In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Territorial Disputes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Contiguity and War
  • The Diffusion of War across Borders
  • Characteristics of Territorial Disputes
  • Issue Approach
  • Rivalry
  • Territorial Integrity Norm and the Decline of Territorial Conquest
  • Territorial Change and Secessionist Conflicts
  • Democracy and Territorial Disputes
  • Geocoding of Territorial Disputes

International Relations Territorial Disputes
Sara Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0178


The leading cause of war in history involves territorial disputes such as competition over Alsace-Lorraine, Kashmir, the Golan Heights, and the Beagle Channel. Territorial disputes occur when official representatives of one country make explicit statements claiming sovereignty over a specific piece of territory that is claimed or administered by another country. The Issue Correlates of War (ICOW) Project has identified over 800 territorial disputes globally since 1816. Territorial disputes lead to militarized conflict more frequently than other types of diplomatic disputes involving maritime, river, identity, economic, cultural, or other issues. A majority of interstate wars have been fought between countries embroiled in one or more territorial disputes. Countries who share contiguous borders are more likely to fight wars with each other than non-contiguous states, especially if they have disagreements over specific pieces of territory. Territory that is more valuable because of natural resources, religious sites, or historical homeland claims generates more violence. Wars also spread or diffuse across geographic boundaries. Territorial disputes can be resolved successfully with peaceful conflict management tools such as arbitration and adjudication through international courts. The successful settlement of border disputes promotes democratization and helps secure the stability of shared borders in the long run. State borders have also become more difficult to violate in recent decades because of the emergence of a norm of territorial integrity. The general decline in territorial conquest stems in part from increasing economic interdependence among countries in the world. While disputes over traditional land borders have decreased over time, other types of territorial disputes have become more prevalent, such as competition over maritime resources in areas around islands or homeland areas including the Spratly Islands, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the Bakassi Peninsula. This review begins by describing some general overview pieces of the territorial dispute literature, followed by a review of studies showing why contiguity and territorial disputes are dangerous. This is followed by a discussion of the characteristics of territorial disputes that make them particularly violent and an identification of peaceful conflict management strategies that can be effective for resolving border disputes. The review discusses work on territorial changes and geocoding of border disputes, as well as documenting the increasing territorial integrity norm and the overall decline in territorial conquest.

General Overviews

A number of published studies provide overviews of territorial disputes as causes of war in the past few centuries. Holsti 1991 offers a nice introduction to the topic by presenting data on wars for several centuries and summarizing the issues over which countries fight. Diehl 1992 discusses work on the issue-based approach to international conflict, including territorial disputes. Vasquez 2009 reviews the quantitative literature on the causes of war, focusing on territorial disputes as a key step to war. Huth 1996 develops a theory about the onset and management of territorial disputes. Hensel 2000 reviews the literature on contiguity, territorial disputes, and wars. Starr 2005 discusses the geographical and spatial features of border disputes. Mitchell and Hensel 2010 provides an overview of the issue approach to world politics and describe issue datasets. Toft 2014 summarizes the literature connecting territorial disputes, civil wars, and interstate conflicts.

  • Diehl, Paul F. “What Are They Fighting For? The Importance of Issues in International Conflict Research.” Journal of Peace Research 29 (1992): 333–344.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343392029003008

    Summarizes the issue-based approach to world politics and shows how issue salience influences the management of interstate disputes, with territorial disputes often being highly salient.

  • Hensel, Paul R. “Territory: Theory and Evidence on Geography and Conflict.” In What Do We Know about War? Edited by John A. Vasquez, 57–84. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

    Reviews theoretical work and empirical findings on the proximity and territoriality explanations for why contiguous states face higher risks for war.

  • Holsti, Kalevi J. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648–1989. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511628290

    Reviews the issues at stake in all interstate wars from 1648 to 1989 and shows that territorial disputes have been the leading cause of wars in most historical eras.

  • Huth, Paul K. Standing Your Ground: Territorial Disputes and International Conflict. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

    Analyzes 129 territorial disputes from 1950 to 1990 to understand the initiation and management of territorial disputes, integrating insights from realist theory and theories of how domestic politics influences international relations.

  • Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, and Paul R. Hensel. “Issues and Conflict.” In War: An Introduction to Theories and Research on Collective Violence. Edited by Tor Georg Jakobsen, 275–295. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science, 2010.

    Reviews the issue approach to world politics, including analyses of territorial claims.

  • Starr, Harvey. “Territory, Proximity, and Spatiality: The Geography of International Conflict.” International Studies Review 7 (2005): 387–406.

    Literature review that connects work on space, distance, geography, and territorial conflict.

  • Toft, Monica Duffy. “Territory and War.” Journal of Peace Research 51 (2014): 185–198.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343313515695

    Literature review of the work on territory and war in the interstate and civil war literatures for the fiftieth anniversary edition of the journal.

  • Vasquez, John A. The War Puzzle Revisited. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627224

    Categorizes different types of wars, focusing on wars of rivalry that involve territorial disputes. The author creates the steps to war model which includes several factors such as alliances, military buildups, and crisis escalation. This is an updated version of The War Puzzle, published by Cambridge University Press in 1993.

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