No Man’s Land

A term older than World War I but popularized during that war, no man’s land refers to a stretch of land under dispute by warring parties, but it can also refer to lawless areas with little or no governing control. A buffer zone, on the other hand, is an area which provides a sense of protection from the enemy. When physical fortifications offer little protection, buffer zones can provide a perception of security. Nations great and small seek the perception of security when security is elusive. Treaties and alliances are traditional means of creating a sense of security, as is the creation of buffer zones. During the Cold War, the competing nations sought to expand their spheres of influence, thereby creating buffer zones between themselves and their enemies as their spheres grew. When the Cold War ended and the buffer zones were no longer needed, many of the buffer nations found themselves with fewer friends and with fewer resources to prevent lawlessness. These nations found it difficult to avoid the development of no man’s land within their borders.

The United States reasoned, even in the earliest days, that oceans made excellent buffer zones against the conflicts of Europe. Unsettled territories were adequate as buffers but only to a point. While unsettled territories didn’t pose a direct European threat, they were still loosely under the influence of powerful countries. Additionally they often attracted outlaws fleeing justice and smugglers seeking a base of operation near their markets. In 1818, Andrew Jackson decided to pursue a group of raiders into Florida. The problem was that Florida was owned by Spain and Spain had little ability to prevent lawlessness in the territory. When Jackson’s army crossed into Florida, he invaded a foreign nation. Without the consent of Spain, such an action created an international incident. Fortunately Secretary of State John Q. Adams was able to capitalize on Jackson’s actions, and convinced Spain that a treaty was better than a war. His reasoning for defending Jackson’s violation of Spanish sovereignty was that “it is better to err on the side of vigor.”[1] Certainly not the first time a nation chose a declaration of strength as its response to an international crisis of its own making, but possibly the first time such a response became national policy. As Secretary of State, Adams greatly influenced the foreign policy decisions of the president and authored much of what President Monroe presented to Congress. In March 1818, President Monroe declared to Congress that when a nation no longer governed in such a way as to prevent their lawlessness from spilling onto their neighbors, then the neighbors had the right to protect themselves and to seek justice even if it meant violating the sovereignty of another nation.[2] In other words, when an area became no man’s land, it was to the benefit of all nations for the lawlessness to be eliminated by whoever had the strength and will to do so.

Eliminating no man’s land in North America was a task that occupied the United States for more than a century. Eventually, the United States would reach from ocean to ocean and would gain the military might of a great nation. However even as the twentieth century dawned, the United States struggled to bring law to all of its territory. During the century of expansion, some in the United States saw potential in the acquisition of territory in the south, particularly in Central America. Others recognized the difficulty of governing such a vast nation. Faced with lawlessness due to revolt in Mexico during World War I, Wilson authorized the U.S. Army’s invasion of Mexico. However, Wilson recognized the value of having a buffer zone south of the border and eventually withdrew the army. In order to ensure that the southern nations created a friendly buffer zone, the United States supported governments that kept the peace, even though keeping the peace came at the expense of basic human rights. Like many leaders before and since, President Wilson put aside ideology and accepted peace-by-force as being better than lawlessness.

Reflecting on history, some leaders have sought security by building huge empires, some by establishing buffer zones, and others by the targeted elimination of no man’s land. Regardless of the method men and nations have chosen, it is clear that international law, notions of liberty and self-determination, and hope for world peace are always secondary to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by no man’s land.

Endnotes:

[1] Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 315-316.

[2] James Monroe, “Spain and the Seminole Indians,” American Memory, Library of Congress, (March 25, 1818),  http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsp&fileName=004/llsp004.db&Page=183.

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