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The Future of Conquest

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The relationship between conquest and conflict may seem straightforward: start a war, prevail on the battlefield, take control of desired territory. Yet more and more, this is not how states take each other’s land. Instead, they use a different strategy: seize a small piece of territory quickly and with minimal bloodshed, then try to avoid war. Today, conquest looks like what Russia did in Crimea and what China could do once again in the South China Sea.

For the last 20 years, scholars have agreed that conquest has steeply declined, perhaps nearing the point when it will cease altogether. A global norm of respecting countries’ territorial integrity, which has been backed by U.S. power, is thought to have become so strong that conquest has largely subsided. This shared understanding that it is unacceptable to take territory by force is believed to have taken hold after World War II and come close to ending conquest by the late 1970s. In his influential 2011 book on the global decline of violence, Steven Pinker was one of many scholars who found reasons for optimism in this decline: “Zero is also the number of times that any country has conquered even parts of some other country since 1975.”

That portrayal of conquest’s demise is hopeful, but it is not accurate. Conquest remains a central issue in international politics—it has merely become smaller. Yes, attempts to conquer entire countries became rare after World War II: more than 30 years have passed since the last wholesale conquest of a country, when Iraq briefly conquered Kuwait. But there have been more than 70 attempts to conquer territory since 1945. As a rule of thumb, modern conquests ordinarily seize territories no larger than one province in size and typically much smaller. When the aggressor seizes only a small piece of territory rather than an entire country, the international community rarely intervenes to defend the victim. Indeed, attempts to conquer territory succeed about as often as they did a century ago: approximately half the time.

There is a clear strategy behind these small conquests. The idea is to take a small enough piece of land that the victim will relent to its loss rather than escalate the conflict to retake it. This strategy provokes war much less often than attempting to conquer countries outright. It succeeds much more frequently than diplomatic threats.

Small conquests are not new; they are an age-old practice. However, they are now more important than ever before because, like civil wars, they have persisted as larger conquests and great-power wars have declined.

Looking only at the U.S. experience, it is easy to miss the importance of small conquests. Over the past two decades, for example, the United States has intervened in other countries’ civil wars, such as in Syria and Libya, and invaded countries to impose regime change, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some believe these wars are a glimpse into the future, while conquest is a relic of the past. The reason for this misconception is that U.S. interventions in wars of conquest are comparatively rare: while Washington has intervened to oppose the relatively infrequent attempts to conquer entire countries, as in the Korean and Gulf Wars, it has stayed on the sidelines during the much larger number of conquests of only parts of countries.

Unless the United States embraces a level of restraint not attempted since Pearl Harbor, sitting out future territorial conflicts may not come as easily as in the past. Too many of the world’s most dangerous flash points pit China or Russia against U.S. allies threatened by conquest. Understanding how these flash points could erupt is essential to understanding the globe’s future conflicts and the dilemmas that await the United States in the years ahead.

In May 2020, Chinese soldiers encroached into territory along their country’s disputed border with India. They advanced in several areas of the mountainous Ladakh region, taking positions patrolled but not permanently occupied by Indian forces. Though initially bloodless, their advance precipitated a June 2020 clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers, marking the gravest crisis between the world’s two most populous nations in over a half century. Eschewing guns to limit the risks of escalation, the two sides fought with makeshift weapons that included clubs studded with nails or wrapped in barbed wire.

Medieval weaponry aside, this is a textbook example of modern conquest. These small territory grabs are most common in Asia and also continue to emerge in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe. Such maneuvers usually avoid war but nonetheless always represent a gamble about how the other side will respond. Indeed, the miscalculated small conquest ranks among the most important causes of modern war. That is what happened in 1962, in much the same area that continues to raise tensions along the Chinese-Indian border. At the time, both countries sought to strengthen their claims over the disputed territory and advanced in small slices, built posts to expand their control, and attempted to block each other’s encroachments. This strategic gamesmanship remained........

© Foreign Affairs

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