Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Historical Origins of Territorial Disputes


Given the abundance of evidence that disputed territory matters, we know remarkably little about the origins of territorial claims. We argue that the presence of competing historical border precedents is central to the emergence of territorial claims. We outline why precedents provide opportunity to make claims and provide two possible explanations for why leaders have incentive to claim along precedents. One possibility is consistent with the conventional wisdom that incentive derives from territorial characteristics such as natural resources or strategic significance. A second and more novel explanation is that the persistent coordination effects of historical boundaries provide the incentive to draw claims along them. We use new data on the location of historical boundaries from the peace of Westphalia until the start of the French Revolution to show that historical border precedents drive the emergence of territorial claims after the Congress of Vienna and that persistent coordination effects provide incentive to dispute historical precedents.

Corresponding author
Scott F Abramson is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627-0146 (
David B. Carter is Assistant Professor, Corwin Hall 33, Department of Politics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544 (
Hide All
Abramson, Scott F. 2016. “The Economic Origins of the Territorial State.” International Organization. Forthcoming.
Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., and Robinson, J. A.. 2002. “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 117 (4): 1231–94.
Aleprete, Michael E. Jr., and Hoffman, Aaron M.. 2012. “The Strategic Development of Border Areas: Explaining Variation in Interaction Opportunity Across Land Borders.” International Interactions 38 (1): 128.
Allen, William Edward David. 2014. The Ukraine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Altonji, Joseph G., Elder, Todd E., and Taber, Christopher R.. 2005. “Selection on Observed and Unobserved Variables: Assessing the Effectiveness of Catholic Schools.” Journal of Political Economy 113 (1): 151–84.
Anderson, Benedict R. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Bairoch, P., Batou, J. and Pierre, C.. 1988. Population des Villes Européennes de 800 à 1850: Banque de Données et Analyse Sommaire des Résultats (la). Paris, France: Librairie Droz.
Biggs, Michael. 1999. “Putting the State on the Map: Cartography, Territory, and European State Formation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41 (2): 374405.
Blaydes, Lisa, and Chaney, Eric. 2012. “The Feudal Revolution and Europes Rise: Political Divergence of the Christian West and the Muslim World before 1500 CE.” American Political Science Review 107 (1): 1634.
Boggs, S. Whittemore. 1940. International Boundaries: A Study of Boundary Functions and Problems. New York: Columbia University Press.
Braithwaite, Alex. 2010. “MIDLOC: Introducing the Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) Location Dataset.” Journal of Peace Research 47 (1): 91–8.
Branch, Jordan. 2014. The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bryce, James. 1920. The Holy Roman Empire. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Burghardt, Andrew F. 1973. “The Bases of Territorial Claims.” Geographical Review 63 (2): 225–45.
Carter, David B. 2010. “The Strategy of Territorial Conflict.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (4): 969–87.
Carter, David B. 2016. “History as a Double-Edged Sword: Historical Boundaries and Territorial Claims.” Politics, Philosophy & Economics. Forthcoming.
Carter, David B., and Goemans, H. E.. 2011. “The Making of the Territorial Order: New Borders and the Emergence of Interstate Conflict.” International Organization 65 (2): 275310.
Carter, David B., and Goemans, H. E.. 2014. “The Temporal Dynamics of New International Borders.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 31 (3): 285302.
Carter, David B., and Goemans, H. E.. 2015. “International Trade and Coordination: Tracing Border Effects.” Unpublished manuscript.
Chanda, A., and Putterman, L.. 2007. “Early Starts, Reversals and Catch-up in the Process of Economic Development.” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 109 (2): 387413.
Chang, Pao-min. 1985. The Sino-Vietnamese Territorial Dispute. New York: Praeger.
Chen, King C. 1987. China’s War With Vietnam, 1979. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
Darden, Keith A. 2013. Resisting Occupation: Mass Schooling and the Creation of Durable National Loyalties. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Davies, Norman. 1972. “White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919–20.” London, UK: Macdonald and Co.
Day, Alan J. 1987. Border and Territorial Disputes, 2nd ed. Essex, UK: Longman.
Deutsch, Karl Wolfgang. 1953. Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dincecco, Mark. 2011. Political Transformations and Public Finances: Europe, 1650–1913. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dincecco, Mark, Federico, Giovanni, and Vindigni, Andrea. 2011. “Warfare, Taxation, and Political Change: Evidence from the Italian Risorgimento.” The Journal of Economic History 71 (04): 887914.
Downing, Brian M. 1992. The Military Revolution and Political Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Duiker, William J. 1986. China and Vietnam: The Roots of Conflict. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies.
Dziewanowski, M. K. 1969. “Joseph Piłsudski a European Federalist 1918–1922.” Stanford, CA: Hoover institution Press.
FAO, IIASA. 2000. “Global Agro-Ecological Zones (GAEZ).” Accessed July 23, 2016.
Gavrilis, George. 2008. The Dynamics of Interstate Boundaries. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gibler, Douglas M. 2012. The Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Goemans, H. E. 2006. “Bounded Communities: Territoriality, Territorial Attachment, and Conflict.” In Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization, eds. Kahler, Miles and Walter, Barbara F.. New York: Cambridge University Press, chapter 2, 2561.
Goemans, H.E. and Schultz, Kenneth A.. 2014. “Aims, Claims and the Bargaining Model of War.” Unpublished manuscript.
Goemans, H. E., and Schultz, Kenneth A.. 2015. “The Politics of Territorial Disputes: A Geospatial Approach Applied to Africa.” Unpublished manuscript.
Goertz, Gary, and Diehl, Paul. 1992. Territorial Changes and International Conflict. London: Routledge.
Hensel, Paul R. 2000. “Territory: Theory and Evidence on Geography and Conflict.” In What Do We Know About War?, ed. Vasquez, John A.. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 5784.
Hensel, Paul R. 2001. “Contentious Issues and World Politics: The Management of Territorial Claims in the Americas, 1816–1992.” International Studies Quarterly 45: 81109.
Hensel, Paul R. 2013. “General Codebook: Issue Correlates of War (ICOW) Project.” University of North Texas (Version 1.1).
Hensel, Paul R. and Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin. 2005. “Issue Indivisibility and Territorial Claims.” GeoJournal 64: 275–85.
Hill, Norman. 1945. Claims to Territory in International Law and Relations. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hoffman, Philip, and Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent. 1997. “The Political Economy of Warfare and Taxation in Early Modern Europe: Historical Lessons for Economic Development.” The Frontiers of the New Institutional Economics. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 3155.
Holsti, Kalevi J. 1991. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Huth, Paul K. 1996. Standing Your Ground. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan.
Huth, Paul K., Croco, Sarah E., and Appel, Benjamin J.. 2011. “Does International Law Promote the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes? Evidence from the Study of Territorial Conflicts since 1945.” American Political Science Review 105 (2): 415–36.
Huth, Paul K., Croco, Sarah E., and Appel, Benjamin J.. 2012. “Law and the Use of Force in World Politics: The Varied Effects of Law on the Exercise of Military Power in Territorial Disputes.” International Studies Quarterly 56 (1): 1731.
Huth, Paul K., Croco, Sarah E, and Appel, Benjamin J.. 2013. “Bringing Law to the Table: Legal Claims, Focal Points, and the Settlement of Territorial Disputes Since 1945.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (1): 90103.
Huth, Paul K., and Allee, Todd L.. 2002. The Democratic Peace and Territorial Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Iivonen, Jyrki. 1990. “Independence or Incorporation.” The Idea of Poland's National Self-Determination and Independence within the Russian and Soviet Socialism from 1870s to the 1920s. Helsinki: Finland by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Imai, Kosuke, Keele, Luke, Tingley, Dustin, and Yamamoto, Teppei. 2011. “Unpacking the Black Box of Causality: Learning about Causal Mechanisms from Experimental and Observational Studies.” American Political Science Review 105 (4): 765789.
James, Patrick, Park, Johann, and Choi, Seung-Whan. 2006. “Democracy and Conflict Management: Territorial Claims in the Western Hemisphere Revisited.” International Studies Quarterly 50 (4): 803–18.
Karaman, K. Kivanc, and Pamuk, Şevket. 2013. “Different Paths to the Modern State in Europe: The Interaction Between Warfare, Economic Structure, and Political Regime.” American Political Science Review 107 (03): 603–26.
Keegan, John. 1994. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage.
Kocs, Stephen A. 1995. “Territorial Disputes and Interstate War, 1945–1987.” Journal of Politics 57 (1): 159–75.
Lee, Hoon, and Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin. 2012. “Foreign Direct Investment and Territorial Disputes.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 56 (4): 675703.
Lieven, Dominic. 2002. Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Luard, Evan. 1986. War in International Society. London: I.B. Tauris and Company.
Lukowski, Jerzy. 1998. The Partitions of Poland: 1772, 1793, 1795. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
McCallum, J. 1995. “National Borders Matter: Canada-U.S. Regional Trade Patterns.” American Economic Review 85 (3): 615–23.
McNeill, William. 1984. The Pursuit of Power : Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin. 2002. “A Kantian System? Democracy and Third- Party Conflict Resolution.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (4): 749–59.
Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, and Hensel, Paul R.. 2007. “International Institutions and Compliance with Agreements.” American Journal of Political Science 51 (4): 721–37.
Murphy, Alexander B. 1990. “Historical Justifications for Territorial Claims.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80 (4): 531–48.
Nussli, C. 2010. “Euratlas Historical Atlas and Gazetteer of Europe.”
Oster, Emily. 2013. “Unobservable Selection and Coefficient Stability: Theory and Validation.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Technical report.
Owsiak, Andrew P. 2013. “Signing Up for Peace: International Boundary Agreements, Democracy, and Militarized Interstate Conflict.” International Studies Quarterly 56 (1): 5166.
Pierson, Paul. 2000. “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics.” American Political Science Review 94 (2): 251–67.
Pierson, Paul. 2004. Politics in Time: History, Institutions and Social Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Prorok, Alyssa K., and Huth, Paul K.. 2015. “International Law and the Consolidation of Peace Following Territorial Changes.” Journal of Politics 77 (1): 161–74.
Ragsdale, Hugh, and Ponomarev, Valerii Nikolaevich. 1993. Imperial Russian Foreign Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ratner, Steven R. 1996. “Drawing a Better Line: Uti possidetis and the Borders of New States.” The American Journal of International Law 90 (4): 590624.
Reed, F. 2008. “Centennia Historical Atlas.”
Sahlins, Peter. 1989. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Schultz, Kenneth A. 2014. “Whats in a Claim? De Jure versus De Facto Borders in Interstate Territorial Disputes.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58 (6): 1059–84.
Senese, Paul D. 2005. “Territory, Contiguity, and International Conflict: Assessing a New Joint Explanation.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (4): 769–79.
Shaver, Andrew C., Carter, David B. and Shawa, Tsering W.. 2016. “Terrain Ruggedness and Land Cover: Improved Data for All Research Designs.” Conflict Management and Peace Science. Forthcoming.
Shaw, Malcolm N. 1996. “The Heritage of States: The Principle of Uti Possidetis Juris Today.” British Yearbook of International Law 67: 75154.
Simmons, Beth A. 2005. “Rules over Real Estate; Trade, Territorial Conflict and International Borders as Institutions.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (6): 823–48.
Singer, J. David, Bremer, Stuart, and Stuckey, John. 1972. Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820–1965. Beverly Hills: Sage. Chapter in Peace, War, and Numbers edited by Bruce Russett.
Sprandel, R. 1968. Das Eisengewerbe im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, Germany: A. Hiersemann.
Starr, Harvey, and Most, Benjamin A.. 1976. “The Substance and Study of Borders in International Relations Research.” International Studies Quarterly 20 (4): 581620.
Stasavage, D. 2011a. States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stasavage, D. 2011b. “When Distance Mattered: Geographic Scale and the Development of European Representative Assemblies.” American Political Science Review 104 (4): 625–43.
Stevens, Carol. 2013. Russia’s Wars of Emergence 1460-1730. New York, NY: Routledge.
Strachan, Hew. 1983. European Armies and the Conduct of War. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Sumner, Brian Taylor. 2004. “Territorial Disputes at the International Court of Justice.” Duke Law Journal 53 (6): 1779–812.
Tilly, Charles. 1992. Coercion, Capital, and European States. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Trefler, Daniel. 1995. “The Case of the Missing Trade and Other Mysteries.” American Economic Review 85 (5): 1029–46.
Vasquez, John. 1995. “Why Do Neighbors Fight? Proximity, Interaction, or Territoriality.” Journal of Peace Research 32 (3): 277–93.
Vasquez, John A. 1993. The War Puzzle. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Vasquez, John, and Henehan, Marie T.. 2001. “Territorial Disputes and the Probability of War, 1816–1992.” Journal of Peace Research 38 (2): 123–38.
Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870–1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
White, George C. 1999. Nationalism and Territory: Constructing Group Identity in Southeastern Europe. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Winichakul, Thongchai. 1994. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.
Wolf, Nikolaus. 2005. “Path Dependent Border Effects: The Case of Poland’s Reunification (1918–1939).” Explorations in Economic History 42: 414–38.
Wolf, Nikolaus, Schulze, Max-Stephen, and Heinemeyer, Hans-Christian. 2011. “On the Economic Consequences of the Peace: Trade and Borders after Versailles.” Journal of Economic History 71 (4): 915–49.
Womack, Brantly. 2006. China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Abramson and Carter supplementary material
Abramson and Carter supplementary material 1

 PDF (3.1 MB)
3.1 MB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed