The Earth and the Sea

In the readings for this research, I read about dozens of disputes in the past century that have brought about war. Among them, not a single one is over ocean boundaries.

That does not mean that there are not disputes over ocean boundaries. There are many of them. If you, like I once did, believe the United States’ relationship with Canada is all peaches and cream, you would be, like I was, surprised to find out that the US currently hasĀ multiple border disputes with Canada. While these would likely be peaceful even if they were to do with land, the fact that they are over boundaries in water has removed them from the public conscience whatsoever.

Water, it should be mentioned, can be just as valuable strategically and economically as land. The area underneath the water can possess large oil reserves (like those around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) and/or can serve as passageway to important international shipping lanes. I would argue that, in purely realist terms, these disputes over water are as important as those over land.

However, once you bring the domestic audience into the picture, things change entirely. While a government or military may value a patch of ocean, a minuscule amount of the population will care about it. There is no cultural, historical, or religious tie the the area. There are no people to empathize with and for whom to support the cause of irredentism. There is nothing to capture the emotions of the people and use those emotions as a means of increasing domestic support or supporting a violent recapture of the territory.

This, I believe, is strong evidence of the effect that domestic audiences have on the foreign policy of countries. Foreign policy makers do not, as realists suppose, look solely at the strategic and economic gains associated with a territory. Moreover, these policy makers actively consider domestic audiences when making these decisions. As several authors have noted in my readings, there is actually very little cost in continuing a territorial dispute at a low level, and it can have high returns in terms of domestic support. This complicates any quest for a solution, and requires that any proposed solution have a higher payoff to make up for the lost support domestically.

In this, I think, we see the difference in the earth and the sea in territorial disputes.


  1. This is an interesting topic, Dylan. It’s definitely a relevant issue, given the potential oil reserves that you mentioned, as well the ongoing piracy events around the world. I’m curious how parties ever find solutions to these disputes, given the lack of social ties to the land and public knowledge about the conflicts.

  2. emrodvien says:

    Hello! Really fascinating post. I’m very interested in the social and cultural realm of humans’ interactions with our water resources, and I wonder if the lack of “emotional connection” to the oceans that you write about is more a function of our own American cultural bias, as opposed to a general lack of global empathy for the sea. The majority of our national population lives inland, but many other societies have a much closer, much more personal relationship with the ocean. I’m thinking about those nations/states in which the majority of the population lives on the coast; also, coastal indigenous communities that depend fully on the sea for their livelihoods. How do you see this diversity of cultural evaluation of oceans as affecting global seawater resource management?