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A fundamental norm of international law — enshrined in the international order for decades — prohibits a state from taking foreign territory by force. But conflicts over territory are becoming increasingly common, says Monica Hakimi, William S. Beinecke Professor of Law. Her research, conducted with Professor Ingrid Brunk at Vanderbilt Law School, suggests that the spread of territorial conflicts could have catastrophic consequences in a world where U.S. geopolitical influence is under pressure.

What does international law say about the attempt by one state to take territory from another state?

International law requires that territorial disputes be resolved amicably and at the international level. The International Court of Justice has helped states resolve territorial and, by association, maritime disputes over the years – including in cases between Malaysia and Singapore, Nicaragua and some of its neighbours, Peru and Chile, Romania and Ukraine, Benin and Niger, and Qatar and Bahrain. Yet many territorial and maritime boundaries remain contested, and even borders once largely considered settled can be reopened by those harboring historical grievances, raising the potential for future conflict.

The ban on annexations helps to “lock in” established borders by providing that states may not acquire territory through the threat or use of force. This ban has not always existed and has been extremely difficult to codify. Although many scholars trace it back to the United Nations Charter, which states adopted at the end of World War II, the massive wave of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s turned it into an absolute ban that allowed no exceptions, even for lawful uses of force.

Where are territorial conflicts currently occurring and why is this type of conflict so worrying?

The conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Venezuela and Guyana, Ethiopia and Somalia, and China and several of its neighbors are all territorial conflicts: they are about the question of who has the claim to sovereignty over the territories in question – and thus the right to control them. These conflicts have also escalated in recent years.

Historically, territorial conflicts have tended to be the most intense and difficult to resolve. They are more likely to be militarized than other types of interstate conflict, and once militarized, they are more likely to be deadly and to escalate into regional or global wars. The two world wars and the experience of European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere were all territorial conflicts and resulted in immense human suffering.

As you note, territorial disputes are not a new phenomenon. Why is this so worrying now?

The international order is going through a period of dramatic change. International lawyers and political scientists have spent a lot of time analyzing where we are heading because the changes are so destabilizing. But in my view and that of Professor Brunk, they have not paid enough attention to the factors contributing to an increase in territorial conflict. Our concern is that as the prohibition on annexation has become deeply embedded in international law, its importance has also fallen out of sight. Therefore, rather than being considered a norm in its own right, it is often incorporated into other norms with which it is intertwined. However, the prohibition on annexation is not the same as any other international legal norm, nor should it be confused with one. It is fundamental precisely because it underpins and links three separate normative projects of international law: one that anchors state authority in defined territorial spaces, a second that promotes peace between territorially defined states, and a third that ensures the self-determination of peoples within such states.

Even now, as the world witnesses a resurgence of territorial conflicts, most analysts have failed to see these conflicts as specifically territorial and have therefore overlooked the fact that this norm is at stake. As a result, this ban risks fading into the background, if only because not enough actors insist that it remains sacrosanct, no matter what they disagree on.

What role has the United States played in maintaining the ban on annexation?

Since the end of World War II, U.S. military power has been critical to preventing territorial conflicts around the world. Of course, the United States has also used its military power in a wide range of conflicts, from Afghanistan to Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and beyond, often with devastating consequences. But the United States has not annexed territory in any of these operations. Instead, through its security guarantees, it has protected the territories of dozens of other countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East—countries that would have been more vulnerable without the might of a superpower behind them. It has taken discreet measures to protect the territories of states that were not under its security umbrella, such as Kuwait in 1990-91 and, more recently, Ukraine. While U.S. military power has undoubtedly imposed real costs on the world, it has also helped secure what was the fundamental norm of international law during this period.

How does this change?

The international response to territorial annexations is caught up in a larger dispute over the future of the world—and specifically over the dominant position of the United States. China, like Russia, is seeking to change the international order in which the United States dominates. China’s support for the ban on annexations has taken a back seat to its larger geopolitical dispute with the United States. The majority of states have responded to Russia’s open challenge to this norm with a compromising message: however problematic Russia’s behavior may have been, given all other factors, it is not worth the effort required to uphold the norm.

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear that the United States is either unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to simultaneously protect all the territories under its protection that are now vulnerable. Domestic political conditions in the United States have only increased uncertainty about what the United States would do in the face of further attempts to forcibly take territory from one or more of its security allies or another state. The growing sense that the United States would not, should not—or even could not—intervene to protect the territorial status quo exposes the ban to systemic risk while others jockey for the upper hand.

How do you see the future of the annexation ban?

The world now faces the question of whether new social forces can and should emerge that uphold the ban on annexation and limit territorial conflicts. There are currently no plausible proposals to replace states defined by their territory as the main units of world political organization. So the erosion of the ban on annexation—and with it the broader norms that protect states’ territorial boundaries from violent change—threatens to have negative, long-term consequences for many of the peoples such proposals are designed to protect. Without a new world politics committed to upholding this norm, I fear that territorial conflicts such as those in Ukraine and Gaza will become more frequent and risk escalating into full-scale war between the world’s most powerful—and most nuclear-armed—states.

This interview has been edited and shortened.