of young Americans are open to the idea of emigrating. This is not the mass “nation” that supported a universal draft, but in some places for some people for some purposes, that nation still persists. “Nation” may in fact have some kind of pride of place, dominance in self-identification, that is merely residual and is not meaningful in actual daily practice.

I watch zero American TV, including Presidential Speeches, the Olympics, the Superbowl. Am I still an American?

22

Bruce Wilder 02.15.14 at 8:35 pm

JW Mason @ 16

Yes.

Defining “technic” as having to do with applied and industrial sciences, the underpinning crafts and methods by which we make the artifacts of civilization, yes, technical change continues to accelerate. I understand the argument that the Second Industrial Revolution created a lot of new product categories: airplanes, telephones, automobiles, cinema, radio & television, electric everything, petroleum power on a huge scale, etc. In terms of product category novelty, the pace of change was remarkable in the late 19th and early 20th century. And, the rapid pace of change was given considerable cultural notice, as befits any developments requiring new language.

But, technical change isn’t restricted to, or well measured by reference to product category novelty, which is really just naming things. Technical change doesn’t occur until it reaches people, as more than a name, and technical change can take place, even when we keep the name.

Technique is how we make things, how we control production processes, how we design things. On that level, we constantly reinvent everything in the process of continually reproducing the material basis of civilization. That pace of reinvention, embedded in material reproduction, is the pace of technical change, and that pace has been accelerating. We reinvent and re-architect the systems of industrial production on shorter and shorter cycles, even as the scale of those systems has grown to global scale, so that those changes encompass the lives of vastly more and diverse people.

Watt’s steam engine, conventionally taken as a marker for the industrial revolution, and celebrated as such in his own time, was developed over many years, with Watt taking breaks as long as half-a-decade to make a living or wait for solutions to fabrication problems. When the extended patents expired and he retired around 1800, there were fewer than 500 Watt steam engines in use throughout the world, and a several hundred more of the much older Newcomen design. The industrial revolution — which had been underway at least since Watt’s steam engine debuted and the Bridgewater Canal opened, driving down the price of coal at Manchester around 1765 — can scarcely be detected in statistics of world output before about 1820.

The telephone, by conventional reckoning, was invented around 1875, given immediate cultural notice, by being exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. Alexander Graham Bell installed a telephone in the White House, at a time, when the entire D.C. subscriber base was less a hundred people. A whole panoply of technologies had to be invented, complemented by political organization (the public utility, AT&T, etc) over the course of the following 50 years, as the switched phone systems developed. As late as 1930, the capacity for transatlantic telephone communication was limited to the low double-digits. Wired, switched systems spread throughout the world — even France eventually had a working system. Whole occupational categories came and went — switchboard operator, for example. And, in recent years, we’ve completely replaced those systems with systems of vastly greater scale, and a completely different technical basis. Packet-switching internet and the cellphone, which are completely different technically, have largely displaced the older systems, and their reach into areas of the world, which switched wire never reached, is remarkable. The cellphone, alone, has gone through several generations of technology in less time than it took for Bell Telephone to make its phones ubiquitous in the northeast and urban U.S., and on a larger scale, encompassing the daily lives of more people across a wider swath of the globe.

I think, sometimes, we fail to appreciate how slow the pace of technical change was in the past — including how slow both diffusion and design cycles were, and how accustomed we seem to have become to discarding things entirely — technical change was rarely fast or deep enough in the past to cause older technologies to be discarded, at least not rapidly. The steam-powered ship was a development, which continued over the course of the entire long 19th century, from Fulton’s steamboats to the turbine-driven dreadnoughts, but the commercial sailing ship continued through most of the same period, although in smaller and more specialized niches. Lightbulbs didn’t eliminate candles; railroads didn’t eliminate horses; the telegraph didn’t eliminate postal mail. Yet, in our own time, we can contemplate the complete elimination of technologies. The telegraph finally died, only a few years ago. Whole categories of businesses, like record stores and video rental stores, may have come and gone in my lifetime. Newspapers, which originated in what? the 17th century or earlier, and enjoyed their greatest booms in the late 19th century and the 1920s, as the technical basis for typesetting and printing changed in radical ways, seem on the verge of extinction or re-invention, as a result of still more radical technical change.

Kindle in hand, I have to wonder about the book. Edison’s incandescent light bulb was complemented by the fluorescent, but will likely be replaced entirely by the LED. There’s a sense in which Edison’s invention, as part of the invention of the electric utility, was more epochal than the LED, but the LED’s development was faster and diffused more rapidly onto a larger scale, and so I think I am justified in reading into that example, as well as others, quickening in the pace of technical change.

The most salient developments in our time concern the computer and communications revolutions, but a steady, unrelenting pace of technical change in agriculture and manufacturing threatens to upend many of our assumptions about economic organization. Henry Ford’s assembly line was a huge boost to labor productivity, but the increases from the continued refinement and diffusion of process manufacturing has reduced employment in manufacturing to a very small proportion of the labor force. Automobiles, today, are built with very few hours of direct labor. And, that’s typical of manufactured products. The steady advance of agriculture has transformed the systems of food production and distribution over the second half of the 20th century, with the latest developments raising significant issues of safety and sustainability.

Container shipping — at its core a low tech technical change — has transformed the way railroads and ocean shipping move merchandise, largely eliminating the once numerous longshoremen. The Panama Canal, one of the most dramatic innovations of the early 20th century, has had to be rebuilt entirely, on a larger scale.

I’m not among those, who am particularly optimistic about any of this. I think the human race is more likely to be running off the cliff, than we are to be approaching the salvation of the singularity. But, the thesis of slowing technical change is just not something I can reconcile with what I observe.

23

Bruce Wilder 02.15.14 at 8:43 pm

bob mcmanus: Am I still an American?

I don’t know. Do you have a YouTube channel?

24

The Raven 02.15.14 at 9:50 pm

There, as here in our world-cities, we find a pursuit of illusions of artistic progress, of personal peculiarity, of “the new style,” of “unsuspected possibilities,” theoretical babble, pretentious fashionable artists, weight-lifters with cardboard dumb-bells […] The final result is that endless industrious repetition of a stock of fixed forms which we see today in Indian Chinese and Arabian-persian art. Pictures and fabrics, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions–all is pattern-work. We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation. So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures.—Oswald Spengler

Cranky German bastard. But he knew something.

25

JML 02.15.14 at 11:58 pm

What troubles me is how much of ‘tradition’, esp. cultural tradition, is now corporately owned. True, this is more of an American problem than elsewhere, but one of the biggest travesties SCOTUS handed down was the divestiture of the public domain (present and future) to Disney, et al. Not only did this disincentive these companies to create new classic works and to modernize the old, it robbed US citizens of their inheritance and impoverished the culture. Yes, “Daisy, Daisy” and “The Good Old Summertime” were often heard because they were free to use, and became familiar. I think the works of Gershwin, Rachmaninoff and Cole Porter lack mass awareness nowadays, because it costs money to expose people to their works… not only cost of royalties, but tracking down owners, paying lawyers and accountants. These compositions could have been ubiquitous, and used to enhance current works (much like Merrie Melodies did for the classics and visa-versa).

26

John Quiggin 02.16.14 at 12:11 am

@Pierre As a quantitative measure, you could look at the frequency and significance of changes in national boundaries. As I say in the post, my impression is that they used to be common and have become vanishingly rare, except in the form of federal states breaking up and the special confederal case of the EU.

As a more general point, the implied analysis is that the invention of tradition is a feature of early modernity. So, you’d expect it to come later in developing countries. OTOH, because the technology of invention is well-established, the process is probably quicker now.

27

William Berry 02.16.14 at 1:42 am

Bruce Wilder @22:

Yes. I mean, haven’t these guys read Vernor Vinge? (kidding. Sorta’.)

On the other hand, there is John Horgan, with The End of Science.

Different kinds of truths in both views, I think.

Also, yes to bob m on the post-structuralist analysis.

28

zbs 02.16.14 at 1:46 am

… and carbonara spaghetti was invented based on the large availability of eggs and bacon in American soldiers rations in the aftermath of WWII …

Does this mean the invented dish used American, smoked bacon? (Were rations sourced from across the Atlantic, or based on generally available supplies?) And would that suggest that “correct” carbonara—with unsmoked fatty pork in the form of guanciale—is a kind of hypercorrection?

29

JW Mason 02.16.14 at 2:17 am

haven’t these guys read Vernor Vinge?

Yes, they have.

30

The Raven 02.16.14 at 2:39 am

I will venture that as culture matures, it becomes more fixed in its forms. From my viewpoint, this is not so terrible of a thing, but with a unified world it will perhaps become harder for new ideas that come out of, say, the cold, rainy northwestern corner of a continent to turn the world upside down.

31

Colin Danby 02.16.14 at 3:59 am

David Wondrich’s _Imbibe!_ (Perigee, 2007) makes a good argument that the cocktail assumed its modern form by 1880 or so, with the Manhattan and Martini.

32

Collin Street 02.16.14 at 7:30 am

The thought strikes me that traditions have strong network effects, with all that that implies.

33

Meredith 02.16.14 at 7:39 am

From my mother’s Nanny (b. 1852), which I here transcribe from her handwriting:

Chopped Meat Stew
1/2 lb chopped meat
2 or 3 onions 2. Large potatoes or- 4 small ones

Peel and put onions + potatoes in small pieces in about 3 1/2 pints of cold water. pepper and salt to taste- with a dish of sugar, when potatoes are almost but not quite done put in meat that has been separated with 2 tablespoons of cold water cook hard for 5 minutes.- Thicken with flour to a consistency of cream + eat. very good

(Re)reading Martin Mueller today on Homer’s Iliad: tradition is always imagining something new. That’s what it does.

34

Harold 02.16.14 at 8:29 am

Folklorists these days speak of tradition as performance, which is continually recreated.

35

Nigel Holmes 02.16.14 at 10:52 am

A lot of times when I hear people talking about “invention of tradition”, it turns out they mean the last time that something was created or transferred from somewhere else before it became fixed. In that sense any piece of traditional culture is going to be a recent invention.

Folksong collectors around the start of the 20th century worried that print was driving out the oral tradition of folksong, then later collectors worried that radio and records were fixing the known versions into one form. But printed ballads were always a source, and the people that the collectors gathered from, like Henry Burstow, didn’t care whether the songs they sang were handed down over generations or recent compositions.

36

Evan Horowitz 02.16.14 at 2:24 pm

Not germane but I don’t know where else to post–is there some issue with the CT RSS feed? New posts don’t seem to come through when posted and then once a week or so I get a full dump. Is that by design?

37

Lawrence Stuart 02.16.14 at 3:05 pm

@26 John Q
So, when you say ‘invention of tradition is a feature of early modernity,’ are you thereby distinguishing ‘invented’ from ‘genuine’ tradition? How does that distinction work? Are you saying that the modern invention of tradition is qualitatively different from some pre-modern practice? That, say, Pindar’s poeticizing of the Greek myths is (or was? And that’s another sticking point, really — how could we ever know what any author herself thought or believed her relationship to the tradition to be? And does that actually matter at all? ) qualitatively different from Joyce’s re-imagining of the western canon in Ulysses?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I sense in the distinction a nostalgia for the modernist dream of leaving tradition behind (thinking of Descartes in the Discourse, where he boldly states (and I paraphrase, quoting from memory), ‘I resolved to leave behind the disputations of the Schoolmen and imagine a world intelligible only to the faculty of reason …’. A revolutionary moment, to be sure, and one that inaugurates its own, dare I say it, rationalist tradition.

Or are you saying that the rationalist tradition has itself ossified? That, I would agree, is something worth exploring in depth.

38

Lawrence Stuart 02.16.14 at 3:12 pm

@24 The Raven
Ah, Spengler. But wasn’t The Decline of the West really just a rework of Ecclesiastes? Lamentations of ennui have a long, um, tradition, I think:

All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

39

Matt 02.16.14 at 3:51 pm

“You Greeks are all children, Solon, there is no old Greek…”

40

Bruce Wilder 02.16.14 at 7:06 pm

Maybe we aren’t tradition-bound, but we want to be.

Technical change has continued to accelerate, but it still barely sustains the modern, and the modern’s optimistic faith in progress. Consider pictorial art; modern art starts with the advent of photography, the invention of the unblinking eye, creating the need of other creative techniques to find new rationales and purposes. Technical advance continued — daguerreotype, glass, paper, wet process, dry process, motion, color, snapshots, 35 mm motion pictures with sound, color, Kodachrome, Poloroid, television, digital, 40 megapixel smartphones, massive panoramas, HD, 4K. Predictably, the post-modern impulse, weary of the addiction to technical progress, seeks to find some way to repeat the initial high of the original novelty, to say here is a revolution equal to The Revolution. Maybe, it’s the digital — the unblinking eye confronting us with images of reality, superseded by the new fictive possibilities of Photoshop and Pixar — and then, we look back and notice that war photographers since Roger Fenton in the Crimean War have been staging the scenes they photographed.

The modern world was born in revolutions, and as miserable as some of those revolutions made the participants, they were exciting and hopeful. But, once the modern arrived on any front, though technical progress and growth might continue, the next revolution, though anticipated, never arrived. The modern just continued, and got old. Columbus discovered America for Europe, and, due to good publicity, no one got to repeat the feat. Shangri-La and El Dorado were just good stories. By the early 20th century, intrepid explorers were forced to tramp through the arctic and antarctic, “discovering” a whole lot of nothing.

When I was a child, America’s mythology was the rebel without a cause and the cowboy on the frontier. Kennedy promised a New Frontier, and an effort to go discover the moon, like we didn’t know it was there. Television was Ben Casey, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, the Ponderosa, Andy Griffith, Ed Sullivan discovering new talent (and a never-ending parade of plate-spinning circus performers — what was that about?)

Today’s mythology is the terrorist and the dangerous political conspiracy, the serial killer, vampires and the zombie apocalypse. Of course, we’re clinging to tradition, even traditions we just made up yesterday; just below the surface is the deep fear that it is all about to crumble into cannibalism, because it is crumbling into cannibalism.

We aren’t tradition-bound. We wish we were. We’re desperate preservationists. Technical change hasn’t slowed; we wish it would, because we can see that we are passing into the real post-modern — not the nihilism of disgruntled artists, but a series of epochal milestones that change everything, just as Paxton’s Crystal Palace changed architecture or the French Revolution created the nation-state, or Salk changed the promise of medical research, but not in optimistic, progressive ways. The first, real post-modern event was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peak oil is another. Maybe, 9/11.

41

roy belmont 02.16.14 at 7:42 pm

Tradition’s the result of the successful evolution of cultural mutation.
The contemporary muddle is the result of a kind of cultural genetic modification trying to pass as no different from “natural” mutation .
Tried and true practices versus innovations that want to be taken seriously as tried and true, when they aren’t, yet.
The lacunae is how much of tradition that was in the pipeline was just spilled into the emptiness. Gone.
People in the US think diamonds are an essential part of the common folks’ marriage/courtship rituals. That started sometime in the late 19th c. Maybe 150 years old. Not what most of us would consider deep tradition.
But without the historical knowledge of the process all we have is our parents did that, our grandparents did that, therefore – tradition. Because nobody we have first-hand experience of didn’t do that.
It’s the disguise mode, like how certain foodstuffs mimic nutritional things the body’s evolved with, the fooling of the system. Tastes like fresh protein, sort of, tastes like vitamin rich fruit, sort of, but it isn’t. It’s just hitting the sensory triggers.
Too much of our sense of where we are and what we are has come down to us out of the blank spaces in the past where the real traditions should have been. What people mean when they talk about cultural genocide.
And the people who do still carry traditions centrally are mostly dismissed as backward, and immaterial to the present’s needs.

42

Harold 02.16.14 at 7:43 pm

43

JW Mason 02.16.14 at 7:44 pm

I wonder how we would measure rate if change empirically. I don’t agree with Bruce W., but I’m not sure how to advance my disagreement beyond the “nuh-uh” stage.

44

roger gathman 02.16.14 at 7:53 pm

It is still a mouse that takes your tooth and gives you money in Mexico.
There’s a wonderful little corrective book – the Shock of the Old – by David edgerton, which points out that the trope all too common in histories of technology – of some ‘modern’ technology driving out older ones – simply isn’t true. My favorite instance is horses. The war in which the greatest number of horses were used, and in which the horse was all important, was WWII. Edgerton wrote the book before Osama bin Laden hi ho silvered away on his pony from tora bora, but the point stands. There are some technological paths in which a technology replaces all others, but the more usual scenario involves bricolage, the use of “older” technologies, and innovative ones. Bikes, for instance – a technology that was replaced as serious transportation by cars, or so we are told. However, the return of the bike, bike messangers, even overcrowding by bikes – viz Amsterdam – are parts of today’s landscape. I doubt that the nineteenth century “invented” tradition – rather, I think ‘modernity’ has always been much rarer than we think. Modernity is wrapped up with an absurd vision of the ‘advanced’ West and the savage other, but the beliefs of the Nahua in the 16th century about the ability of certain people to transform themselves into animals was the same belief that surfaces in the affair of poisons that roiled Louis XIV’s court in the late seventeenth century, among the most educated people in France. According to a study by Gregg,Winer, Cottrell, Hedman, & Fournier in 2001, 40 – 60 percent of college students surveyed believed in the some form of extramission by the eyes – that is, that eyes produce ‘rays”, a theory of vision that was officially ended, in intellectual history, by the Renaissance. When you have an educated group who actually believe eyes emit things, well, the question of tradition or non-tradition becomes minor.

45

Harold 02.16.14 at 8:11 pm

Thank you, Roger @44, I was thinking of the Shock of the Old, too. An amazing book. Cultural continuity is a much underestimated force.

46

roy belmont 02.16.14 at 8:33 pm

roger gathman-
When you have an educated group who actually believe invisible creatures surround us, exercising influence on our well-being, some for good some for ill, the question of tradition or non-tradition becomes equally minor.
Unless we’re talking about bacteria.
The brain emits measurable waves of radiation, it seems plausible that could be focused through the eyes. Maybe our instrumentation isn’t precise enough yet to catch that.
“Feed a cold, starve a fever” was ridiculed publicly, in commercials on TV a while ago, creating, intentionally, confusion about which condition should be fed or starved, in order to sell an anti-pyretic drug. But it was a medically accurate folk tradition. Traditionally helpful, easily remembered, and gone.
Until we have an accurate story about the essential nature and hardware of consciousness, it seems hollow and arrogant to dismiss anything and everything about it that doesn’t fit the current, seriously incomplete, models. Including shape-shifting, which is probably more about perception than actual transmogrification.

47

Harold 02.16.14 at 8:38 pm

I don’t doubt it, as such, but I’d really like to see more sources for the restaurant origin of the spaghetti carbonara thing. I have Gillian Riley’s 2007 Oxford Companion to Italian Food (p. 375) and she is circumspect about the origin of spaghetti carbonara. She does say its origin is “shrouded in myth” and that is was popular with GI’s after WW2. But she says any country person who has eggs, some ham, and pasta can make it, not ruling out that it antedated the GI’s arrival. Now fettucine Alfredo, is definitely of recent restaurant origin, as are is probably, “Penne alla vodka”.

By the way, Virgil (or someone long thought to be Virgil) in the Moretum has a description of “pesto”, though made with rocket (arugula), not basil.

48

notsneaky 02.16.14 at 9:00 pm

@26 @Pierre As a quantitative measure, you could look at the frequency and significance of changes in national boundaries. As I say in the post, my impression is that they used to be common and have become vanishingly rare, except in the form of federal states breaking up and the special confederal case of the EU.

John, that’s an interesting idea for measuring it. Do you have any specific work in mind where someone has done this? It seems like a lot would depend on your definitions. The British Empire, one boundary or many? One big country splitting up get the same weight as two little countries joining up? Also what you consider the past.

Lots of countries appeared in the post-colonial period. Lots of them disappeared after the Franco-Prussian war. That Russian empire was also patched together from various principalities, dukedoms, free cities, not to mention khanates and chiefdoms, just back then people didn’t bother drawing borders. Similar things happened in Sub Saharan Africa.

I’d guess that taking a bigger view it’s probably more of an ebb and flow kind of thing.

49

John Quiggin 02.16.14 at 9:31 pm

My first thought would be to measure by the number of people affected. In the case of breakups/secessions I’d count the group leaving eg Slovaks but not Czechs. Given growth in world population that would make recent changes look larger.

As regards “past”, I’d put my dividing line at the end of the European empires, the last large one of which was Portugal in about 1975 IIRC.

I imagine someone has already done this or something like it.

50

Ronan(rf) 02.16.14 at 9:48 pm

Andreas Wimmer has done something similar, I think*, if I know what you all are talking about

http://www.princeton.edu/~awimmer/

* Ive only read bits and pieces, so maybe not

51

Bill Kaye-Blake 02.16.14 at 10:25 pm

Two observations:

- It sounds like ‘tradition’ is acting like a Lacanian master signifier. It’s the thing that ensures stability of meaning for the whole network of signifiers. Where once was God or a king or the Emperor, now we have tradition. It would make sense that society be more fixed rather than more fluid, because we have to cling to tradition in order to demonstrate what we mean. The men’s suit hasn’t really changed in decades, although lapels get wider and narrower, because I can’t symbolise my success to you unless I wear the traditional marker of success. Subcultures like skinhead and punk are sartorially fixed for the same reason.

- The other post on karate made me wonder about the boundaries of the analysis. If you want to study karate itself, then it makes sense to focus on how it tries to validate itself with an imagined history (Napoleon crowning himself comes to mind). But, a different choice of boundaries is martial arts more broadly. The current trend of open styles and MMA suggests that some people are more concerned with ‘what works’ rather than respecting tradition. I train in zen do kai, for example, and it encourages people to try out techniques from lots of sources and decide what works for them (their bodies, their purposes).

52

roger gathman 02.16.14 at 11:16 pm

46, don’t blame me for that hollowness and arrogance, blame the 13th century physicians. I’m sure that x rays do come out of our eyes – I mean, I am versed in the annals of Superman, plus I remember those ads in the back of comic books where rays come out of your eyes and you can hypnotize people – but I’ve never come across the marvelous explanation that it must be the leaking radiation from our brain.
In my humble opinion, however, if I were you, I would not become an opthamalogist. You would be exhausted fighting the brute prejudices of that group.

Incidentally, I think you are being a bit arrogant yourself if I read you correctly about the so called “brain mind”. The Egyptians didn’t think that the brain had anything to do with our thinking, so why should you? The advance of science has been showing, in certain laboratories (hidden underground of course) that the brain can be taken out of people and they think just like they always did.

53

Bruce Wilder 02.17.14 at 12:27 am

Karate and boundaries raise some interesting issues of context. The globalizing of mainstream culture is sustained by a fusion of feeds from “traditions” and subcultures. We’re consuming tradition, like a furnace consumes fuel. Maybe, carbonara spaghetti isn’t a “fake” so much as it was just one of the many fusions, consuming traditions in the bonfire of globablization.

54

JW Mason 02.17.14 at 4:17 am

We’re consuming tradition, like a furnace consumes fuel

Sam Bowles, Is Liberal Society a Parasite on Tradition? His answer is no, but the interesting thing is the question.

55

William Timberman 02.17.14 at 5:10 am

Our tradition is metatradition, meaning we can now shape as formidably as we are shaped. Some of our best and brightest realized this almost as soon as it became obvious that the Enlightenment had promised what it couldn’t deliver. I’d say it’s high time that the rest of us followed suit. Free thought isn’t exactly free after all. Once we all realize this, we can get on with trying to live up to the responsibilities that come with the realization.

56

roy belmont 02.17.14 at 5:57 am

Roger Gathman 52 at 11:16 pm-

Hollow, arrogant, and scornfully contemptuous. Each step of the way from the Enlightenment, or whatever it was. The tipping point when the artificial superstitions of the immediate past were made to represent the entirety of received human tradition, and beaten down with logic and reason.
It’s not in what I said anywhere that there’s any validity to claims of anything that you would call “paranormal”.
Only the plausibility of things your science hasn’t got to yet.
Not that I’m not making those claims, just not to you, not here.
All I’m interested in in a discussion about these things with you is that your position be exposed for what it is.
You’re the present representative of a priesthood, and a congregation, that gets its status from being right about the earth going around the sun.
Because the logical assumption of earlier observing minds would lead to that not being the case. The moon and the sun seem to be doing the same thing in the sky. The same size. Going around the earth.
Of course this isn’t true, but when there’s contempt for people who thought that, I see danger. Treating mistaken conclusions as dogma, and punishing people who thought otherwise, sure the resistance to that is important, even at times heroic.
I’m not unaware that Kepler’s mother was tried for witchcraft. But your scorn has more in common with her accusers than Kepler himself, going to her defense.
Lots of us were raised on this half-stepping arrogance. But some of us have noticed that the substance of consensus position keeps shifting with newer and more accurate data. That’s fine and as it should be, but where’s the humility?
You’re leveling scorn at me because it’s all you know how to do. You know nothing about what I believe, but you bounce right into contempt for things I must subscribe to, because in your autistic rationalist community there’s no other place for that to come from. It’s polarized and two-dimensional, and in my case woefully unfounded.
For the entire history of the accumulation of scientific knowledge until a scant hundred years ago, there was no working concept of how full the invisible microbial reality is, and it was there the whole time. It’s where we are, and it was invisible to us.
Humility, Roger.
There’s a lot more still out there that we can’t see.

57

roger gathman 02.17.14 at 6:39 am

“You’re leveling scorn at me because it’s all you know how to do. ” Well, Roy, when you are right, you are right. I studied leveling scorn at Roy Belmont for four years at the University of Vermont, in the Despising Roy Belmont department. It was arduous – we had to read all of your comments on various blogs and scorn them not only on paper, but also in our hearts. I persevered. Then there was the graduate work in really scorning Roy Belmont at Harvard, in the School for Despising all people with the Initials RB. And finally the satisfying career of teaching the scorning of Roy Belmont at the University of Georgia. I’m proud of my contributions to the Journal of Scorning Roy Belmont (I think my seminal article, Despising Roy Belmont without Worrying about what he really believes: the postmodern turn, has been much quoted in the field) and, forgive me if I sound complacent, Ido look back at this as a career well spent. Of course, it is all I know how to do, but it is all I have ever wanted to do, too. Do what you love, this has been my guiding light.

58

roy belmont 02.17.14 at 6:50 am

Roger Gathman-

I’m convinced that with a little effort I could goad you into a spasm of supercilious disdain that would reveal the vindictive rage underneath that snotty complacency for what it is.
But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out a way to do it that doesn’t require lowering myself to a state of mind that would inevitably trigger my own self-loathing.

59

Ed Herdman 02.17.14 at 7:50 am

I think the Shock of the Old (which I haven’t read, seems intriguing) stuff is absolutely right, and so is the original post of the thread. Auguste Escoffier’s French cuisine is a mass-produced (yet well-respected, of course!) simplification of old French dishes, going back really a few centuries. Its repackaging comes with signifiers of the old and new, to be grasped by anybody looking for evidence of either.

The comment at #44 at horses is interesting in an implication that some of the technology for fighting WWII definitely was (and still is) modern, not traditional, but as a practical matter we cannot simply target universal growth paths for technology following recent discoveries to their natural conclusions – with high amounts of waste from the churning out of what’s “new” and poor amortization of existing things by what’s new.

A likely nice companion piece to this discussion is Gwynne Dyer’s “War: A Commentary” from 1983, produced at the perilous moment of the Cold War when fears of technological inferiority in the US competed with very real political problems for the attention of policymakers and warfighters, at the same time that costs continued to spiral out of control. Popular thrillers like Clint Eastwood’s “Firefox” ended up being a sales pitch for what, in the end, was feigned ignorance of the eventual post-Rumsfeld admission that capacity and capability do not flow freely from technical excellence in research alone, and that fighter jets don’t do the work of “boots on the ground.”

60

Peter T 02.17.14 at 8:23 am

In some ways true. In others less so. One thing that springs to mind is the collapse of the nuclear family as a norm, and the associated collapse of family as a formal factor in politics and other social organisation. The norm of a core family of parents and dependent children as a unit is very old in western Europe (although it had competing norms – the extended family networks of the gentry and the loose associations of the poor). Similarly the notion of political and social leadership as a family inheritance is very old. But both have seriously weakened over the last 50 years – a very short time for so large a change. Even in the US, that most traditional of societies.

A second major change is the weakening of religion as a central identifying point. Again, something normal 50 years ago, and age-old as a tradition. But now pretty much gone outside the US, and fading even there.

On political units, the changes have probably been greater than JQ posits. There have probably been around 100 new political units come into being in the last 50 years. Some are revivals, but most are the inventions of empires and commissars, and often have very weak connections with the past (not that that stops them inventing traditions as fast as possible, in the best C19 fashion).

61

Doug M. 02.17.14 at 11:17 am

“I say in the post, my impression is that they used to be common and have become vanishingly rare, except in the form of federal states breaking up and the special confederal case of the EU.”

Border changes of the last 20 years, counting only those that have achieved broad international recognition:

1994 — Walvis Bay
1994 — Palau
1997 — Hong Kong
1999 — Macao
1999 — Panama Canal Zone
2002 — East Timor
2002 — Ligitan & Sipadan
2006 — Montenegro
2008 — Kosovo
2008 — Bakassi
2011 — Mayotte
2011 — South Sudan

This is a fairly conservative list. I’m leaving out territorial changes involving only maritime or riparian boundaries (Bolshoy Ussuriysky) or tiny, uninhabited islands (the Pedra Branca dispute between Malaysia and Singapore), or where the land area is very small (Croatia/Slovenia border dispute), and also those where the situation is confused (Gaza, Isla Aves) or lacks international recognition (South Ossetia).

That said, we see that significant boundary changes have been ticking right along, averaging one every 20 months or so. I wouldn’t say that’s common, but neither is it “vanishingly rare”.

Doug M.

62

Lawrence Stuart 02.17.14 at 5:45 pm

@49 Bruce ‘Maybe we aren’t tradition bound, but want to be.’

I’d put that this way: maybe we are nostalgic for an imagined time when the canonical was self evident and unquestioned, the apocryphal safely banished to the shadows. And from this nostalgia for a fairy tale past, we create, where and when we can, rigid micro-orthodoxies (traditional marriage, traditional families, manifold varieties of traditional aesthetics, and so on) as a way of stabilizing the shaky, very conditional ground upon which the possibility of the canonical stands.

But this doesn’t go far enough. If, for the radical, the canonical stands as an impediment to progress (‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the living’), it also serves as a means (‘And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’) When the canonical becomes self conscious and riddled with doubt, much of its value to the revolutionary is lost as well.

But the problem goes still further. Because not only have the canons of the bible, classical antiquity, and nationalism become relativized and questionable, so to has the canon of the Enlightenment, of reason itself. Where does one ground a dialectic of progress when reason has eaten its own tail?

And here, I think, we stand — looking back with nostalgia toward a time when the canonical was self evident (or at least we imagine it thus), and looking forward to a time when the canonical is without the gravitas necessary to hold any kind of coherent cosmos together, and certainly too weak to smash the hold of actually existing capitalism (think Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), or perhaps the situation of the three protagonists in Sartre’s Huis clos).

For my own part, I find this lightness beautiful. The weakness of the canonical enhances the importance of the apochryphal, the uncertainty of the orthodox makes for a blossoming of heterodoxies. Or at least the possibilities are open: to enhance the interstitial, to leaven the heavy dough of late industrial modernism.

63

nick s 02.17.14 at 9:42 pm

Moreover, at 150 years or more of age, these traditions really can claim to be ancient (at least in the eyes of a non-indigenous Australian).

Fox hunting in its modern form (as opposed to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where it’s considered uncouth) dates more or less from the Enclosure Acts, which also created lots of nice hedgerows.

More broadly, the internet seems to have exerted a significant canonising force: when small dispersed communities of interest are able to form large communities of interest, then it’s almost inevitable that you get some kind of orthodoxy emerge around their subject matter. There’ll be schisms, of course, but there’s a difference between sets of practices and beliefs that vary through isolation and ones that consciously strike out on their own.

64

John Quiggin 02.18.14 at 10:21 am

@61 Doug, I’m stunned by your erudition as always. I think of myself as well-informed and I’ve never heard of most of these places. Do you have a particular source that lets you keep up with everything happening in the world – if so, please tell me about it.

Having checked you list, I’ll mark down “vanishingly rare” to “rare, and very rarely affecting a significant part of the world’s population”

65

Doug M. 02.18.14 at 12:55 pm

Well, that list includes over 25 million people — comfortably more than the current population of Australia. Four of those border changes (Sudan, Hong Kong, Kosovo, East Timor) involved well over a million people, and six more involved less than a million people but more than 100,000.

Whether that counts as “a significant part of the world’s population” is a judgment call. But a brief glance around the world shows that there are a lot more border changes in the pipeline, from “might happen” (Scotland, Catalonia) to “happened, just waiting for the world to recognize” (Somaliland) to “really already happened, just waiting for final formal approval” (India-Bangladesh enclave exhcange). So, while there don’t seem to be any collapse-of-the-USSR level mass rewriting of borders on the horizon, it looks like we’ll see a steady drumbeat of these small and medium sized changes for many years to come.

– It’s not erudition. This is my job. I work in development. As I write this, I’m currently residing and working in one of the places on that list.

Doug M.

66

Joshua W. Burton 02.18.14 at 3:18 pm

There is a famous (US) National Park Service brochure that talks about how everything you see around you is the result of mighty, slow, imperceptible forces working ever-so-gradually over eons . . . and then, in the very next paragraph, mentions that a particular natural arch had collapsed suddenly in a rainstorm a few years earlier. A lot of our perception of stasis comes down to a failure of imagination: most things end suddenly, for previously unforeseen causes, and so at any given moment they seem imperishable.

I’m told hats went away suddenly because of JFK; I saw business suits (in the ordinary walks of white-collar life, outside the courtroom and boardroom) go away suddenly in about an 18-month period just before the peak of the dot-com boom, and not come back. My childhood memories of downtown Boston are heavily infused with the sights and smells of important men (my father’s partners and clients) in slightly rumpled gray wool, rushing into the warmth of slightly rumpled dining rooms that had seen four or five generations of the same crowd. Wanting to convey this timelessness to my daughter, I found that in just the last decade they’ve all closed or become tourist experiences; partners at (no longer literal) white-shoe law firms eat Thai food like the rest of us.

If you could do an objective and quantitative pedigree of “traditions,” I expect you’d find a power-law spectrum like any other instance of Per Bak’s self-organized criticality, with a steady slope and avalanches at all scales. Even in the geopolitical realm, the 1815-1914 and 1945-present periods may reflect nothing more than scaling laws at work and our subjective handicaps in extrapolating them.

67

Joshua W. Burton 02.18.14 at 3:25 pm

Even in the geopolitical realm, the 1815-1914 and 1945-present periods may reflect nothing more than scaling laws at work and our subjective handicaps in extrapolating them.

Doug M. @61 provides excellent supporting evidence.

As a minor contributing factor to scaling-law myopia in this particular case, note that the latter-day Westphalianism of post-1945 borders is somewhat tangled up with the Israel/Palestine polemic. It’s even harder to see blink-of-the-eye border movements when both eyes remain locked on one point of focus.

68

Joshua W. Burton 02.18.14 at 3:33 pm

And, by the way, Israel’s border with Jordan moved in several places when that peace treaty was signed in 1994.

69

Harold 02.18.14 at 3:51 pm

I was surprised to read that the immemorial Jewish tradition of casting one’s sins on the waters during Rosh hashanah, practiced here in Brooklyn where I live, only dates back to the eighteenth century or so.

70

Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 4:42 pm

The Myth of the Holy Cow
by D. N. Jha

71

Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 4:43 pm

Stephanie Coontz The Way We Never Were

72

Rakesh Bhandari 02.18.14 at 5:11 pm

I have never read Stephen Mennell’s book on the development of French and English cuisine, but it looks very interesting indeed.

73

TM 02.18.14 at 5:20 pm

JQ 26: “@26 @Pierre As a quantitative measure, you could look at the frequency and significance of changes in national boundaries.”

This is a strange approach to defining traditionalism given that the very “tradition” of “national boundaries” is itself very recent (19th century). You just said that to exemplify your own point? ;-)

Slightly tangential, Harper’s Magazine recently had a forum on the future of the Euro which was rather awful but a noteworthy aspect was that most of the participants (with the exception of – wait for it – the two ladies “representing” Germany) agreed that the nation-state is the norm and standard of present day political organization, totally oblivious to the fact that most UNO members are not by any stretch of the imagination nation-states (oh and we also have a Scotland thread going on). There we have it, the modern “tradition” of sorting political entities by nationality.

Another recently invented tradition: economic growth.

74

LFC 02.18.14 at 5:21 pm

I haven’t read every word of the thread but would like to chime in on state/natl boundaries, since that’s something I happen to know something about.

Doug M. @61 fails to distinguish between changes in location of boundaries and changes in status of boundaries. South Sudan 2011, for ex., is a change of status not location: afaik, an existing regional boundary was made into a national one. Ditto, e.g., Hong Kong 1997 (no change in boundary location, only status) and Kosovo 2008 (no change in location, afaik, only status).

It is significant changes in the location of boundaries, accomplished by force (or other means), that have become very rare in the post-1945 period. The evidence on this is indisputable. There is a literature on this, one place to start being Zacher’s 2001 article on the territorial integrity norm in the journal International Organization.

75

TM 02.18.14 at 5:39 pm

Again JQ 26 /64: “rare, and very rarely affecting a significant part of the world’s population”

What the ??? Does it occur to you that the frequency and quantitative significance of changes to political borders that happened during the 20th century probably exceeds everything that happened in prior centuries?
You clarified this:”As regards “past”, I’d put my dividing line at the end of the European empires, the last large one of which was Portugal in about 1975 IIRC.”

So a host of massive border redraws of the past century don’t count because you set the dividing line arbitrarily so as to exclude them. What kind of argument is that? You could easily pick a 40-year period in the 19th century when borders were relatively stable. Then suddenly, four huge empires disintegrate. I think your argument is completely spurious. The modern state hasn’t been as stable as you claim it to be.

Here’s a question: how many political entities can you name that have the same borders in 2014 as in 1914? It’s pretty hard. There are a handful, Switzerland comes to mind, but significant change is far more common. There’s no reason to expect that a hundred years from now, people will look at an essentially unchanged political map. It’s not impossible, but hardly likely.

76

LFC 02.18.14 at 5:51 pm

TM @74

On boundaries: I think you’re wrong, J.Quiggin’s right. See my comment @73. I have no interest in linking this to a”traditionality of modernity” thesis, but on the factual question of the stability of boundaries post-1945, the evidence is clear. (It has to do w, inter alia, the fact that territorial conquest has become rare. Which has to do w other things that wd take too long to go into.)

77

LFC 02.18.14 at 6:29 pm

To clarify/amend what I said @73: changes of both status and location have become relatively rare (but the latter esp. so).

78

TM 02.18.14 at 7:22 pm

LFC, the problem with that thesis is that people in 1890 might very well have made the same claim, and probably would have had a better empirical case. Surely, the period from 1850-1890 must have appeared extraordinarily stable compared to the centuries before. Basing any “historical trend” argument on a period that short is just a recipe to be proved wrong.

As to the argument about location vs. status, well maybe but border changes in earlier times didn’t come out of the blue either. They tended to follow preexisting divisions.

And finally, there is a somewhat similar claim about language being more stable today than in earlier times. The printed word and near-universal literacy certainly has a bearing on this but as always there is also a perceptual bias. In the past, the rate of language change wasn’t fixed and neither should we expect this to be the case today.

79

TM 02.18.14 at 7:40 pm

Number of UNO members (http://www.un.org/en/members/growth.shtml):

99 in 1960
127 in 1970
154 in 1980
159 in 1990
189 in 2000
193 in 2011

Changes have become “relatively rare”?

80

LFC 02.18.14 at 8:32 pm

TM @78
the problem with that thesis is that people in 1890 might very well have made the same claim, and probably would have had a better empirical case. Surely, the period from 1850-1890 must have appeared extraordinarily stable compared to the centuries before. Basing any “historical trend” argument on a period that short is just a recipe to be proved wrong.

Some caution is in order about extrapolating too far out from trends, e.g., of the past half-century or seventy years, yes. That said, there are differences between the period 1850-1890 and, say, the last half-century. But I’m not inclined to go much further into this, both for reasons of time and because experience suggests that this is a topic on which people’s minds don’t change. The people who think the basic features of int’l politics haven’t changed since 1890 will think what they think, and the people who think that significant things have changed since 1890 will think what they think, and everyone can argue himself or herself blue in the face and in the end it won’t make any difference b/c no one’s mind will be changed. I do have one figure easily to hand, though, fwiw: Between 1648 and 1945, the percentage of armed conflicts resulting in the redistribution of territory — i.e., the redrawing of boundaries — is “consistently between 77 percent and 82 percent; between 1945 and 1996, it is 23 percent.” (M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention, p.126, citing a 1997 paper by R. Jackson and M. Zacher)

81

LFC 02.18.14 at 8:46 pm

Oh and by the way, this is only tangentially related but I am sick and tired of reading, approximately every two or three weeks, another article or op-ed column in which the author (not infrequently a professor who should know better) announces in a sort of triumphant voice, and as if it proved something, that writers “such as Norman Angell” said a few years before WWI that a world war “was impossible” and then look what happened. One small problem: Norman Angell never said that.

Ok, sorry for the derail. Back to regular programming, ‘traditionality of modernity’ or whatever.

82

Bruce Wilder 02.18.14 at 8:46 pm

I thought there might be something to the original tradition – border argument.

Feudal notions of sovereignty and property gave borders a different meaning, which was infused with antiquarian history and tradition, in a . . . traditional sense. The advent of political modernity changed all that.

Any good history of the French Revolution tries — and generally fails — to convey the complexity of jurisdiction, which was the ancien regime. The Napoleonic Wars initiated the process of extinguishing a similar complexity across Germany and Italy, which culminated in their emergence as nation-states. After that, that kind of politics of borders was largely confined to the mess, which was Austria-Hungary.

It is difficult to imagine something like the Schleswig-Holstein Question being taken seriously today. It was difficult for the statesman of Europe to deal with it, with a straightface, in the mid-19th century. That’s what borders, frozen by tradition, looked like.

The two World Wars reflected how much the game changed as the dynastic claims of petty monarchs were replaced by the more passionate claims of mass nationalism, but much of the patchwork of populations and languages and religions, which disturbed the nationalists, was . . . changed. I think it’s fair to say many, though not all, of those nationalist questions were settled, by the movement of populations. Does the resolution of a political question — even a violent resolution — result in time and forgetfulness or selective remembering, in a tradition?

A peaceful federalism, as in the EU structure, makes it possible to contemplate a Slovenia or a Scotland or a Catalonia. Why not, if military conflict isn’t an issue and customs union and globalization reduces the economic cost?

Is modernity, having banished the old traditionalism, and with nationalism mellowing, becoming, itself, “traditionalist” in some way with respect to borders?

I’d like to see more “micro-founded” data being brought to bear. Linguistically, for example, which was once a key issue for the nationalists, with a sense of history. The Irish school their children in Gaelic, for example. There can’t be 50,000 speakers of gaelic in Scotland, and scots — the native tongue of Adam Smith — what happened to that? The Walloons had a very distinctive language, once, but my impression is that it is gone, submerged into a more standard French. Italy fashioned a standard Italian as a symbol of nationalism. Turkey adopted a Roman alphabet, jettisoning the Arabic script. Are the festering border issues in eastern Europe conforming to linguistic reality or historical tradition? Moldova? Transnistria?

83

bob mcmanus 02.18.14 at 9:03 pm

82: Why not a geographically discontiguous Ireland on six continents, connected by the Internet?

84

Bruce Wilder 02.18.14 at 9:11 pm

83: An Irish Skynet bent on world conquest? Shouldn’t they work on a national cuisine first?

85

LFC 02.18.14 at 9:24 pm

@82: The EU would seem to be distinctive in various ways when it comes to boundaries. [On contemp. European border policy, see R. Zaiotti, Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers (2011).]

Before 1914, travel within Europe, at least for the affluent who mostly did it, generally didn’t require passports (with some exceptions). Today it similarly lacks formalities. For centuries, people periodically killed each other and statesmen tied themselves into knots over where the France-Spain boundary should be drawn (see P. Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees). Today, so I gather (haven’t done this myself), you drive from Spain into France with no formalities and without stopping: where the boundary is, there may be a disused, unmanned border post, sitting there gathering dust.

86

Niall McAuley 02.18.14 at 9:25 pm

National cuisine? Nah, when we’re in charge, we’ll just eat yours.

Same as we do now.

87

TM 02.18.14 at 9:55 pm

LFC: “That said, there are differences between the period 1850-1890 and, say, the last half-century.”
Well of course there are differences. What do you think, I’m an idiot?

“The people who think the basic features of int’l politics haven’t changed since 1890″
And who are those people?

If you don’t want to discuss the issue I want to discuss, fine, go discuss something else, but putting idiot stuff in other people’s mouths won’t make you many friends.

88

TM 02.18.14 at 10:18 pm

“It is difficult to imagine something like the Schleswig-Holstein Question being taken seriously today.”

It is difficult to imagine something like the Falklands Question being taken seriously today. And there are plenty of other territorial disputes, some of them quite serious (e. g. Cjina and Japan). Do these disputes reflect a 19th century attitude towards territoriality? Hell no. Nobody in their right mind would claim that “the basic features of int’l politics haven’t changed” etc. etc. But on the other hand, to claim that we now live in an age of peace and stability without the petty rivalries of times past is quite astonishing. At the very least, such extraordinary claims require more than a few cherry-picked data points.

“I think it’s fair to say many, though not all, of those nationalist questions were settled, by the movement of populations.” Oh yeah? What do you think is going on in Kiev right now? Not to mention myriad conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Asia? This is exactly the attitude I mentioned in 73 – Westerners pontificating about how everybody has finally settled into homogenous nation-states (and how it’s all for the better despite the ugly history that brought us here), except that the vast majority of humanity don’t live in that kind of nation-state.

89

LFC 02.18.14 at 10:55 pm

@TM
Well of course there are differences. What do you think, I’m an idiot?
Obviously I meant differences (in the int’l normative environment etc.) that bear on the specific question at issue, namely stability of boundaries, etc. Assuming that people are calling you an idiot when they’re not won’t make you many friends.

You wrote:

the problem with that thesis is that people in 1890 might very well have made the same claim, and probably would have had a better empirical case. Surely, the period from 1850-1890 must have appeared extraordinarily stable compared to the centuries before.

This implies or suggests, to me, a continuity (or a cycles) thesis. That 1850-90 was (allegedly) stable (though it actually wasn’t — see below) and was followed by instability really only has considerable weight if you think, following Waltz, that “the texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly.” If you don’t think “patterns recur,” then why tell me about the (alleged) stability of 1850-1890? I actually don’t think that 1850-90 was so stable compared to the centuries before — certainly it wasn’t in Europe (Crimean War, wars of German unification, Franco-Prussian War etc) — but that’s a separate point.

90

LFC 02.18.14 at 11:09 pm

TM@73
totally oblivious to the fact that most UNO members are not by any stretch of the imagination nation-states

The phrase “nation-state” is often used in journalistic and other discussions (though clearly you aren’t using it this way) as a synonym for “sovereign state” (i.e., “country” in more common everyday parlance), and the claim that sovereign states are the basic units of present-day pol. org. is fairly banal and that might well have been all that the Harpers piece meant.

the very “tradition” of “national boundaries” is itself very recent (19th century).
This is really not right, except possibly on an *extremely* narrow definition of “national boundaries,” and probably not even then.

91

Priest 02.19.14 at 1:04 am

My mother grew up with the mouse tradition; she and her brother had the bright idea to catch a mouse, and get all the nickels out of it. It didn’t end well, especially for the mouse.

92

Ronan(rf) 02.19.14 at 1:07 am

” And who are those people?”

Jesus Christ, half the academy dont think anythings changed since the Peloponnesian War

93

LFC 02.19.14 at 1:23 am

P.s. to my comment @90:
It’s true that in many cases national boundaries didn’t reach a settled, more-or-less final form until the 19th cent. or later, but there is quite often a long period of evolution (or choose whatever word you prefer) before that.

94

Ronan(rf) 02.19.14 at 2:49 am

“..half the academy *doesn’t* think anything*’s* changed since the Peloponnesian War..”

When did my typing become so guttural ?

ps

this:

“What do you think is going on in Kiev right now? Not to mention myriad conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Asia? “

Is wrong, man. Or at least half the story.
I’m not fully following your argument or the main one re traditions being possibly quantificationally measured through border changes etc, but *these are not ‘nationalist’ conflicts* (or at least not in the Middle East, doubtfully in Kiev,and I don’t know the ‘Asia’ or ‘Africa’ references – they’re big places ! – maybe some are, maybe some aren’t, who knows ?)

95

Ronan(rf) 02.19.14 at 3:01 am

Bruce Wilder @ 84
Yes we do have a national cuisine.
You get a pot, get some lamb, potatoes, something else, a few more things, put it in, stir, simmer, serve
This isnt hard, dude.

96

Bruce Wilder 02.19.14 at 6:05 am

TM @ 88

I get that you are angry. Other than that you don’t seem to have a point.

97

John Quiggin 02.19.14 at 8:56 am

@81 I’ve been battering away at this zombie idea for at least 15 years

http://www.uq.edu.au/economics/johnquiggin/JournalArticles01/Globalization01.html

Of course, Angell, never said that war was impossible, only that it would yield no benefits even in the (obviously unlikely) case of a quick and bloodless military victory. This is clearly true and helps to explain why no one cares much about territorial expansion any more (thanks for the cite to Zacher on this, BTE).

The grain of truth that keeps the zombie shambling on is that, having demonstrated that there was no possible benefit from conquest, Angell (talking to a British audience, and trying to discourage British jingoism) was over-optimistic about the strength of anti-war sentiment in Germany. But that doesn’t justify the nonsense that keeps on being spouted.

98

John Quiggin 02.19.14 at 8:58 am

Also, LFC, thanks for the status/location distinction. That’s a much clearer statement of what I was trying to get at in the OP.

99

Agog 02.19.14 at 11:13 am

What is all this about ‘spaghetti carbonara’?

Mama used to make it with tagliatelle.

100

Adrian Kelleher 02.19.14 at 1:20 pm

@Joshua W. Burton

I’ve long felt that the abrupt and complete disappearance of the hat to be a historical landmark of a significance that eluded contemporary observers and hindsight equally. In the whole of human history down to the eye blink that is modernity such an event would have caused concern or even fear among the ruling classes. What did it mean? What power could bring about such a thing? And what other havoc would this power wreak?

It was a dramatic event. The apparent triviality of its effects are an illusion: neither Kennedy nor Kruschev had the power either to order it or to obstruct it, and its mysterious propagation, leaving everything else untouched like a sort of neutron bomb for hats, incomprehensible.

What did it signify? Well (amongst other things) within a decade there was Woodstock and a few years later again tens of thousands of people assembled fully expecting that “the Houston Astrodome will physically separate itself from the planet which we call earth and will fly”. Such events really did inspire fear and the inevitable reaction wasn’t far off: Reagan. The disappearance of the hat didn’t cause these events but they were all manifestations of the same forces.

When Einstein made sense of a handful of anomalies seemingly of no relevance the great world of industry he inhabited his insights weren’t dismissed as pointless. In a world of science an anomaly is intolerable: no matter how trivial, the no definite limit can be put on the greatness of what it signifies. But in the world of the 1960s, at the pinnacle of technological optimism when literally anything was felt to be possible, such an event could take place without the fact that it was neither anticipated nor understood bothering anybody.

And to this day the technocrats cruise serenely onwards, oblivious to the fact that their thinking is at least a century out of date. They still inhabit a Newtonian world of mechanistic causes and effects that only ever requires a little further elaboration to be perfected. That this goal isn’t remotely feasible doesn’t bother them, and neither does the fact that they failed to anticipate a succession of human-induced disasters (the world wars, the depression, etc) in spite of having been warned about their causes and consequences in advance.

101

Adrian Kelleher 02.19.14 at 1:22 pm

@LFC

Would you deny that 1) the war making potential of the world’s nations is greater than at any time in history and 2) that war making potential can be brought to bear on an enemy more suddenly than ever before?

102

Adrian Kelleher 02.19.14 at 1:23 pm

Also strike the “that” from “I’ve long felt that the abrupt…” in #100.

103

LFC 02.19.14 at 1:47 pm

@JQ
thanks for the status/location distinction
Sure.
I suppose if I were more motivated I would take that footnote from my (unpublished) 9-yr-old diss. and try to do something with it e.g. in the way of an article. Except it’s probably already been done (which is always a handy excuse).

104

Doug M. 02.19.14 at 1:50 pm

LFC: The status/location distinction, while real, has a lot less power than you’re giving it.

1) If you look at those 12 examples I gave, six of them — Walvis Bay, Palau, the Canal Zone, Ligatan/Sipadan, Bakassi, and Mayotte — involved changes of border. Walvis Bay had a surveying crew out establishing the new border. With the Canal Zone, the previously existing border simply disappeared. In the case of Mayotte, the Mayottois voted to annex themselves to France. The result is that France suddenly gained a new maritime border with the Comoros, where no international border had previously existed.

If half of the significant international changes in border status in the last 20 years have also involved changes in border location, it’s a bit hard to say that border location changes are much rarer than border status changes.

2) I skipped a bunch of examples where the border actually changed but the amount of land or the number of people involved were small. But Bolshoy Ussuriysky involved redrawing an international border, and so did the Croatia-Slovenia border dispute. At a small scale (a few km here or there), borders are still regularly being adjusted in Africa and in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

3) It’s true that many new international boundaries were once internal. But before they became international, they shifted around a lot more. So, for instance, the current boundary of Kosovo only dates back to the 1950s — a portion of southern Serbia was grafted on to the north of the province, while the Presevo Valley was given to Serbia. (This is still very much part of living memory, btw. Kosovar Albanians still refer to this region as “East Kosovo”, and there was an armed insurgency around Presevo from 1999 to 2005.) Similarly, the border between Croatia and Montenegro was redrawn in the 1950s, leaving Kotor, a historically Croatian city, inside the modern independent nation of Montenegro. (Much to the unhappiness of Kotor’s Croats, who got ethnically cleansed out of it in the 1990s.) The internal border between Sudan and South Sudan was redrawn repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s by the central government in Khartoum. So it’s often a bit misleading to say “oh, the new international boundary just followed a pre-existing internal border line”, because in many cases the pre-existing internal border line hadn’t pre-existed very long.

Doug M.

105

LFC 02.19.14 at 2:10 pm

A. Kelleher:
Would you deny that 1) the war making potential of the world’s nations is greater than at any time in history and 2) that war making potential can be brought to bear on an enemy more suddenly than ever before?

I’m not sure about (1), because the US and Russian nuclear arsenals have been shrinking over time, though to be sure not all that drastically. No question, though, that there is a lot of sophisticated weaponry out there and the arms-making and export business remains a big one. But for an answer to this question you should ask someone much better versed in the hardware than I am. Guess I would say the same about (2).

Btw, as others have argued, the U.S. should/could get rid of all its land-based nuclear ICBMs tomorrow. They’re unnecessary, esp. given the other two legs of the triad (bombers and submarines), and they’re just causing a lot of embarrassment for the military as the missile officers in North Dakota or Wyoming, or wherever they are, are going stir crazy and causing cheating scandals and whatnot.

106

LFC 02.19.14 at 2:34 pm

Doug M @104
I’m not denying that some boundary changes, i.e. of location, still occur. But some of your examples are maritime boundaries, not land — e.g. Bakassi is a peninsula, and I think Walvis Bay is also (or else it’s an outright island, I’d have to look it up) — and maritime boundaries, e.g. involving islands and peninsulas, in recent years have been generally more contested than land ones.

Of course there are still some disputed land boundaries, but some of those disputes are pretty dormant (India/China, for example). I’m also aware, in a general way, of the India/Bangladesh enclave issue, which you mentioned in passing upthread. And I’m sure there are others.

But the basic points I wd make are that (1) major land boundaries are pretty remarkably stable, partly because (2) traditional interstate wars have declined drastically, and (3) the territorial-integrity norm, i.e. the norm against territorial conquest and/or forcible, unilateral boundary change, is very robust in the current int’l system. The most serious extant interstate territorial disputes, afaik, are those betw. China and some of its neighbors over islands (Senkaku/Diaoyu [sp?], Spratleys etc). And those, while not trivial, are a pretty far cry from the kinds of disputes that characterized much of 19th and first half of 20th cent.

107

LFC 02.19.14 at 2:50 pm

P.s. @Doug M.
The material in your point (3) is interesting.
Some of this turns on how one views the word “significant” as in “If half of the significant international changes in border status in the last 20 years have also involved changes in border location….”
E.g., France’s new int’l maritime boundary with the Comoros (‘Mayotte, 2011′) matters to France and the Comoros and the Mayottois, but it’s just not that big a deal in general. I must confess I’d never heard of Mayotte, nor, I think, Ligatan/Sipidan. (I see you already addressed “significant” @65, but anyway.)

108

LFC 02.19.14 at 3:00 pm

Pdf of Zacher, “The Territorial Integrity Norm”:

here

109

Joshua W. Burton 02.19.14 at 3:01 pm

Adrian Kelleher @100, hats:

It’s worth completing the tale by observing that hat etiquette (for men) has been for all practical purposes lost. We wouldn’t know when to take them off and put them on, even if they came back. Also, watch the millennials try to figure out a cup and saucer.

But my thesis is that the sudden extinction of an immemorial tradition — how long had Europeans been continuously wearing hats? — is more typical than we are equipped to notice. Things that have never happened before happen all the time.

110

TM 02.19.14 at 3:02 pm

LFC 89, what I wrote and you quoted does not in any shape or form “imply a cycle thesis”. It implies nothing more or less than what I wrote, and I am tired of batting straw man arguments.

“If you don’t think “patterns recur,” then why tell me about the (alleged) stability of 1850-1890?” Because I was making a reductio ad absurdum argument: The kind of evidence that you are providing for your thesis would have worked at least as well in 1890. But your position is that your thesis wouldn’t have been valid in 1890. Therefore the evidence doesn’t support the thesis. Btw that argument doesn’t prove your thesis wrong, just that it cannot be proven by the kind of evidence you suggest (even if that evidence were uncontested, which it isn’t). I’m spelling this out in detail but honestly I have little hope that it matters to you. I’m disappointed in the incredible shallowness of this whole debate and I don’t think there’s much point in trying to continue since I don’t see much good faith on your side. The same is true of course for Bruce 96. I’ll just point you Bruce to what I said on the other thread. http://crookedtimber.org/2014/02/12/socialism-in-america/#comment-512263

Last one for LFC:
“The phrase “nation-state” is often used in journalistic and other discussions (though clearly you aren’t using it this way) as a synonym for “sovereign state” (i.e., “country” in more common everyday parlance), and the claim that sovereign states are the basic units of present-day pol. org. is fairly banal and that might well have been all that the Harpers piece meant.”
Both parts of that statement are wrong. “Nation-state” is not synonym for “sovereign state” (if it is used in that way it would be wrong) and that was not how it was meant in Harper’s.

111

Doug M. 02.19.14 at 3:05 pm

@LFC, that’s as may be, but you’re shifting your ground. You originally wrote that “it is significant changes in the location of boundaries, accomplished by force (or other means), that have become very rare in the post-1945 period. ” That’s not true, unless your definition of “very rare” includes “on average, one every year or two”.

I had little difficulty coming up with eight examples from the last 20 years. (And no, Walvis Bay isn’t an island. It’s a coastal town, but not an island. You’re probably thinking of the offshore Penguin Islands, which South Africa also tried to claw away from Namibia.) And the last 20 years have been a really unusually stable period! Compared to the 20 years before that… well, just yikes. I’m pretty sure I could come up with fifteen to twenty changes in boundary location in that period, 1974-1994; just sitting here I can think of eight without breaking a sweat. And I’m equally sure that, with a starting point in 1946, I could come up with forty or fifty from then to now.

Have international boundaries become much more stable? Of course they have; that’s an easy truism. (Though even there, it’s not quite as true as people like to think.) But have “changes in the location of boundaries… become very rare”? No. Certainly not common, but not very rare.

Doug M.

112

LFC 02.19.14 at 3:16 pm

TM 110
“The kind of evidence that you are providing…would have worked at least as well in 1890.”
I don’t think so, because of changes in the int’l system and int’l normative environment that have occurred since then. We’re going in circles here.
Anyway, I’m not trying to “prove” a “thesis.” I’m not trying to make predictions, certainly not confident predictions. I’m trying to describe the current situation and that’s pretty much all I’m trying to do.

113

LFC 02.19.14 at 3:29 pm

Doug M

@LFC, that’s as may be, but you’re shifting your ground. You originally wrote that “it is significant changes in the location of boundaries, accomplished by force (or other means), that have become very rare in the post-1945 period. ” That’s not true, unless your definition of “very rare” includes “on average, one every year or two”.

Ok: I will retract that sentence and replace it with the last paragraph of my comment @106. (I did say “significant” but I don’t want to put too much weight on that word because it’s somewhat subjective.)

Have international boundaries become much more stable? Of course they have; that’s an easy truism.

We can agree on that “easy truism,” then.

114

TM 02.19.14 at 3:51 pm

“I’m not trying to make predictions, certainly not confident predictions.” Ok.

What I took issue with is your statement:
“on the factual question of the stability of boundaries post-1945, the evidence is clear.”

That kind of suggests that there’s instability before 1945 and stability after. I think this is misleading at best because there have been periods of relative stability before and definitely lots of instability after. I have a deep aversion against extrapolation from short trends. It happens all the time that pundits take the postwar period (especially as remembered in idealized nostalgia) as the baseline normal and expect the future to resemble it – which strikes me as very unlikely. I think that at least JQ is guilty of that (“Political systems and national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less.”) Similarly the Dawkins thesis of humanity becoming more peaceful over time.

Unjustified extrapolation is a very damaging intellectual fallacy leading to myopia and poor judgment. I’m afraid more instability is quite likely in store in the future although the causes (such as climate change, water scarcity, mass migration) wouldn’t be exactly the same as in the past few hundred years (this should be obvious but apparently it’s not).

115

mds 02.19.14 at 4:35 pm

Oxbird @ 9:

I would not claim to be knowledgeable but it has often struck me that so many current religious practices appear to have virtually no connection to the origins of the different religions but are nevertheless strongly felt as religious mandates and are often the cause of sharp differences between religions and within religions.

And how. As I understand it, “human life begins at conception” as a moral mandate didn’t show up until the 19th Century, yet is obviously a defining feature of modern formal Roman Catholic doctrine. Fundamentalist Protestants who are, if anything, even noisier about it, certainly didn’t embrace it until the late 1970s (and then only for purely political reasons), yet will claim with a straight face that they are getting it right from the inerrant, unaltered Word of God (either a famous 1611 translation, or an extremely recent translation that explicitly ‘fixes’ an Old Testament verse frequently used to refute their position). For that matter, for all that fundamentalist Christians claim to be getting back to basics, it’s interesting that they usuallly tend to ignore the Gospels’ behavioral admonitions, or even many of Paul’s major themes, while embracing a bunch of things like premillenial dispensationalism and Biblical inerrancy that were likewise invented in the 19th Century, and elaborated upon much later. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” declares the fundamentalist smugly, secure in 2 millenia of inerrant, unaltered beliefs which were made up by Scripturally illiterate idiots and liars in the past few decades.

116

LFC 02.19.14 at 6:17 pm

@TM
One of the issues you raise — the character of the post-1945 period — is not a question of prediction or extrapolation, but a historical question. On this point I’ll quote (emphasis added) from the 2001 Zacher article (I linked the pdf @108). For the period 1946 to 2000, he counted 40 interstate wars involving territory, only 12 of which resulted in “major boundary change”:

It is clear that there have been very few ["very few" of course is imprecise -- see exact figures below in this passage--LFC] cases of coercive boundary change in the last half century during which UN membership has grown from 50 to 190. No longer is territorial aggrandizement the dominant motif of interstate politics; whereas in the three centuries leading up to 1946, about 80 percent of all interstate territorial wars led to territorial redistributions, for the period 1946–2000, the figure is 30 percent (twelve out of forty) (Table 1a). Given the huge increase in the number of states in the international system in the past half century and our definition of territorial wars for the period, the absolute numbers of forty territorial wars and twelve cases of major boundary change are not very large by historical standards.

The fact that territorial aggrandizement and coercive boundary change were at what seem to be historical lows in 1946 to 2000 does not necessarily mean one can extrapolate from that period into the future. And I suppose it’s conceivable that there were 50-year spans pre-1945 when territorial aggrandizement was also very low. But when you put the figures just mentioned together with evidence of normative/legal practice at the level of declarations by intl orgs, etc., a reasonable case emerges that the post-WW2 period is different in these terms than what preceded it.

Again, I agree with you that one should be cautious about extrapolation and that prediction is hazardous. Could “territorial aggrandizement” at some point in the future again become “the dominant motif of interstate politics”? Yes, that is possible, esp. if the forces you cite such as climate change and related pressures play out in a certain way. But it does appear that so far the post-45 period has been low on territorial aggrandizement, relatively speaking. It still happens, but not as frequently. On whether this will remain the case and/or for how long, I express no opinion.

117

Adrian Kelleher 02.19.14 at 6:21 pm

The problem with the application of statistics to international relations is that none of the phenomena are statistical in nature. You can compile figures, but any statistical inferences are invalid due to violation of the assumptions upon which those statistical methods are based.

118

LFC 02.19.14 at 6:47 pm

The problem with the application of statistics to international relations is that none of the phenomena are statistical in nature. You can compile figures, but any statistical inferences are invalid due to violation of the assumptions upon which those statistical methods are based.

What “statistical inferences”? I am, regrettably or otherwise, not very well versed in quantitative methods, but the “statistical methods” at issue in the quotation @116 are nothing more than defining/classifying and counting. Which some or many historians do, whether explicitly or not. You’ll see that the article, if you read or skim/glance at it, is actually full of qualitative evidence; it’s not a quant piece. It’s just that I thought the descriptive statistics were a quick way to make a point, and as far as I can see there are no “invalid inferences” here.

As to the phenomena not being “statistical in nature” — a cat is a living organism, not “statistical in nature” I suppose, but if three stray cats show up at my front door and someone asks me how many cats are at the door, I can count them and say “there are three cats here.” As a non-quant type, I am having a weird feeling being put in this position, but so be it.

Oh and btw, if you want to discuss philosophy of (social) science and IR w an expert, just call PTJ on his dedicated philosophy-of-science line. Different initials, different person than me. ;)

119

TM 02.19.14 at 7:20 pm

Let’s clarify that “territorial aggrandizement” was never the starting point of the dispute. In fact you introduced that just now! Again JQ: “Political systems and national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less.” I can’t believe anybody can look at the the steady increase of UNO membership and claim with a straight face that “national boundaries” are becoming more “stable”. Once again, when I refer to instability, I’m not making any presumptions about the mechanisms causing that instability (expansion vs. separatism, civil war vs. interstate war etc.)

120

Adrian Kelleher 02.19.14 at 7:26 pm

Averages can’t be used to bolster a forward-looking argument when they’re compiled from observations of non-probabilistic phenomena. If statistics are to be used in this context, all reference to the future (or to any inference based on mathematics, such as trends) must be excluded, but if the are excluded the statistics themselves lose all meaning.

121

LFC 02.19.14 at 7:40 pm

@120
Averages can’t be used to bolster a forward-looking argument

I’m not making a forward-looking argument here. I specifically said I express no opinion on the future. (There’s no reference to “averages” here either.)

122

LFC 02.19.14 at 8:28 pm

TM @119
I guess ‘stability’ is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, but I assume you know that when the 20th-cent. African states became independent they took over the colonial boundaries as their international ones (as happened also in 19th-cent. Latin America). This is somewhat different from Doug M.’s caveat @104 about ‘internal’ boundaries, because I’m referring specifically to colonial ones.

123

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 8:31 am

Whenever I hear figures like “12 out of 40″ tossed around in an IR context, I get a little twitchy. IR issues tend to be very, very definitional. So it’s almost trivially easy to produce numerical examples that support an argument; you just tweak your definitions until the numbers line up.

For instance, in the last 40 years we’ve seen several new countries created by massive, organized violence: Bangladesh, Eritrea, Kosovo, South Sudan. But since all of these arose out of civil wars, they aren’t included in the “12 out of 40″ that Zacher lists on pages 225-228 of his article. He also does not include various wars that ended in territorial adjustments that are real on the ground, but not recognized by the international community: Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh. Presumably this is because these wars were not “interstate”, but that definition is a lot more slippery than Zacher would like us to think. The Yugoslav civil wars are included, presumably because they magically became “interstate” in 1992 when Croatia and Bosnia gained broad international recognition. But the equally bloody Abkhaz war is not included, presumably because only a few countries ever recognized Abkhazia. The South Ossetian conflict has given rise to not one but two wars, and has resulted in the permanent separation of South Ossetia from Georgia, and its de fact annexation by Russia. This is not included because… lack of international recognition? The Kosovo war is not included, because… actually, it’s really not clear why it’s not included. Not interstate enough, because one side was a coalition? Independent Kosovo didn’t get recognized until a few years later?

It’s really not clear. Because while Zacher gives a list, he never gives his working definitions — only that his list is “drawn from extensive research in secondary materials”. We have to infer his assumptions, because he never explicitly states them. That makes me twitchy. At best it’s sloppy; at worst he’s hiding a ball. Either way, it doesn’t incline me to view his article as a deep and important source material.

Doug M.

124

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 1:57 pm

– Here’s a thing: yes, the classic interstate war over territory is out of fashion at the moment. But there are still plenty of wars, and lots of changes of control over territory. We’re seeing fewer territorial wars, but more wars of regime change, and a lot more wars of secession and autonomy.

Wars of regime change are associated in the Western public mind with Iraq, but they’ve been around for a while, and almost everyone can play. People forget, but Pol Pot was overthrown by an invading army from Vietnam, Idi Amin by an invading army from Tanzania, and Mobotu Sese Seko by an invading army from Rwanda. Poor and developing countries can engage in these sorts of wars, and regularly do.

Wars of secession… see, these bleed imperceptibly into Zaher’s interstate wars. Consider South Ossetia. A small, poor mountain region, outnumbered 50 to 1 by the Georgians, it could never have gained independence from Georgia on its own. But the Russians gave the South Ossetians lavish support, up to and including deployment of Russian troops in their first independence war, and then a punitive invasion of Georgia by two Russian divisions in the second one. That’s an interstate war by any reasonable definition; most of the shooting was done by Georgians and Russians, and the outcome was the de facto annexation of South Ossetia by Russia. But Zaher doesn’t include it.

He also eliminates Armenia-Azerbaijan, and I can’t make heads or tails of that one. Clearly an interstate conflict, that war ended with Armenia occupying a fifth of Azerbaijan and claiming about half of that occupied land as Armenian. And it was the bloodiest war in the post-Soviet space to date, with 30,000 dead and almost 100,000 casualties. It’s not on Zaher’s list. He doesn’t even mention it. WTH?

So: definitional issues. They matter!

Anyway. I agree with the general point… yes, wars over territory are less common today. But (1) I’m not sure that has as much significance as people like to think, and (2) that’s not a very good paper.

Doug M.

125

LFC 02.20.14 at 2:26 pm

@Doug M.
Your comments noted, and I’ll reply later today, I hope (assuming I have something to say). You’re wrong on at least one point: he does include the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in his list of interstate wars: it’s right there in Table 2, at the bottom of page 227.

126

LFC 02.20.14 at 2:41 pm

P.s.
People forget, but Pol Pot was overthrown by an invading army from Vietnam, Idi Amin by an invading army from Tanzania, and Mobotu Sese Seko by an invading army from Rwanda.

The overthrow of Pol Pot by Vietnam (c.1978-79) and of Idi Amin by Tanzania (1979) are routinely cited, along with the Indian intervention in then-E. Pakistan (1971), as examples of Cold War-era interventions that arguably had some ‘humanitarian’ justification (though that prob. was not the main motive in any of them). Hard to forget these, since they are frequently mentioned together.

127

TM 02.20.14 at 2:55 pm

Good points Doug. Lots of definition creep in these discussions. Moving the goal posts, choosing a convenient time period. If only we could agree on more humility. Historical trends can be recognized only in hindsight.

128

LFC 02.20.14 at 5:32 pm

Doug M @123:
Because while Zacher gives a list, he never gives his working definitions — only that his list is “drawn from extensive research in secondary materials”.

This completely wrong. He gives his definition here:

Territorial aggressions or wars include interstate armed conflicts where a clear purpose of the military attack was the change of boundaries of a state or its colonies; the invading state sought to capture some territory from the attacked state—not merely to punish it …; attacking states were widely recognized as
sovereign states; and the invasion or occupation lasted at least a week. Using this
definition clearly reduces the value of comparisons with the pre-1946 territorial
wars, but the value of using a larger group of territorial aggressions for the recent
period greatly assists our understanding of recent changes.

129

LFC 02.20.14 at 6:00 pm

(1) Zacher’s basic argument is that there has evolved a norm of respect for existing international boundaries: states generally view the change of such boundaries by force as illegitimate. He traces the development of this norm through declarations and statements in international instruments from the League of Nations Charter to the Charter of Paris (1990), including statements by the OAU and CSCE (Helsinki Final Act, 1975), among others. [For purposes of this discussion, I take this argument to be mainly a description of the current intl system, not a long-prediction about what the system will look like X years from now.]

(2) Zacher contends that states have supported the norm for reasons of both self-interest and morality, though self-interest has been the predominant factor. In the case of Western countries’ support for the norm, he writes: “A fear of a major war and a liberal democratic respect for other juridical states clearly have a symbiotic relationship that has motivated these countries to support the territorial integrity norm, and it is highly problematic whether the norm would have achieved the strength it has if both factors had not been present.” One might quibble with this wording, but the point is that there is more than one motive driving this.

(3) The mixture of self-interest and other considerations can be applied to the issue of secession (this is me saying this now, as opposed to paraphrasing the article, though he may say something like this too). Existing states generally oppose violent secessionist movements partly b/c they don’t want to encourage secessionist movements withiin their own borders: this is the self-interest part; but there are also other considerations deriving from the general normative weight attached to existing boundaries.

(4) This leads to why Doug M’s remarks re recognition/secession/etc miss the point: see comment to follow.

130

LFC 02.20.14 at 7:00 pm

Doug M.:

in the last 40 years we’ve seen several new countries created by massive, organized violence: Bangladesh, Eritrea, Kosovo, South Sudan. But since all of these arose out of civil wars, they aren’t included in the “12 out of 40″ that Zacher lists on pages 225-228 of his article. [The Bangladesh war *is* included, as I've already mentioned.] He also does not include various wars that ended in territorial adjustments that are real on the ground, but not recognized by the international community: Transnistria, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh. Presumably this is because these wars were not “interstate”, but that definition is a lot more slippery than Zacher would like us to think. The Yugoslav civil wars are included, presumably because they magically became “interstate” in 1992 when Croatia and Bosnia gained broad international recognition. But the equally bloody Abkhaz war is not included, presumably because only a few countries ever recognized Abkhazia. The South Ossetian conflict has given rise to not one but two wars, and has resulted in the permanent separation of South Ossetia from Georgia, and its de facto annexation by Russia. This is not included because… lack of international recognition? The Kosovo war is not included, because… actually, it’s really not clear why it’s not included. Not interstate enough, because one side was a coalition? Independent Kosovo didn’t get recognized until a few years later?

If he had included the wars you say he should have included, this would have changed the figure from 12 out of 40 to, say, 16 out of 44. I’m not sure that would make a difference in terms of the conclusions. Note, btw, that independent Kosovo was recognized in 2008, while the Zacher article was published in 2001 and the period he’s dealing with (in this part of the piece) is 1946-2000. You also want Zacher to include the Russia-Georgia war of December 2008. But again, the article was published in 2001.

The lack of widespread recognition of e.g. Abkhazia and S. Ossetia highlights a point that you don’t mention and one that supports the general thrust of Zacher’s argument: namely, states don’t generally recognize entities that result from violent secessionist movements or violent secessionist movements aided externally (e.g., in the case of Russia/Georgia/S. Ossetia). This supports his basic argument about the strength of the territorial integrity norm.

The case of Bangladesh is somewhat unusual, b.c it was a violent secession resulting in a state that subsequently did get widespread international recognition. There are a couple of other similar examples. But I don’t think South Sudan, e.g., is really in the same category. South Sudan seceded by referendum and consent: Sudan let it go. (Yes, there was a lot of violence in the background and Sudan’s options might have been limited, but it was by consent.) That’s one reason a lot of countries have recognized S. Sudan. South Ossetia was not by consent (Georgia did not agree to let it go), which is one reason virtually no states recognize South Ossetia. The case of Kosovo is arguably somewhere in the middle. Of course power politics matters in these situations (e.g. the U.S. backed S. Sudan), but the general rule seems to be states don’t like most secessionist movements and they don’t recognize most secessions unless the latter result from negotiation or referendum and mutual consent.

131

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 8:26 pm

“independent Kosovo was recognized in 2008, while the Zacher article was published in 2001 and the period he’s dealing with (in this part of the piece) is 1946-2000. You also want Zacher to include the Russia-Georgia war of December 2008. But again, the article was published in 2001.”

No, I want him to include the First Ossetian War (1991-2) and the Kosovo War (1999). I’d be fine if he added Kosovo as an example that didn’t change boundaries. By 2001, it was quite clear that Kosovo was headed for independence after a “decent interval” had been allowed to elapse, but whatevs; just include it. He doesn’t.

Incidentally, he also misses the involvement of Croatia and Montenegro in the Yugoslav free-for-all. He cites Serbia v. Slovenia, Serbia v. Bosnia, and Serbia v. Croatia, but not Montenegro v. Bosnia or Croatia v. Bosnia. I can excuse missing the first one — small and obscure — but the second, not so much; Croatia made a serious effort to get its hands on Herzegovina, and killed a lot of Bosnians in the process.

Doug M.

132

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 8:38 pm

“states don’t generally recognize entities that result from violent secessionist movements or violent secessionist movements aided externally (e.g., in the case of Russia/Georgia/S. Ossetia).”

They generally don’t, except when they do — as in the cases of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Bangladesh, etc.

“I don’t think South Sudan, e.g., is really in the same category. South Sudan seceded by referendum and consent: Sudan let it go. (Yes, there was a lot of violence in the background and Sudan’s options might have been limited, but it was by consent.) “

I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense on stilts. Sudan “consented” after losing a brutal, bloody, thirty year long war against an incredibly tenacious, determined and violent set of insurgencies. They had to be militarily beaten — repeatedly — and several million people had to die, before they were willing to let South Sudan go. And even then, they “consented” only after they had already lost physical control over most of the South.

No offense, but that’s a very silly argument.

If you want a recent-ish example of secession by consent, here’s one: East Timor. Unfortunately for the East Timorese, large portions of Indonesia’s power structure did _not_ consent. But formally, yes, they were allowed to go their own way; they could never have dislodged the Indonesians militarily (they’d already given it a respectable try, and failed).

Doug M.

133

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 8:49 pm

128: No, that’s clearly not the definition he’s using to compile his list. He includes a bunch that don’t fit it (where there was /not/ a “clear purpose to change the boundaries) and he doesn’t include several that do fit.

“If he had included the wars you say he should have included, this would have changed the figure from 12 out of 40 to, say, 16 out of 44. I’m not sure that would make a difference in terms of the conclusions.”

— it might not! But it would make a difference in terms of me trusting his methodology and taking his conclusions seriously.

Doug M.

134

Doug M. 02.20.14 at 9:01 pm

“The overthrow of Pol Pot by Vietnam (c.1978-79) and of Idi Amin by Tanzania (1979) are routinely cited, along with the Indian intervention in then-E. Pakistan (1971), as examples of Cold War-era interventions that arguably had some ‘humanitarian’ justification (though that prob. was not the main motive in any of them). “

That wasn’t remotely the motive in any of them, and I’d be instantly dubious of any source that tried to claim so. Tanzania and Vietnam were both responding to deliberate provocations from their neighbors. Pol Pot thought he could win a border war because his Khmer Rouges cadres were far more disciplined than the “right-deviationist” Vietnamese. He was very, very wrong. Idi Amin wanted to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels by annexing a border province from Tanzania. He thought that (1) the President of Tanzania, mild-mannered schoolteacher Julius Nyerere, was a weakling who would fold easily, and (2) support from Moammar Qaddafi, including Libyan Army units deployed to the Uganda-Tanzania border, would make him invulnerable to counterattack. As it turned out, wrong and wrong!

Now, both of these had some positive humanitarian /outcomes/ — the Cambodians got rid of Pol Pot (they got Hun Sen instead — he’s still in power, 30+ years later, but at least he’s not a genocidal maniac) and the Ugandans got rid of Amin (though they got Milton Obote, who was only barely an improvement, in his place). But “routinely cited… as having humanitarian justifications”? I don’t think so.

Doug M.

135

LFC 02.20.14 at 9:37 pm

On the Kosovo War: Probably he didn’t think it met the criteria in his definition — see quote @128 (attacking state must seek to capture territory and/or to change boundary status quo).

On Sudan: Yes, perhaps it would have been less “silly” if I’d said that, after a long war, the separation was given some of the trappings or appearance of consent, masking, esp. for those not familiar with the history, the (not very consensual) reality.

The issue of secession isn’t simple (and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise). There is a fairly recent study of U.S. policy toward secessionist mvts: Jonathan Paquin, A Stability-Seeking Power: U.S. Foreign Policy and Secessionist Conflicts (2010). Haven’t read it (though I did read a review).

136

LFC 02.20.14 at 9:52 pm

@133: well, he says it’s the definition he’s using, unless I missed something. (How well/consistently he applied it I guess is a separate issue.)

@134: what I meant was that, in the numerous discussions of humanitarian intervention, these three cases are often lumped together or referred to together. I’m most familiar w the ’71 Bangladesh war (having recently read a bk about it and reviewed it). India’s motives there were various, notably relieving the pressure of approx. 10 million Bengali refugees who, over a course of some months, crossed the border to escape the Pakistani army. After intervening militarily in E. Pakistan, India initially offered a humanitarian-intervention justification, but this got virtually no support from other countries, so it reverted to a self-defense justification. This had at least some plausibility, given the implications of the refugee crisis and Pakistan’s launching of a pre-emptive airstrike in the West the evening before India sent its soldiers into the East.

137

LFC 02.20.14 at 10:21 pm

E.g., M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention (2003), p.73:

Intervening states often shied away from humanitarian claims during the cold war [sic] when they could have made them. One would think that states would claim the moral high ground in their military actions whenever it was at all credible, and strong humanitarian claims were certainly credible in at least three cases: India’s intervention in East Pakistan in the wake of massacres by Pakistani troops; Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda toppling the Idi Amin regime; and Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia ousting the Khmers Rouges. Amin and Pol Pot were two of the most notorious killers in a century full of infamous brutal leaders. If states could use humanitarian claims anywhere, it should have been in these cases, yet they did not. In fact, India initially claimed humanitarian justifications on the floor of the United Nations but quickly retracted them, expunging statements from the UN record.

Goes on to argue that “to be legitimate in contemporary politics, humanitarian intervention must be multilateral” (p.78).

138

Adrian Kelleher 02.20.14 at 10:56 pm

I’m perplexed as to your intention in quoting that last remark. It’s not legally meaningful, but if legitimacy doesn’t mean legal legitimacy then what does it imply?

139

LFC 02.21.14 at 1:08 am

if legitimacy doesn’t mean legal legitimacy then what does it imply?
I think an action can be labeled legitimate if it conforms to widely shared, collective expectations about how certain people or groups should behave under certain circumstances, even if those expectations aren’t embodied or expressed in a legal rule. But feel free to pretend that I didn’t quote that last remark (actually I didn’t need to post 137 at all). This discussion has been wandering a bit, and I should probably take some of the blame for that. (Though not all of it, to be sure. It’s a CT comment thread, after all. Comes with the territory.)

140

JW Mason 02.21.14 at 4:47 pm

Doug M. seems to be getting the best of this debate.

One thing I wonder, tho — why doesn’t decolonization figure in any of these discussions? If it counts as a change in national boundaries when Bangladesh ceases to be governed from Islamabad, why not when it ceases to be governed from London? Algerian independence wasn’t a change in national boundaries carried out by force? Is the difference between “secession” and “independence” movements anything more than the difference between the US “Civil War” and the “War Between the States”?

It seems to me that if you count decolonization as a change in national boundaries — and I can’t see why you shouldn’t — then the three decades after 1945 must have the highest rate of boundary changes in history. Sovereignty over something like a third of the world’s population changed in just a couple of decades. Is there any other period that comes close?

Of course the 40 years since have been much more stable. But I don’t see a case for a secular trend in either direction, just periods of stability and periods of instability alternating in an irregular way.

What does seem probably true of the post-WWII period compared with the previous 150 or so years is that (1) the boundaries of sovereign states have quite stable in Western Europe; and (2) globally, changes in boundaries have been more often in the direction of dividing political units rather than combining them.

141

Joshua W. Burton 02.21.14 at 6:11 pm

Sovereignty over something like a third of the world’s population changed in just a couple of decades. Is there any other period that comes close?

334-23 BCE
632-711 CE
1213-60
1519-42

142

JW Mason 02.21.14 at 6:23 pm

Joshua Burton-

OK, the post-1945 period is one of a handful of periods of very rapid changes in political boundaries; the last comparable period was the first half of the 16th century. I’ll accept that as a friendly amendment.

143

LFC 02.21.14 at 6:24 pm

@JW Mason:
Several things.

First, Doug M and I agree on at least a couple of basic points. At 111, Doug M. wrote: “Have international boundaries become much more stable? Of course they have….” He called it a truism. Whatever you label it, I agree w the statement.

Second, re decolonization: What you are missing is the quite significant fact that, e.g., the African colonies took over the colonial boundaries as their own international boundaries under the principle of uti possidetis. Did the boundaries change with decolonization? Yes, their status changed. No, their location did not, for the most part (though I’m sure there are exceptions), change. Same with Bangladesh: the status of its boundaries changed when it became independent, the location didn’t. The Zacher article we were discussing doesn’t make this status/location distinction, but I made it upthread. Doug M. and I do differ on how important this distinction is: I’m inclined to think it’s somewhat more important than he thinks it is. (We also differ on how important is the decline in interstate war — we agree on the fact, differ on its implications.)

Here is one student of IR on decolonization and boundaries:

The principle involved is that of uti possidetis, ita possideatis: ‘as you possess, so you may possess’. Translated into the normative discourse of contemporary international society the principle can be rendered as follows: respect current borders unless all of the states who share them consent to change them. That is the accepted norm for determining international boundaries in ex-colonial situations and in the context of the breakup of states if consent to redraw borders is not forthcoming from all affected states. Thus, if Quebec were to secede from Canada, its current provincial borders would serve as international boundaries in the absence of any agreement, between Ottawa and Quebec City and possibly also Washington, to change them. [R. Jackson, 'The Global Covenant,' p.327]

Is this “accepted norm” always followed? No. But norms don’t stop being norms just because they are sometimes violated. They only, arguably, stop being norms when the number of violations overtakes the non-violations, which I don’t think has happened.

Doug M. pointed out upthread that some provincial boundaries, eg in the Balkans, have been jiggered/changed in living memory, eg Kosovo’s were changed in the 1950s. That doesn’t alter the fact that when Kosovo became independent it took the existing provincial boundaries as its int’l ones, just as, say, African colonies did when they became independent, just as, eg, Bangladesh did when it became independent.

The question of violent vs nonviolent secession etc, which we got into later, though related to the discussion of boundaries and their stability, is in my view somewhat tangential to the main pt/argument. (You may of course (and probably will) disagree.)

144

JW Mason 02.21.14 at 6:35 pm

At 111, Doug M. wrote: “Have international boundaries become much more stable? Of course they have….”

I happily defer to Doug M. on these questions. But I wonder: (1) what period we are talking about? If we are comparing the past 20 or 30 years to earlier periods, then sure. (2) Doug M. may have considered reasons for not counting the independence of Algeria, say, as a change in national boundaries. In that case, I’d like to hear what those reasons are.

Did the boundaries change with decolonization? Yes, their status changed.

I don’t see why we should care about this distinction? Seems like scholasticism to me. And if you were consistent about this standard you would conclude that there have never been many territorial wars. Since in the majority of successful conquests, the former international boundary retains some kind of administrative status afterward.

I don’t think the norm you propose has any content. Any successful change in boundaries is recognized by some people immediately, by most people eventually, and by absolutely everyone never.

145

JW Mason 02.21.14 at 6:38 pm

Or to put it differently:

Since you think the location of a boundary matters more than whether it is a boundary between states or a boundary within a state, I can see why you don’t think decolonization was an important change. But since Doug M. does not share your status/location distinction, I am curious why decolonization does not seem important to him.

146

Bruce Wilder 02.21.14 at 7:52 pm

I didn’t think LFC asserted that location matters more than status, only that the distinction is descriptively useful, particularly to seeing the emergence of norms in international relations regarding territorial integrity.

Just because one is focused on whether the location of international boundaries change by force more or less frequently, or whether international conflict centers on territorial claims to a greater or lesser degree, is not a statement about the larger significance of other developments.

That decolonization left the former colonies with their colonial borders and strong norms supportive of the integrity of those borders is, arguably, a fact shaping international relations. That doesn’t mean decolonization was unimportant.

Border disputes are inherently a feature of a territorial state system. I can see why descriptively tracking the number and character of border agreement or disputes might yield some useful insight into the evolution of the system.

147

LFC 02.21.14 at 7:55 pm

JW Mason:
I think decolonization, the creation of so many new states and the end of the large formal empires, was a *very* important change in the international system. That’s obvious and I don’t think anyone would deny it.

With respect to the specific question of boundaries, I think it is of some significance that the African colonies (using them as an example) took over their colonial boundaries on independence (and put this principle into the charter of the Org. of African Unity). They could conceivably have redrawn boundaries to try to better fit, say, the distribution of ethnic groups or whatever, but they didn’t. They went for the colonial boundaries, maybe b.c it was the easiest, least complicated thing to do, maybe mindful of the 19th-cent South American precedent.

That decision arguably helped contribute to a situation in postcolonial Africa where boundaries have been relatively stable (in terms of both location and status). Not of course entirely so (see Eritrea, etc.), but largely. If boundaries had been redrawn on ethnic or tribal lines (to the extent that was possible) at independence, they might still have been as stable subsequently once the new states had been admitted to the UN with those configurations. But it’s also possible that a redrawing of boundaries at independence could have made subsequent secession attempts (e.g. Katanga, Biafra) either more frequent and/or more successful. (I don’t know; pure speculation.)

As for wars and territory: it’s true that often “the former international boundary retains some kind of administrative status afterward.” There have been cases, however, where the boundary moves and it does not conform to a pre-existing boundary, one well-known example I think being what happened to Poland after 1945. (The USSR kept some eastern parts of Poland and the boundary of Poland moved west, to the Oder-Neisse line, a line marked by two rivers that did not previously — as far as I know, at least not in the 20th cent. — exist as a political boundary. I could be wrong on this, if so someone will correct me.) No doubt there have been a lot of wars where already (roughly or precisely) demarcated/bounded territory simply changes hands, but there are other cases where a new boundary is drawn somewhere — maybe/probably not as frequent, but I’m sure it has happened.

As to the norm “I propose”: I’m not proposing; I’m describing what’s generally seen as an existing norm (again, sometimes violated) of state practice.

148

LFC 02.21.14 at 8:12 pm

Bruce Wilder:
That decolonization left the former colonies with their colonial borders and strong norms supportive of the integrity of those borders is, arguably, a fact shaping international relations. That doesn’t mean decolonization was unimportant.

Exactly.

And I might mention that at least a couple of scholars have argued, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively as academics often like to do, that the very stability or rigidity of African international (interstate) boundaries in the postcolonial era has (1) made for weaker African states internally and, relatedly, (2) fueled civil wars that have sometimes become internationalized (e.g. Dem. Rep. Congo). The argument being that the near-sacrosanctness of state boundaries in modern international law and practice means that African governments have generally not needed to create strong states capable of defending their boundaries in the first instance from invasion, which, by contrast, early modern European states did have to do. (I’m not saying I agree with this argument, but it has been made and prob. has at least some plausibility.)

149

LFC 02.21.14 at 8:25 pm

p.s. I referred to Africa @148 but the argument can be made w/r/t postcolonial states in general.

150

Bruce Wilder 02.21.14 at 9:06 pm

Did early modern European states have to defend their boundaries from invasion? Is that how it happened?

My recollection is that feudalism, where boundaries meant less than loyalties, evolved into civil war.

151

LFC 02.21.14 at 9:52 pm

Bruce W.: I think we’re talking, at least to some extent, about two different time periods or eras. By the time one gets to, say, the wars between France and the Habsburgs in the first part of the 16th cent., and then as one gets into the 17th cent., the defense of boundaries (albeit boundaries that were very often still in the process of being constructed/mapped/marked/in some cases negotiated, etc.) becomes a concern of monarchs/rulers.

152

LFC 02.21.14 at 10:49 pm

To go back to JW Mason:

why doesn’t decolonization figure in any of these discussions? If it counts as a change in national boundaries when Bangladesh ceases to be governed from Islamabad, why not when it ceases to be governed from London? Algerian independence wasn’t a change in national boundaries carried out by force?

I can see what you’re getting at to this extent: if one counts the creation of independent Bangladesh (1971) as a change in national boundaries carried out by force, then one could and probably should also count the creation of independent Algeria (1954-62) as a change in national boundaries carried out by force.

However, from the standpoint of the ‘territorial integrity norm’, there is an important difference — probably a couple of pertinent differences. Colonialism was rapidly losing its normative legitimacy after 1945 (a process that had begun earlier), so an anticolonial struggle like the Algerian war was seen by many primarily in that context — as an attack against an outmoded institution that was losing international legitimacy, not as an attack on a sovereign state’s territorial integrity. (France considered Algeria an integral part of France, so in France’s view it was an attack on its territorial integrity, but that’s not how it was viewed by much of the world.)

By contrast, the Bangladesh secession struggle, however justified it might have been as a response to an oppressive situation, was widely seen as a challenge to the principle of the territorial integrity of sovereign states. That’s why most Third World (postcolonial, whatever) countries did not support Bangladesh and India, and instead sided (in UN votes and/or other ways) with Islamabad.

While one can view armed anticolonial struggles like the Algerian war as violent changes of boundaries — which from one perspective they certainly were — one can also see them as struggles that ended up contributing to the strength of the principle (or norm) that national boundaries should be respected.

As Zacher notes:

The UN Charter of 1945…affirmed states’ obligation not to use force to
alter states’ boundaries. This same respect for the borders of juridical entities
influenced the UN’s approach to de-colonization. The colonial territory…became the frame of reference for making and responding to claims for self-determination and political independence. The 1960 UN Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples made clear that it was existing colonies, and not ethnic groups, that were eligible for independence. Concerning “dependent peoples,” it stated that “the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.” It then proclaimed that “any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity or territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” In 1970 the UN General Assembly approved a comparable normative statement in the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States. There is clearly no ambiguity as to whether these major UN declarations supported respect for the territorial integrity of juridical states and existing colonies. [footnotes omitted]

153

LFC 02.22.14 at 5:26 am

P.s. Thought I’d mention, non-exhaustively, some titles that bear on some of the issues lurking around or at the edges of this discussion. These books are relevant — in whole or in part and in one way or another — to, inter alia: sovereignty; boundaries; territoriality; state formation/creation and recognition. They take different approaches and so do not represent any kind of unified ‘line’.

This bunch, in no particular order, all pub. around the same time:
D. Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty (2001)
S. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (1999)
C. Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State (1999)
R. Jackson, The Global Covenant (2000)

Also:
K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns (2004)
S. Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights (2006)
T. Fazal, State Death (2007)
D. Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe (2009)
M. Fabry, Recognizing States (2010)
B. Atzili, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors (2012)
C. Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (2013)
S. Elden, The Birth of Territory (2013)

C. Maier, Leviathan 2.0 (to be pub. April 2014) [I think this is prob. not quite in the same category, but thought I'd throw it in anyway]

154

John Quiggin 02.22.14 at 7:49 am

Have been out for a while, but don’t you think a list like “Walvis Bay, Palau, the Canal Zone, Ligatan/Sipadan, Bakassi, and Mayotte” proves the point about stability rather than otherwise. I can honestly say that, except for the Canal Zone, I’d never heard of any of these. We have, courtesy of Wikipedia:
* A town in Namibia, which remained as a separate enclave for about four years after independence
* An island (pop 20k) that decided not to join some nearby islands in a federation
* The abandonment by the US of a bogus, though longstanding and de facto enforced, claim to ownership of a canal built by the French in Colombia
* The peaceful resolution of a boundary dispute over two insignificant (uninhabited?) islands
* The peaceful resolution of another longstanding boundary dispute, affecting 100k-300k people
* Another island (pop 250k) that opted to stay with France rather than becoming independent with nearby islands

I find it hard to see this as more than marginal tidying up of some unfinished business from the era of nation-building.

155

John Quiggin 02.22.14 at 7:53 am

Also, if I haven’t said this before, Snow was talking about ancient English/British traditions, and a process that took place in Europe and its offshoots in the late 19th century. It was substantially later elsewhere, as has been pointed out most clearly with respect to decolonization. OTOH, the availability of a template meant that the necessary inventions (a national language, heroes, traditional costumes and so on) could be made much more rapidly by adapting foreign models to local conditions.

156

js. 02.22.14 at 7:55 am

This has been a great thread, and LFC’s contributions in particular have been excellent. I was sort of hoping for more on the cultural traditions angle but this was kind of enlightenting.

157

Ronan(rf) 02.22.14 at 9:36 am

“This has been a great thread, and LFC’s contributions in particular have been excellent”

Yeah, agreed. Interesting stuff.

158

LFC 02.22.14 at 3:18 pm

@js. and Ronan:
Thanks.
I’ll throw in one more title:
A. Diener and J. Hagen, eds., Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State (the editors and contributors are geographers)

Also, hat tip to Ronan for telling me earlier about one of the recent books mentioned above @153.

159

GiT 02.22.14 at 7:43 pm

I saw Elden give a talk while he was working on Birth of Territory. Was going to chuck his name in, but then I saw you had him at the very end. Haven’t read it, but the talk was good.

160

LFC 02.22.14 at 9:57 pm

I haven’t read Elden’s book either, but I looked at it briefly on Amazon ‘Look Inside’. There’s also no doubt some relevant stuff being written in French, which I can read, and German, which I can’t, just to mention two of the more obvs. If one was interested in ‘space’ as opposed to territory, I guess one would read Henri Lefebvre, but I think that’s probably a whole other kettle of fish. (I also deliberately left off the list anything published before ’99 or so, otherwise it would have gotten out of hand.)

161

Peter T 02.23.14 at 11:17 am

(Apologies if this repeats some other comment, but 160 is too many to re-read). John Quiggin would, I imagine, be fairly hard on those who repeat the “19 years of flat temperatures proves global warming is a myth” idiocy. But there’s a similar issue here. We should not expect national boundaries or state break-up/formation to proceed at a steady pace. They are affairs of decades at the least. Definite national boundaries, as opposed to zones of influence (sometimes broad, sometimes quite sharply defined), are a fairly recent thing over much of the earth anyway. The last wave – the decolonisation movement – only subsided around 40 years ago. There have been a number of minor shifts since then, plus the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. So it hasn’t really been all that stable, and it may be simply too early to go looking for explanations. if we get through another 30 or so years without major changes in state boundaries, then I’ll be impressed (if I live that long).

Comments on this entry are closed.